In a collection of essays entitled The Sanctified Church, Zora Neale Hurston described the traditions of the African American holiness and Pentecostal churches as a “revitalizing element” in black music and religion. As someone deeply invested in African American folk culture, Hurston saw holiness and Pentecostal churches as facilitating a way of preserving slave religion and thus recapturing the vibrancy and vitality of the African-American experience.
Two clear examples illustrating Hurston’s point are Charles Price Jones and Charles Harrison Mason. Jones and Mason were both part of the newly formed National Baptist Convention under Elias Camp Morris when they embraced ideas about holiness in 1896. The sons of former slaves, Jones and Mason saw in the experience-driven theology of holiness as it stemmed from John Wesley a vehicle by which to transmit slave religion to a new generation. They were involved in a broader struggle in southern black life between progressives and conservatives over which direction to take black religion. Their answer was to move forward by reclaiming the folk culture of African-American slaves and through them to transmit an African heritage.
Jones sought to transmit this heritage by combining the Methodist tradition of hymn writing with an emphasis on African identity and forms of worship. Beginning with the publication of his Jesus Only book of hymns in 1899, Jones would go on to compose hundreds of hymns before his death in 1949. He also wrote a body of poetry that he published in An Appeal to the Sons of Africa. The experience of divine presence in entire sanctification reminded Jones that “Africa’s sons, we plainly see / That in us wise divinity / A holy purpose has. Let’s find / The wisdom of the heavenly mind.” Jones also followed Booker T. Washington’s philosophy that religion could uplift African Americans when combined with a program of educating the common man.
For his part, Charles H. Mason saw in Pentecostalism a way to maintain traditional African worship. He emphasized dancing in the church because the slaves had the ring dance and holiness and Pentecostal adherents were known to break forth in spontaneous movement. He also introduced healing rituals, which he saw as combining African and Pentecostal practices. In addition to anointing cloths, Mason had a collection of healing roots that he saw as vehicles of faith although he denied that he was importing anything “magical.”
While the movement to which Mason and Jones gave birth split into two denominations over the issue of Mason’s Spirit baptism, the two remain united in their effort to uplift the folk culture of southern black religion. Jones’ followers became the Church of Christ Holiness while Mason formed the Church of God in Christ, two denominations that remain today.
The fusion of holiness and slave religion in the service of a folk culture that secured an African identity had a powerful effect on the “saints.” One can see this impact particularly in the 1950s with the emergence of Jazz artists like Charles Mingus who consciously mined their holiness heritage as a resource for their music. Mingus recalled in his own family the tension between going to the local African Methodist Episcopal church with his father and then going to the holiness church with his mother. This tension stemmed from the broader struggle to define African-American religious life. Mingus sought to bring the ecstasy and struggle of holiness worship into Jazz compositions such as “Haitian Fightin’ Song” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” These Jazz tunes are replete with the worship of the holiness and Pentecostal churches. Indeed, they are so filled with the call-and-response dynamic of holiness worship that many Pentecostals and holiness folks would recognize Mingus’ shouts and call outs immediately. They provide a musical counterpart to the intense worship and refusal to surrender to the forces of death.
In addition to the Jazz of the 1950s, many African-American artists began to cross over from gospel to pop. Sam Cooke, whose father was a minister in Charles Price Jones’ Church of Christ Holiness denomination, was one such artist. Cooke’s final song “A Change is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the black struggle for civil rights after his tragic death in 1964. One can detect holiness themes in the song, especially in the final stanza: “Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” There is a persistence, a perseverance that echoes the holiness optimism and refusal to surrender. This optimism came from the confidence that the saint had experienced God’s presence in the context of worship.
What one sees in Charles Mingus’ Jazz compositions and Sam Cooke’s movement from gospel to soul music is the power of folk culture. Each in his own way attests to the success of Jones’ and Mason’s efforts to preserve slave religion within a holiness and Pentecostal ethos. From this angle, one can also appreciate the challenges in Orthodox Christianity over ethnic enclaves of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. Greeks, Copts, Russians, etc., want to preserve the relationship between folk culture and religion as a way of transmitting their identity to a new generation.
The fusion of holiness and African-American spirituality represented by Jones and Mason shows the limitations of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture model. Both men were deeply invested in the facilitation and propagation of folk culture as the means to sustain the black family in the south and during the Great Migration to the northern cities. With its emphasis on encounter with the divine and separation from the world, the message of holiness provided a vehicle by which to preserve a way of life and empower a people. Such an approach simultaneously affirmed and developed a folk culture while eschewing an encroachment of a broader culture that attempted to assimilate African Americans into an “American” way of life. It is no mistake that during the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, musicians like Charles Mingus and Sam Cooke would draw on these deep resources to fuel their own “black consciousness,” a consciousness that connected their identity to a folk culture forged at the intersection of region, religion, and family. It was this folk culture that maintained an enchanted world and inspired them to tame it through their own creativity.