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.

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