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In all cultures around the world, there are indicators that can be found that show the characteristics of a certain people. Within the African American world, religion is the beginning and the end of all things. Religion is exalted so much that it reaches everyone in this community. Religion influences ministers, actors, activists, musicians and all African Americans equally (Pinn, 2007). Religion is central in all activities. African American Religion (AAR) has its roots in the Negro church. The religion provides us with insights into social situation of black people living within the United States society. One of its functions was that it acted as a refuge in a white dominated society. During this time, it was also a form of cultural identity. It resisted the hostile white world. Thus, the growth of AAR in the twentieth was due to interrelated factors.
Scholars continue to debate on how much AAR draws from African religion. They note presence of Africanism within the AAR. For illustration, the call-and-response pattern of black preachers is such an indicator. Other indicators include rituals, ancestor worship, spirit possession, initiation rites, magical and funeral rituals, spiritual power and many more (Raboteau, 2001). These traces of Africanism show that no single African religion could be defused in one piece in North America. These religious concepts are normally integrated with diverse European American elements.
Before the American Revolution, only a small number of slaves were Christians. Many planters were afraid of allowing their slaves to be converted to Christianity. They were reluctant to this because they believed that Christianity would influence the slaves with ideas of freedom and equality. in due course, however, they gave in and became convinced that selective teaching of the gospel would cultivate docility in the slaves. The belief that Jesus Christ was humble, compassionate and meek would cause them to converse about their earthly troubles with him. Their white masters promoted this ideology. Only a few of the slave could picture Jesus a king who could lead them on a battle against their oppressors. In fact, most of them accepted their masters as fellow brothers in the lord Jesus. Regardless of this, Christianity is one of the factors that led to black rebellion against their white masters.
Africans began joining the Evangelical Churches such as Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist in1720 to 1740. This period is known as the great awakening duration. It was followed immediately by the second awakening, which took place between 1790 and 1815. These durations saw many blacks attracted to Evangelical Protestantism. Thus, the Methodists became the leading religious group in development in of religious issues among the slaves. The development of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1845 initiated missionary work among the blacks. Scholars argue that this was possible because SBC believed in Baptist by immersion. This resembled certain initiation rites common in West Africa. The slaves congregated in a wide variety of worship areas. They could worship in congregations where majority were whites. They could worship in congregations filled with free blacks. They could also worship exclusively by themselves. Slave masters on the other hand could take their subjects to religious services in white congregations. In such situations, they were expected to sit separately in balconies. In these churches, the white ministers preached. Slave did not like this arrangement and they preferred to hold their own meetings in separate quarters.
This period also resulted in other developments. Since the black people had not gained complete religious autonomy, African American Churches began to emerge. Some Scholars believe that the first complete slave congregation was established in Silver Bluff church in South Carolina in 1773.others argue that there is another black church which was established much earlier in 1758 at Mecklenberg in Virginia. Anyway, this was the first independent black congregation in North America. Other churches were established as a direct protest to the racial discrimination. These churches include "Joy Street Baptist Church" in Boston, ''Black Baptist Congregation'' in Midwest and ''Abyssinian Baptist Church'' in New York. The many emerging black churches led to the creation of National Baptist Congregation U.S.A. in 1895. In 1787, some free blacks with ties to Free African Society, which belonged to St. George's Methodist church in Philadelphia, broke relations with its mother body. This was because they felt that they were being discriminated by white members. In response, they formed St Thomas African Episcopal Church around 1794. The leader of this group of blacks was Mr. Absalom Jones. Another faction also emerged, led by Mr. Allen Richard and formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (BEMAC). BEMAC thus became the founding church of all the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This in turn became the largest of all black Methodist churches. There were other racially mixed churches like St. John's street church, which worshiped in New York. This church served as the crucial point that saw the development of what resulted in the second black Methodist church, ''the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church''.
