Though far from its main message, that is one lesson to be learned from "This Far by Faith: Stories from the African-American Religious Experience," both a book published last April (which I'm working with here) and a six-part film airing June 24-26 on PBS. There are the black Moors. There are the black Jews, who are not to be confused with the Black Isrealites. Perhaps best known are the black Muslims of the Nation of Islam, who are most definitely not to be confused with black orthodox Muslims or the African Orthodox Church. Any African-American who has ever lived in an urban area has seen one or more of these groups proselytizing on street corners in full regalia and at full volume.
For all the noisy presence of those groups, mostly there is the black Christian and the Zion AME or Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church scattered every few blocks in every black community. The story of African-American religion is the story of African-American traditional Christianity and its determination to carve out both sword and sanctuary for its beleaguered flock.
"This Far By Faith" identifies itself as "the first in-depth treatment of this social history." Given the plethora of Afro-Am religious studies work readily available (albeit usually more academically oriented), the producers of the series and the book hang a lot on the definition of 'in-depth'. Standing alone, "Faith" has something of the lowest-common-denominator coffee-table book about it. But it is nonetheless a valuable primer for those unaware that the black church was much more than the source of gospel songs for marchers to rally to during the Movement days, much more than Elijah Muhammad's harem and nefarious doings.
Few Americans know of the pivotal and courageous role African-American religion played in opposing slavery and segregation and even as a meeting place for the planning of various revolts like the 1822 uprising organized by the free man (and Methodist leader) Denmark Vesey that ended in the hanging of more than 35 conspirators.
In fact, the black church came into being as a direct act of defiance of oppression. Williams and Dixie write:
It was in 1794 that the first independent black Methodist church came into being. Ushers at the predominantly white St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia pulled black worshipers from their knees during prayer, and the incident [the final racist insult in a long history of them, including segregation within churches] provided the necessary momentum for the city's black Christians to found their own churches. In 1794 Philadelphia's Christian black community decided to form an Episcopal congregation, which they called St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones, leader of the group, became the first black Episcopal pastor in the United States.
Joe didn't know what to do. He had always been taught that God abhorred violence, regardless of whether humans used his name to justify it. To Joe everything that Vesey said went against the lessons of the New Testament. Joe knew that you were supposed to turn the other cheek, treat your neighbor as yourself, and rejoice when persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The God he worshipped could never condone the slaughter of whites, even if they had oppressed blacks for years. Joe didn't want to turn Vesey in, but his conscience wouldn't let him stand by and watch innocent people die.Joe sought guidance from another enslaved black church leader, George Wilson, who, as a Christian, could also not condone murder. Thirty-six black men, Vesey included, died. Thirty-five were hanged and one, the conscience-stricken Wilson, committed suicide after receiving a hefty reward for his services.
As Joe's case shows, Christianity was (and is) a conundrum for the oppressed. It was also the most potent weapon in the slave master's arsenal. Without it, one wonders if slavers could ever have been able to either restrain them all from doing themselves in, or from behaving as badly as the whites did. It was often a better method of `crowd control' than either the whip or the auction block.
Many have questioned blacks' adoption of their oppressor's religion (and its handy dandy justifications for white evil), but it wasn't the theology and activism of the Black Isrealites or any other objecting group that fueled either black resistance to slavery and Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. Christianity did. From a comfy Aeron office chair in 2003, it is easy to dismiss Christianity as a pacifying "slave religion," into which downtrodden blacks retreated to anesthetize themselves against bettering their lot (or, as with Joe and George above, with allowing anyone else to). Then one reads of a slave girl named Isabella Bomefree, born in upstate New York in 1797. She watched seven of her nine siblings sold away in slavery, wondering when she might be next. Before each was torn from her, their mother, Ma Bet, gave her children the only thing she could count on keeping, her faith. "My children, there is a G-d who hears and sees you," she told them. He lives in the sky.and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you."