Spiritual Moments in Black History
By Claudia Mair Burney
Africans arrived in America not as freedom-seeking immigrants, but as captives adapting to the harsh reality of chattel slavery. Because of their suffering, they drew together and drank from a deep well of spirituality that connected them to God, their ancestors, and one another. James Weldon Johnson’s "Negro National Anthem" testifies to the tenacity of the spirituality of African Americans, grounded in faith and hope and celebration:
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
While by no means comprehensive, here are 12 highlights of the contributions African Americans have made to enrich the landscape of American spirituality.
Captive Africans Arrive in Colonial America
In 1619 the first Africans arrived in Virginia. Despite being systematically stripped of their identities, cultures, languages, religions, and values, they created unique expressions of faith. Like jazz and the blues, the slave spirituality was rooted in Africa, and born of deep suffering and shared experience. Their faith had a singular aim: liberation.
Their spirituality of sorrow and joy bred a passionate host of martyrs; those who died for the faith; confessors: those who suffered yet continued to bear witness; and passion bearers, those who suffered and/or died, not explicitly for faith, but for standing for a righteous cause. Today we continue to benefit from their powerful witness.
Richard Allen Starts the A.M.E Denomination
Richard Allen was a slave who became a Methodist convert and fiery preacher as a youth. The dedicated young man purchased he and his brother’s freedom after an evangelist convinced their plantation owner that slavery was a sin. As a free man, along with Absalom Jones, Allen began to preach early morning services at a local church. The sermons became so popular that the church’s vestry voted to build a separate space for the burgeoning numbers of blacks to worship in. Distressed by the forced segregation, Allen and Jones left to found a mutual aid society for free blacks and migrant workers.
The pair parted ways when Jones was drawn to Anglicanism, and Richard Allen chose to remain a Methodist. In 1816 Allen became instrumental in founding Bethel Church in Philadelphia as well as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the oldest, independent black denomination.
Harriet Tubman Becomes an Emancipator
As a young slave girl, Harriet Tubman suffered frequent abuse. In one incident when she was a teen, a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave, missed, and hit Harriet in the head, crushing her skull. The traumatic injury afflicted her with frequent headaches, seizures, and hypersomnia for the rest of her life. She also experienced vivid dreams and mystical visions, which she ascribed to God.
After escaping from her plantation in 1849, she immediately came back to lead her family members to freedom. She would go on to help hundreds of slaves to escape through the Underground Railroad, earning her the nickname “Moses.” Though she credited God with guiding her in this dangerous work and trusted His protection, the fearless emancipator also carried a pistol, which she once leveled at a frightened traveler and said, “You gon’ be free, or you gon’ die.”. She never lost a passenger.
Sojourner Truth Gives the “Ain’t I a Woman” Speech
After a painful life marked by abuse, 46-year-old Isabella Baumtree was inspired to change her name to Sojourner Truth. “The Spirit calls, and I must go,” she said. Her profound evangelical faith inspired her work as a preacher and powerful abolitionist.
She is best known for a riveting speech given in 1851 at a women’s rights convention:
“I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-- when I could get it-- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman!”
William S. Crowdy Points Blacks Toward Judaism
Because of their suffering and the experience of slavery, blacks have always identified with the children of Israel, but not until the late 19th century did some African Americans identify themselves as Israelites.
William S. Crowdy had a vision in which God told him to lead his people to true religion. In 1896 he started the Church of God and Saints of Christ, the largest of all the Black Hebrew organizations. They believed that Jews were originally black, and African Americans were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
By 1930 the movement had more than 200 temples, and the number of members swelled to over 37,000. Since the late 19th century, dozens of Black Hebrew groups have emerged. In the 1990s the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews, as well as those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations.
William Seymour Jumpstarts the Azuza Street Revival
In 1906 William Seymour, the free son of two slaves, rented a ramshackle building in Los Angeles and became the driving force of the Pentecostal movement. Slave spirituality deeply influenced Seymour. His services, replete with fiery preaching, passionate emotional responses, and a sense of immediacy of God’s presence, mirrored the religious experiences found in African-American culture.