Before 1910, many blacks were living in rural areas in the southern states. The black rural congregation thus became the model for organized African American religion. In the absence of pastors, most of these rural churches depended on the deacons or circuit for leadership. Today, black rural churches are still missionary Baptist or Methodist. However, black primitive churches began to appear in the rural areas in late nineteenth century. Revivals became an annual ritual cycle. Funerals also became important religious occasions. They are so significant that many times they cause more dramatic behavior than is visible even in revivals or preaching sessions. Historically, such occasions were outlets for expressing the frustrations that they were going through. Economic exploitation that their white masters were causing them undergo, was the major cause of the frustrations. These factors contributed significantly to the Civil rights movement. Though the movement had its stronghold in the urban churches, many rural churches participated and strongly supported it.
In the beginning of twentieth century, African American churches began the process of diversification. This resulted from the migration of many blacks from the southern rural areas to northern and southern cities. Around this time, two major ''National Baptist association'' and three ''Methodist churches'' had developed to became the mainstream churches in the urban black society. Their affiliates were mass churches since they broke class limits. The ones that affiliated to the white controlled churches such as Episcopal and Presbyterian catered for the privileged blacks.
Even though the mainstream white churches that dominated religious world during this period attempted to accommodate the social needs of the Africans, there middle class orientation caused the migrants to feel out of place amongst them (Baer & Singer 1992). Consequently, most migrants joined house congregations. Eventually these house churches became allied to black controlled denominations. However, other blacks were attracted to Islamic, Judaic or a wide array of sects that seemed attractive at that time. In its peak which occurred at around 1920s and 1930s, trhe peace mission movement was catering for the unmet psychological and social needs of the African Americans. Around this time there existed all varieties of churches.
African American Religious Organization
African American Religious organizations generally fit in one of the following four groups. ''Mainstream denominations'','' messianic- nationalist sects'','' conversionist sects'' or the ''thaumaturgic sects''. The mainstream churches are committed to reformist strategy, regardless of the fact that they conduct religious services. Their approach is actually a social action designed to incorporate African Americans to the American political economy. They support instrumental activities such as mass action, church related colleges and programs that uplift their social status. In the mainstream denominations, members have a tendency of accepting cultural patterns within the larger society. Hence members in these churches share in the American dream. Racism however has been a major hindrance to this goal, though it can be overcome through social reform. Many mainstream churches are affiliated to one of the three National Baptist conventions. These include the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), the AME and the AME Zion. Up to 90% of the African Americans who go to church are members of the religious organizations controlled the by blacks. The other 10% belong to religious groups such as Liberal Protestants, Mormon Church, southern Baptist conventions which are controlled by whites. Small percentages are members of sects such as Seventh-day Adventist and Jehovah witness. In 1990, approximately two million belonged to black Roman Catholic in the US. This figure however consists of Caribbean immigrants and African Americans.
There is another sect called the Messianic Nationalist. It comprises of charismatic individuals thought of as messiahs who will deliver African Americans from the oppression of whites. These sects have the Negros identity who believes that blacks are the original human beings. They criticize white racism strongly and develop alternative communities including businesses and schools. ''African American messianic nationalism'' (AAMN) was then being expressed in Judaism, Islamic, or mainstream Christianity. This was exhibited through sects like Hebraic and black Judaic. Some small churches within these groups included church of the living God, saints of Christ, Church of God, the pillar of god of truth for all nations and original Hebrew Israelite nation.
The finest of these Messianic-nationalist sects subscribes to Islamic religion. Their respected leader called Mr. Noble Drew established a temple in Newark, New Jersey in the year 1913.the nation of Islam was responsible for picking up its main thrust under Wallace D. Fard. In the early 1960s, there was a rapid growth of the nation of Islam because of the preaching of Malcolm X. However, during the same time other splinter groups also emerged. These groups included the ''Ahmadiya Moslem movement of Chicago'', ''Ansaru Allah community of Brooklyn'' and the ''Hanafis of Washington, D.C.''. After the death of Malcolm X, Wallace D. transformed the nation to American Muslim mission. This did not go well with several members of the nation and they reconstituted nation of Islam under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan.
