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The Black Church in the African American Experience
by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya
Duke University Press, 519 pages, $47.50

When we cut through the many good reasons that lead social scientists to study religion, we find ourselves in the end confronting questions about politics. Whether subtly or straightforwardly, with explicit or only veiled references to the Marxian axiom that religion is an opiate, the analytical musings of the sociologist or the political scientist invariably direct us to conclude something about whether religion, especially in its organized forms, promotes or retards progressive social change. And historians have been almost obsessive in posing questions about the role of religion in encouraging or stifling populist cries of injustice. The debates on this issue among the social scientists are too long, too complicated, and too heated to review in full. However in opening a discussion of C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s The Black Church in the African American Experiencea book that will surely be seen to be a landmark study—a little background may be useful.

Historians of the American experience have said some unkind things about both the sincerity and the effectiveness of the professed social conscience of Christian churches. Elaborating on an interpretation made in 1929 by H. Richard Niebuhr in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, many of them have noted that church denominations, like people, move up the social scale. When they arrive at middle-class status, it is often thought, their social vision is compromised by capitalist-influenced worries about such things as discipline, thrift, and social decorum. On the other hand, the “sects” that do not move up suffer a worse condescension. Of them it is complained that they preach to their flocks, usually drawn from the lower social ranks, a gospel of worldly defeatism. Religious consolation in the industrial age, we are told, comes at the high price of diverting attention away from the causes of economic oppression.

Nathan Hatch’s important book The Democratization of American Christianity (1989) may signal some shift in this tide, but the notion that, even in the land of the free, churches succeed as institutions by first bending to, and eventually reinforcing, the social status quo is deeply implanted in the literature. A student reading through the most influential recent histories of the American working class might reasonably conclude that working-class militance was inversely related to church attendance.

An important exception to this general practice can be found in the historical accounts of African-American churches. To be sure, certain highly gifted students of the African-American religious experience have been as harsh in arguing a case for the social regressiveness of black churches as any scholar bent on demonstrating that the social gospel preached in white pulpits intentionally masked the exploitation of the greedy money barons who paid the minister. For example, E. Franklin Frazier, whose The Negro Church in America is a classic in the field, offered a mixed assessment of his subject. But for him the downside was very far down indeed. The Black Church, he said, “aided the Negro to become accommodated to an inferior status,” furthered a religion that was otherworldly in its outlook, “cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes,” and was responsible for the “so-called backwardness of American Negroes.”

However, there is another view of the issue running through the literature, a view that deserves to be called the prevailing one—especially now, with an impressive boost from this present volume. First set forth by W. E. B. DuBois, then pushed by the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits and the white Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, and subsequently sustained in the work of such younger African-American scholars as John Blassingame, Albert Raboteau, and Margaret Creel Washington, it locates a tradition of African-American resistance in an innovative black Christianity. The churches fostered by this innovative Christianity were “churches of the disinherited” that served well their members’ social and political needs.

Lincoln and Mamiya affirm that the seven major historic black denominations—the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Incorporated, the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ—historically played a liberating role for African-Americans. More important, the authors bear witness to the continuing effectiveness of that role in the present. The mood of the story they record is most definitely upbeat. Interestingly, Lincoln and Mamiya pay relatively little attention to the shaping of African-American Christianity by the slaves and whatever African past they were able to retain. Nor are they much interested in theological disputes, noting that the impetus for independent black churches did not arise from such differences. Their study concentrates instead on the social projects of the visible church institutions created by free black Americans.

So strong is the descriptive side of this study that readers can make use of it as an encyclopedia of factual information about organized black religion. The authors’ intention is to produce a carefully empirical work—“to provide descriptive overviews and contemporary statistical data and information about black churches and clergy in seven historic black denominations.” A nationwide survey begun in 1978, conducted by questionnaires and paid interviewers, collected data on 2,150 churches and elicited opinions from 1,895 clergy. Forty tables summarizing everything from the annual income of rural churches to the number of choirs in black churches are an essential part of the text.

