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US Black Churches Continue to Thrive - 2003-02-28

There are literally thousands of religious groups in the world, many of them founded as a reaction against ideas or practices advocated by others. This is particularly true of so-called "Protestant", Christian denominations. The term "Protestant", after all, is derived from the word "protest". Here in the United States, there are eight Protestant denominations that were formed in response to the racial segregation of their day. These so-called "black churches" continue to thrive today.

Sunday morning services at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, always begin with a song. Singing is very important to the 1.2 million people, nearly all of whom are black, who attend AME churches across the country. That's because the denomination is grounded in Methodist theology, which considers song to be a vital part of worship.

But Pastor Jeffrey Leath says, the AME church is not a Methodist church. In fact, the denomination was founded in the 1790s by a black man who was upset with the Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Richard Allen was a former slave who had converted to Methodism as a teenager. But Pastor Leath says he broke with that church 10 years later, when the congregation he belonged to began to institute a policy of racial segregation. "At first, they separated them so that African-Americans had to sit on the outer sections, toward the wall," he says. "And then, this new policy where they were being relegated to the balcony, or what is called a "gallery" by Allen in his autobiography. But the issue was not just segregation. The issue was 'You're denying me my dignity as I worship.'"

The segregationist policy that frustrated Richard Allen continued to exist in many Methodist congregations throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. Finally, in 1968, the United Methodist Church condemned segregation and banned it from its congregations. But that move had little impact on the AME church, which continues to attract new members, as do the other seven black denominations in the United States.

Warren Hamilton joined the Mother Bethel Church in 1994. He was raised a Methodist, but says as an adult, he was drawn to the AME Church, because of its history. He says the style of worship at an AME church resonates with him, because it reflects what he calls the "enthusiasm" of African-American culture. Mr. Hamilton says this emotional style can be traced back to Africa, and that it's rarely found in church services where most of the members are of European ancestry. "If we have these African rhythms, or African feelings, we ought to be able to express it," he says. "We ought to be free, and in the Church, we are free. We can jump, we can shout. And we don't have to be, Presbyterian, so to speak."

"Thank you, Lord! Oh, thank you Lord!

The Sunday morning atmosphere at an AME Church is definitely different from what's usually found at a predominantly white Presbyterian church. Here at Mother Bethel, people clap and stomp as they prepare to hear the day's sermon. Pastor Jeffrey Leath begins that sermon in a fairly mild manner. "If we want to be cured, the text suggests we need to have friends that have faith," says Pastor Leath.

But as the sermon continues, Pastor Leath takes his lead from the audience he's serving and builds the sermon until it's filled with all the enthusiasm and emotion that Warren Hamilton says makes for a quintessentially African-American style of worship.

"God reads your heart!"
"Thank you, Jesus!"
"God is the power of deliverance!"
"Oh, this is God!"
"God is making a way where there was no way!"
"Yes, Lord!"

This style was a hallmark of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1960s. That's not surprising, considering the movement was led, by and large, by black ministers. And that, says Jeffrey Leath, is why the black church continues to exist and be relevant. He says generations of African-Americans have found liberation in Christianity, but only after they were able to separate the religion from the dominant white culture that brought it, and them, to North America. Pastor Leath says the black experience in the United States is still different from the white experience, and so long as that's case, there will always be people who want to worship at a black church.

"The African-American church exists because it has to address issues that are understood, have been honed, and can be presented with an African-American perspective that is different from other people," says Pastor Leath. "We don't just need to hear somebody who is above, saying "Here, reach, and I'll pull you up." Sometimes we need to hear someone who is beside us, who says, "Come, let's climb together."

And that's a message Pastor Leath says he tries to convey to his congregants each Sunday.