The major African American Pentecostal organization is the ''Church of God in Christ'' (COGIC). Its main form of expression has several conversionist elements. Conversionist's sects have several characteristics of religious behavior. These include shouting, glossolalia and ecstatic dancing. Conversionists believe that these behaviors are manifestations of sanctity. Even though some of them take part in social activism, most of them stress puritanical morality. The COGIC church began denominationalizing around the middle of twentieth century. Other conversionalist sects include churches like church of Christ, Pentecostal assemblies of the world, and Christ's Sanctified Holy Church. These conversionist churches forbid women from being bishops or pastors. However, quite a number have female pastors and overseers.
Members of Thaumaturgic sects believe that in order for one to achieve socially desired objectives, he or she must engage in rituals. They maintain that for one to achieve financial prosperity, good health and love he must acquire esoteric knowledge and have a positive attitude. They accept cultural patterns, beliefs and values of the society in general but at the same time, they avoid social activism. Spiritual churches are examples of Thaumaturgic sect. They combine various elements of American spirituality, African American Protestantism, Roman Catholicism with religious traditions. There are also traces of Judaism and Islam in it. Their members believe that for one to gain salvation in this life, he should burn candles before images of the savior Jesus Christ (Raboteau, 1999). Some also believe that burning candles before images of Virgin Mary or Other saints has the same effect. They also believe in taking ritual baths and getting massages from prophets and mediums. While sanctified churches do not allow women in positions of leadership, spiritual churches provide them with this opportunity. The ''United Church and Science of Living Institute'' constituted by rev Ike is considered by many as non-Christian organization. It is the best example of a black thaumaturgic sect in North America.
African American Religious Music
African American churches also function like centers of social life, ethnic expression and cultural identity within the black community (Swatos, 2001). Though they derive their music from a great number of sources, religion is one of the major sources, which inspires African Americans' music. In black churches, singing comes in so effortlessly. It is an affirmation of the bond that exists within this community. Historically it can be traced to the camp meetings during the second awakening. Blacks during this time used to sing in their segregated quarters after their masters had retired to bed. In the 19th century black churches, spectators sung spiritual songs while standing at the sidelines of a ''ring'' as others danced within it. By 1830, choral singing had been introduced in most urban black churches. Singing became a usual characteristic in religious life of black urban congregation. Folk music was developed as an essential part of African American sacred music. This was promoted even though some churches like African Methodist and Baptist was opposed it.
A greater emergence of the Black gospel was witnessed in urban centers during the revivals, which they conducted in various places like tents, stadiums and tabernacles. In these occasions, they composed and sang religious songs. Thomas Dorsey who was a black Methodist minister was one of the great composers around 1900. He later became known as the '' father of gospel music''. He promoted gospel music in spiritual churches in Midwest and Chicago, at a time when Methodist and Baptist were against such music. One of the churches that really promoted contemporary gospel music is the Church of God in Christ. In New Orleans, they embraced even jazz as an essential characteristic of their worship services. As the mainstream churches continued to incorporate gospel music into their worship services, it became the main drawing card for young adults and teenagers.
Interpreting the African American Heritage
African American religion has always expressed a contradictory nature since its humble beginnings. Social scientists and various scholars argue that African American religion has served as vehicle that protests over several issues. Initially it stimulated civil rights movement. Amongst the many black churches, only black Catholics played an accommodative role.
African American church cannot be separated from African American life as early as the days of slavery. It is unique in its form and status, which was birthed in from the unusual history of African American. Many factors ranging from images of freedom that is common in the African American spirituals and the expressiveness of their worship services is playing a big role in transforming African American culture. Their songs such as "I am bound for Canaan" not only mean that they are going to a spiritual position but also that they are headed to American north in search of physical freedom. The dual search of freedom has been at the center of African American religion since its inception in the US.