Though a threat of blandness often bangs over books as loaded with statistical description as this one, Lincoln and Mamiya manage to keep things provocative. They are engaged, passionately so, with the implications of their findings, and their data are deployed to back up a set of related arguments. They maintain that black churches, taken together, have been in the past, and remain in the present, the most important and the best-managed economic and cultural units of African-American communities. They have maintained this preeminence by serving as considerably more than centers for religious worship—indeed, within African-American culture what is religious and what is secular have never been fully differentiated. Routinely, black churches have been intimately linked to political parties, insurance companies, burial societies, schools and colleges, even to theatrical groups.

This linkage of the sacred to the secular, according to Lincoln and Mamiya, is much more pronounced in the case of African-American churches than in the case of white churches. Unparalleled opportunities opened to African-Americans as a result of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and many of them for the first time discovered strategies for autonomous collective action that bypassed their churches. Even so, the only partial differentiation between the sacred and secular remains a distinctive feature of African-American life. Black churches, both urban and rural, continue to cooperate with other institutions in African-American communities, especially institutions linked to civil rights protest. In doing so, they provide African-Americans as effectively as any other agency with a sense of racial pride . As they always have done, they make freedom the focus of the gospel message, a message that never acquiesced in the social injustices practiced against black Americans.

In their insistence on this version of black history, the authors set out to demolish one or two books that they believe have completely misdirected research, most particularly Gary Marx’s Protest and Prejudice (1967), a study that puts a Marxian gloss on the complaints about the black church registered by Frazier. They are far more respectful of Frazier himself, suggesting gently that had he lived to see the part that churches played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s (he died in 1962), he might have changed his mind. For analogous reasons, they are respectful of Benjamin May and Joseph Nicholson’s The Negro’s Church, first published in 1933. The passivity that Mays and Nicholson charge to black churches is not denied but interpreted as a mood peculiar to the interwar years, one that did not prevail earlier and that did not continue into the recent past.

 There is no question, of course, about the central role of black churches in shaping the culture of African-Americans. Statistics about black churches, as Lincoln and Mamiya lament, are unreliable. However, scholars, aided by pollsters, can demonstrate with reasonable certainty that African-Americans are more attached to their churches than any ethnically identifiable group of white Americans. Seventy-eight percent of African-Americans claim to be churched, and of these, according to estimates of Lincoln and Mamiya, 80 percent belong to one of the independent black denominations covered in their survey.

These are, to be sure, impressive figures, but the conclusion to be drawn from them is far from self-evident. Readers can quickly calculate from the statistics that a lot of African-Americans are either unchurched, belong to largely white Protestant churches, or are part of religious movements that are left at the margins of this volume, such as Muslims, Roman Catholics, and various cultic movements of the sort once profitable to Daddy Grace and Father Divine. When we further remember that a large majority of the members of African-American churches are women, perhaps as high as 80 percent in some cases, we are apt to suspect that the community now encompassed by the independent black churches is less broad than the authors indicate. A similar problem, of course, besets white churches, some of which are in a much more obvious state of decline, but then white communities have staked relatively less of their well-being on their churches. The historic glory and the historic dilemma of the black churches come down to the same thing—their centrality.

It is always frustrating to see how many disputed issues statistics cannot settle. The survey numbers convince Lincoln and Mamiya that the civil rights struggles of the 1960s formed a watershed in the history of many black churches. The effect on African-American ministers and their congregations, they argue, was electric, galvanizing them to be far bolder in sponsoring and supporting protest, sometimes with their lives. Moreover, statistics also convince Lincoln and Mamiya that black churches are in much better shape than they were fifty years ago. Ministers are better educated, they are paid more, they preach to larger and more economically prosperous denominations, and they preside over a more elaborate network of social services tied to the financial structure of the church.

So far, so good. However, at this point the significance of the statistics must be filtered through more subjective categories. Lincoln and Mamiya treat the trends just cited as measures of health, and by any common sense reckoning they should be. But that same sort of reckoning also tells us that they measure the fading distinctiveness of black churches. Is that good or bad? Reliance on numbers will not help us to decide.

Lincoln and Mamiya acknowledge that the pluses come with some minuses. The educational level of African-American ministers is higher than it was, but not as high as that of the burgeoning African-American professional class, often trained in elite Ivy League institutions. As a result, the church’s leadership role is threatened. The church’s network of social services, while growing in absolute terms, is becoming in percentage terms a diminishing part of the network of social services created by African-Americans. Most ominous, the enhanced financial status of churched African-Americans (even members of the pentecostal Church of God in Christ have moved perceptibly up the social scale) has left a gaping gulf between “respectable” African-Americans and unchurched, inner city, poor African-American males. These men, who outnumber young African-American men in college, are unemployed, move regularly between drug-trafficking on the streets and prisons, and die with shocking frequency in blazes of gunfire.