Diversity was the distinguishing characteristic of the Pentecostal movement from the beginning. Men, women, and children from all ethnicities and religious traditions gathered together and worshipped as one. They sang, spoke in tongues, and were “slain in the spirit.” Women played prominent roles in Pentecostal ministry. Eventually racial tensions and other factors splintered the movement, but its influence has never waned. Today the Pentecostal denominations have over 500 million adherents worldwide.
Noble Drew Ali Reintroduces Islam to Black Americans
The early 1900s were not just notable for the watershed Pentecostal movement. In 1913 Noble Drew Ali, formerly Timothy Drew, introduced Islam to a large segment of black Americans. Settling largely in the Midwest, by 1928 his Moorish Science Temples of America boasted more than 15,000 members spread throughout Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Ali taught that blacks were the descendants of Moors, and their religious roots were in Islam. Schism, controversy, and police harassment damaged his growing movement. After Ali’s death Wallace Fard Mohammed broke away from the Moorish Science Temple and founded the Nation of Islam. Thousands upon thousands of African Americans have embraced Islam through the Nation of Islam, but it all began with the vision of Noble Drew Ali.
Rosa Parks Refuses to Surrender Her Seat, and the Civil Rights Movement Is Born
The year was 1955, the place Montgomery, Alabama. Four days after the murder of a black teenager, Emmett Till, in Mississippi, a tired Rosa Parks sat in the colored section of a bus. When the driver insisted she give up her seat to a white passenger she refused. Her resistance sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
A boycott of the bus company was quickly organized, led by 26-year-old Baptist minister Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott garnered national attention, and people all around the country began to organize. Because the black church was the center of community life, thousands of churches rallied together. Clergy and lay people alike organized and planned activities. They also encouraged and strengthened one another to endure the difficult days ahead. Without this vast network of all kinds of churches lending support, it’s unlikely that the Civil Rights Movement would have succeeded.
Martin Luther King Jr. Delivers His 'I Have a Dream' Speech
On a trip to Germany, Michael King was inspired to change his name to Martin Luther King after the Protestant reformer. This served as a prophetic move, for King’s son would also change the world. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s example of nonviolent resistance, King became the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered one of history’s greatest speeches. More than 250,000 people had gathered for the March on Washington. He’d prepared a speech, but abandoned it when a woman cried, “Tell them your dream.” He did just that:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character….With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Malcolm X Goes to Mecca
While Malcolm Little was in prison, his brother exposed him to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Soon after, he began a correspondence with the organization’s leader, Elijah Mohammed, and upon his release became a fervent son of the NOI. His involvement inspired him to drop his “slave master’s name” and become Malcolm X. The X signifying the name of the African family he’d never known. Soon he became the organization’s most charismatic spokesperson and is credited with increasing membership from 500 in 1952 to 25,000 in 1963.
In March of 1964 Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam amid controversy and became a Sunni Muslim. In April of that year he made his pilgrimage to Mecca. On this trip he experienced a radical shift in his view. For the first time he realized those he condemned as “blue-eyed devils” could be his brothers in the faith. He took the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which means, Malcolm (or Malik) who is from the tribe or family of Shabazz and has made the Hajj. One can only speculate how this expanded worldview would have affected his teaching. The man Ossie Davis called America’s “shining black prince” was assassinated less than a year after his break with the Nation of Islam.
Barack Obama is Inaugurated President
On January 20th 2009 Barack Obama, an African-American man, was sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States. An estimated 1.8 million people of every ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and age gathered on the Mall to share in the momentous occasion. Millions the world over watched on TV and the internet as the son of an African father acceded to the nation’s highest office. A 106-year-old daughter of slaves attended. Many could not hold back their tears. His appointment represents the fulfillment of our deepest yearning: liberation. Only 40 years ago, many African Americans were denied voting rights.
Though there are still obstacles to conquer, today African Americans enjoy unprecedented freedom. We can practice whatever spiritual tradition moves us. We are Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We are Buddhists and Hindus. We are Mormons. Our present liberty is part and parcel of the struggles of our ancestors who formed true faith from the scraps of religion slave owners tossed their way. We have learned faith from our dark past, and now we blaze into the future, our lights shining, as James Weldon Johnson said, “full of the hope that the present has brought us.”