The First Afro-American Churches
By Harold Graham
The first religious experiences of Afro-Americans in Christianity are rooted in the early days of slavery when slaves were first encouraged to join in Christian worship with the white brethren, a prerogative granted solely by the white owner.
Slaves were permitted to join the church by experience, could transfer their membership if circumstances dictated such, often voted on measures before the church, and were occasionally appointed to committees, particularly if the committee dealt with issues affecting the Negro membership. Like white members, slaves could be publicly rebuked or excluded for their sins or they could report the misconduct of other sinners to the congregation.
The religious experiences of Christianity offered great appeal to the slaves, particularly with its promise of a Better Land with No Sorrow and No Pain. Against this backdrop, slaves often developed their own chants and songs which they carried to the fields and about their work and which they melded into the fabric of their African heritage. These Negro spirituals have became an important part of the American heritage, not only in terms of religious music, but in the evolution of rhythm and blues, jazz, and other secular forms of music not ordinarily identified with spirituality.
The end of the Civil War, coupled with the Emancipation Proclamation, brought about a new order for both whites and Afro-Americans, not only in social and economic terms, but in terms of their religious experiences as well. The Reconstruction Period (ca. 1865-1875) represents a period of great social and economic unrest between the races, a struggle for political power, and a redefining of the relationship between the two races. It was during this period that many Afro-American church members sensed the need to break away and form their own churches.
It was a move accomplished with great zeal, but with many hardships. The congregations of the new Afro-American churches often met in a members home, in one of the first Colored one-room school buildings, or under a brush arbor.
There was also the issue of church leadership. Under the terms of slavery, Negroes had been forbidden to read and write or to be taught these skills; therefore, few Negro leaders, however fervent in their beliefs, possessed the skills to read the Bible, orate a sermon, keep minutes of the church activities, or handle the financial aspects of church business. It is not surprising, therefore, that few written records exist of the first Afro-American churches. (Part of the missionary work of Rev. N. L. Clarke, among other white ministers, was to serve as mentor to both Negro and Choctaw ministers.) We are fortunate, therefore, to have an early record of Midway M. B. Church, as presented in the next article.
A. J. Brown reported that in 1894 there were three church denominations within Newton County the Missionary Baptists, with seven ministers, The Methodist Episcopal Church-South, with six local and one itinerant minister, four churches, and a combined membership of 466, and the Old School Colored Presbyterians, who at that time were attempting to establish a house of worship. Rev. Abram Donald, a Missionary Baptist, was the first Negro minister to preach in Newton County.