No one expects African-American churches to deal effectively in the short run with the dispiriting problems of the inner city. To judge them by a failure that runs deep throughout American life and taints even the rosiest version of the American dream would be grossly unfair However, it is not unfair to remain skeptical about whether black churches, on average, have been as effective in addressing community issues as this book suggests. Many of the statistics cited by the authors do not persuade one way or the other. For example—and one example will have to do—in their effort to efface “the stereotype of the Black Church as a withdrawn, insular, and privatized institution,” the authors present data showing that about 71 percent of black urban churches say they have cooperated with social agencies in their communities or other non-church programs. The trouble with this datum is that it gives us an insufficient sense of the extent of the involvement—whether cooperation was limited to one or two instances, whether it was ongoing, whether it involved extensive donations of money and labor. Perhaps the cooperation was substantial, but the easy answer of Yes to the question posed by the survey does not mean very much. In fact, it does not indicate with any certainty a significantly greater level of “cooperation” than the answer No.

What is very clear is that the black churches that do the most community work these days are the largest and wealthiest ones and the ones with the most economically secure members (pace those who denigrate the middle class). Moreover, Lincoln and Mamiya demonstrate a strong correlation between the militance of African-American ministers, which the authors measure by a willingness to participate in protest marches, and the level of their education. The more education, the more militance. These are predictable connections, which are duplicated in the cases of many white Protestant denominations. However, the present economic conditions that enable “effective” militant action should give us pause over any claim about the historical political effectiveness of, let’s say, a small black church that lacked the resources to pay a decent salary to a preacher with an eighth-grade education. This type of church was by far the most common in African-American history. How militant could it afford to be?

The doubt raised has nothing to do with the level of sacrifice made by church members. Every historical document at our command suggests an enormous commitment on the part of African-Americans to sustain their churches. Rather, the question is whether politically, even using the broad view of politics adopted by Lincoln and Mamiya, black churches did as much as they might have done to build a spirit of resistance among African-Americans. (Or perhaps the question is whether we should even attempt to measure the success of black churches with a political yardstick.) This question has no scholarly resolution, but it holds a lot of substance all the same. Consider one issue. The ministry of the black churches did not encourage anger.

It is too simple to suggest that the opposite of “no anger” is merely cowering meekness. It is furthermore inappropriately glib for a white historian to argue that black churches should have sponsored self-defeating violence in the name of racial pride. Even so, did not the situation for many long decades call for anger? Lincoln and Mamiya state in the beginning that “we use the term ‘the Black Church’ as do other scholars and much of the general public as a kind of sociological and theological shorthand reference to the pluralism of black Christian churches in the United States.” This is certainly legitimate usage, and a major virtue of this volume is its clarification of the differences between the independent black Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches. However, pluralism is not its thematic center. Like many scholars of American religion, Lincoln and Mamiya approve of pluralism only when it can be bent to ecumenical purposes. They are aware, after all, that the point of view they seek to refute argues the case that there was excessive pluralism. That is, although African-Americans may have found strength and identity in church membership, they let themselves be divided into too many churches. The unfortunate result of black churches being the only available outlet for competition, this separatism isolated individual congregations, eroded their efforts to make common cause, and encouraged an authoritarian style in their ministers.

One prescriptive conclusion readers might draw from this volume is that the ideal Black Church of the future would combine the stable and upwardly mobile features of African-American Methodism (out of which grew the best organized of the black churches, the ones that kept the best records, and the ones that were the least “fundamentalist” in their approach to Christian doctrine) with the distinctive African-American emphasis on ecstatic participation that has been so profoundly a part of black pentecostalism. Such a church would not lose the middle classes, and it would not desert the poor. It would be “respectable,” but in distinctive ways, some of them having to do with music, that did not copy white culture. The Black Church has not been everything that Lincoln and Mamiya claim. Nor can it become everything that they hope. However, such reflections do not negate the very real and truly astonishing achievements of the Black Church, nor the contributions of this indispensable book.

Laurence Moore is Professor of History at Cornell University and author of Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans.