Religion of African Americans
Religion has always been an integral part of the life of any society. In the 21st century, however, the role of religion is contested; many people are losing faith in the Church as a key social institution. In the United States, the Church was separated from the state at the very beginning of the country’s history, but still its huge role in the American life is undeniable. If one considers the U.S. ethnic groups and their degree of religiosity, the African-American community is the most faithful one. African American religion can be approached from either analytical or historical point of view. There are many religions popular in the black community, but the Christian (Baptist church) and Islamic movement with its main organization – the Nation of Islam have the most followers. These two religions played an extremely crucial part in the development of the Afro-American church and culture. The following paper analyzes the development of African American religions in general, as well as the development of Christian (Baptist) church and Black Islam, in particular.
First and foremost, despite the fact that Christianity in all its major variation is the dominant denomination for the New World, including its black population, African Americans also represent other religions such as Islam, Judaism, Voodoo, and Santeria, for example. These beliefs have largely influenced the determination of African Americans.
Religion as a unique phenomenon can be studied separately from the cultural, social, and political perspectives of the human life and interaction; it is a modern concept alien to most Africans that first arrived in America. Trost opines that the African American religious historians relied on specific motifs in telling their story of the African American religion (245). Religion includes sacred symbols, meanings, and rituals that explain and regulate the human relations with each other, with nature, as well as with the surrounding world as a whole. With the help of religion, people conceptualize and manage such contacts.
The first Negro slaves brought to America were heathens and voodooists. They prayed to the forces of nature, as well as honored personified and deified ancestors. For a long time, the slaves had continued to worship their African gods. At nights, on plantations, with the first sounds of the sacred drums, the dark figures of slaves gently glided; they rushed to the hiding places in the forests, wastelands, and wetlands. The priest waited for them in front of the altar for sacrifices. The ceremony could vary, but usually people brought God slaughtered chickens, pigeons, goats, or pigs and then began their sacred dances. Subsequently, the landowners found it advantageous to plant Christian doctrine among the slaves. It taught them obedience, patience, and uncomplaining submission to their owners. The first Christian Negro communities were founded by the white planters at the end of the XVII century. The Christian sermons educated slaves about humility, obedience, value of labor, and retribution after death. This religion not only comforted the poor slaves with the dream of bliss in heaven and the reward for the misery and humiliation but also prevented the Afro-American community from protests against injustice and oppression. Moreover, it destroyed the idea of a struggle for the emancipation of the Blacks from slavery.
Independent Christian Church organizations appeared in the late XVIII – early XIX centuries. In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, headed by the first black bishop, Richard Allen, was created. However, it should be noted that this Church was not separated from the whites. African Americans were the members of the same religious communities as the white people were. With time, the black churches became not only a place where divine services and religious ceremonies were committed but also a kind of a club and place for entertainment. For example, local communities organized lectures, concerts, sporting events, and even watching movies. When going to a church, the Afro-American youth could meet with friends and communicate with each other. On Sundays, they were opened up to 10 PM, and many Negroes spent a lot of time there. Moreover, in the church, people could arrange business meetings and political debates.
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Today, Baptist Church still plays a huge role in shaping the outlook of its followers to preach, as well as in smoothing the emerging socio-cultural problems. Moreover, it considers the family as the basic unit of society, in which moral principles and outlook of Americans are formed; therefore, it strongly advocates a marriage and a complete family. Marks et al. believe, “For the faith-centered Black families in our study, the heart of religious experience is the belief that individuals can reportedly establish, develop, and be blessed by a relationship with God—a relationship that, in turn, seems to positively influence their ties to their wives, husbands, and children” (711). Baptist Church is also engaged in charity, for example, providing the poor and homeless with food and clothing. With regard to health problems, it should be noted that local religious communities actively take care of this sphere of the African American life in the southern U.S. states. Moreover, Baptist pastors together with volunteers inform parishioners about the healthy lifestyles, diseases, and possible ways of their prevention, as well as about available treatment. The role of the Afro-American church is so high because it differs from other religious movements that have ever existed in the world. It means a way of life that combines specific historical features and events that are unique to these black communities. The Afro-American Church has always been something much more than just a religious institution. It has always played a crucial role in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of their communities.
