May 12, 1999
Understanding the Role of African American Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
The word "religiocification," as in the "religiocification" of the black role in the civil rights movement, is not likely to make it into the dictionary, but one can picture what it might mean. In 1969 Clifton F. Brown spoke of 1968 as the year in which this "religiocification" began in earnest. The adjective "the Reverend" in front of the names of leaders such as King, Abernethy, Young, Bevel, Shuttlesworth, and dozens more provides a clue: religious leadership was dominant. Whoever marched with these leaders or observed them in action knew that the African American churches were prime motivators, legitimators, and organizers of the movement.
Despite that understanding and thirty years of further religiocification and despite some revealing work by historians of the African American church, the role of those churches has tended to go neglected. White church historians care about but have not generally probed the black church history, and secular historians have undervalued the role of religion in African American life. As a result, the posture of the black churches in American cities today--they and their leaders elect mayors, devise "faith-based" enterprises, offer refuge and serve to provide marching orders for ordinary people, are on the scene as no other institutions are--still goes relatively unnoticed.
According to Notre Dame's Jay Riley Case, historians who go beyond surfaces are discovering, often to their own amazement, that black religion is the main "skeletal" element in African American history and contemporary life. In a review for EVANGELICAL STUDIES BULLETIN (email@example.com; Web site: www.wheaton.edu/isae), Case probes Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood's COME SHOUTING TO ZION and Michael A. Gomez's EXCHANGING OUR COUNTRY MARKS, both from the University of North Carolina Press. We can't in this small space go into either Case's or their nuances, but we can call attention to the main themes.
First, African Americans did bring to America many African impulses and modes of response to the sacred. Second, they had been ethnically or "tribally" diverse in Africa, but the American creation of a single racial identity tended to homogenize their experience and others' perception of them. Third, nothing did as much as religion to give shape to this identity. Fourth--no surprise in the EVANGELICAL STUDIES BULLETIN--it was evangelicalism, not establishment religion (Anglican, etc.) that met the spiritual needs of most blacks. Fifth, with no help from slaveholders, blacks used enterprise to fashion their own versions of evangelicalism. Sixth, what they came up with ennobled their lives as slaves and freemen and remains an element that goes further than most others in explaining their life today. Let's add a seventh: historians and the general public, black and nonblack alike, do well to keep their eye on the past and present of African American faith.