Speaking about the religious life of African Americans, one should also mention the Nation of Islam. This organization has greatly contributed to the promotion of the rights of the black people all over the country.
African Americans are a separate ethnic group in the U.S. society. It has experienced a long and complicated process of self-identification, which began with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War of 1861-1865. Though, former slaves were finally freed, their civil and social rights were still violated. In spite of the legal abolition of slavery, the thinking of the white population, which had grown in a slave society, remained the same. Therefore, the process of adapting to the new realities was quite painful for both sides. African Americans created a number of religious organizations and communities to protect their rights, and the Nation of Islam was one of the most radical ones.
Due to its separatist rhetoric and influence, the Nation of Islam should be considered not only a religious movement but also a community that addressed the key national, ethnic, cultural, and political issues of the African American community. Speaking about the success of this organization, it is crucial to mention that its ideologists had a vague idea about the Muslim theology and rituals. In fact, they were familiar only with the basic vocabulary of this religion. Thus, they saw no obstacles to the formation of the own dogma, without regard to the sample. Therefore, the ideology of the Nation of Islam could be successfully adapted to the realities of the African Americans. In addition, for the Blacks, Islam was the religion of Africa, a distant homeland; therefore, conversion to it was considered a restoration of the initial order. Moreover, the ideology of the organization was influenced by the Muslim warlike nature, which was more effective than the nonviolent struggle of Martin Luther King. Finally, it should be noted that African Americans considered Islam to oppose the slave concept of Christianity. This fact also played an important role in the assimilation of the black community in the U.S. society. Islam began to serve as a religious base for the black ethnic identity. In addition, the Nation of Islam actively engaged in propaganda among the black prisoners. The fact is that in the realities of immense discrimination by the white population, young African Americans were not able to receive a quality education and make a decent career. The prison was one of the most likely prospects for these men. This situation is quite clearly described in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, who had worked this path before becoming one of the most influential leaders of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X claimed that he had found Allah and this enlightenment had completely transformed his life (190). The preachers of the Nation of Islam taught that their followers did not differ from the other races and peoples; they just followed the path to liberation and transformation into a higher race. “The organization supports unity of the race and requires keeping the code of discipline created by its founders” (Melton, 2014). While reflecting on the main principles of the new religion, Malcolm X defended Islam as a religion that did not recognize any color bars. (68) According to the Nation of Islam, for a more rapid progress, the Blacks had to be separated from other Americans, up to the formation of an autonomy within the US or even creation of a separate state in North America. The most famous follower of the ideas of the Nation of Islam was a boxer, Cassius Clay. After becoming a champion in 1964, he converted to Islam and received a new name – Muhammad Ali. His example undoubtedly inspired many black citizens. Butler et al. stated that other African American religious leaders echoed the message of the racial pride and uplift, especially during the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of flush of the black culture and arts during the 1920s (334).
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To conclude, the development of Afro-American religion, as well as the U.S. the black community, was quite thorny. However, two main Churches have survived and gathered a lot of followers – Christian (Baptist) and Islamic one. During the period of slavery in the United States, Baptist Church was the only place where slaves could find comfort and shelter. In addition to its cultural functions as a religious institution, local churches became centers of political struggle against slavery. In the era of the Civil Rights movement, Baptist Church not only remained the main economic and social institution of the African American communities of the southern states but also started to take an active political position in the fight for civil rights of its members. On the other hand, the Nation of Islam was the most powerful and radical organization that fights for the rights in America. Noteworthy, in the 21st century, when many religious movements are losing their followers, and the number of agnostics and atheists increases, the Baptist Church as and Islam movement maintains their positions.