The History Of The Black Church

When President-elect Barack Obama spoke of the "black church" during his now-famous speech on race and religion, it was clear what he meant. But some historians who focus on African-American religion say the term "black church" is passe.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Before he was elected president, Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia about the roles of race and religion in American life. In that speech, he talked about his church in Chicago and other black churches throughout the country. He said they are places that house both the love and the bitterness that make up the black experience in America. But as Monique Parsons reports from Chicago, some people argue not all black churches are alike.

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MONIQUE PARSONS: People seek out churches for lots of reasons, inspiration, a relationship with God, a sense of community. Derek Bounds was looking for history, and he found it. Earlier this year, the Chicago musician joined Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black congregation in Chicago.

The stone and brick exterior first caught his eye. But the story pinned by the door of the Fellowship Hall drew him in. Free men and former slaves built the church in 1893. Its founders first met for prayer in 1844.

Mr. DEREK BOUNDS (Musician, Chicago): When I first heard that, I really didn't think of black people even being in Chicago at that time. I was still thinking, OK, we're in the South.

PARSONS: Bounds says he chose this congregation because, like Barack Obama, he finds inspiration in such a historic community of faith.

Mr. BOUNDS: Well, when I think about the black church, when I hear that term, I think about all of the sacrifices for myself. I think of all of the sacrifices that have come from our black ancestors.

Dr. CURTIS EVANS (Divinity School, University of Chicago): I think it's kind of a hold-over from the past.

PARSONS: Curtis Evans teaches African-American religious history at the University of Chicago. He understands many people like to speak of the black church, but he's one of several young scholars who say it's time to ban the term.

Dr. EVANS: We say that there should be a moratorium simply because the notion of the black church, this persisting notion obscures the diversity of African-American religious life.

PARSONS: That history is a lively corner of the academy these days, and not just because race and religion were hot issues in the presidential campaign. Combing through archives and attics, doing field research far from church pulpits and the press, historians are breaking new ground. Paul Harvey teaches history at the University of Colorado.

Dr. PAUL HARVEY (Department of History, University of Colorado): We have a tendency to think that there's this thing called American religion, and then there's this other thing called black religion or African-American religion or something. And it's important to understand how much those two were connected from the very beginning.

PARSONS: Harvey met with colleagues in Chicago recently for a sort of state of the union of his field. Their scholarship places African-American religion in a more global context and in a brutal, complex world, where blacks and whites interacted far more than most people think.

They met to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Albert Raboteau's book, "Slave Religion." It tells the story of how African slaves didn't just absorb their slaveholder's Christian faith. They adapted it, blended it with African customs, and made it their own. The slave trade itself forced worlds together, connecting Europe and Africa with the Caribbean and the American mainland.

Dr. HARVEY: I always say, you know, globalization started in the 16th century, 15th century. So, these globalization discussions are not new.

PARSONS: This story of the early multicultural America fascinates Toni Morrison, whose latest novel breathes life into the racial and religious hodgepodge of 17th-century America. It also inspires Jalane Schmidt, a young professor at the University of Virginia. She studies Caribbean folk religions, like Santeria and Voodoo, to see how Africans in the Americas shaped new traditions. And while the Reverend Martin Luther King famously called Sunday worship the most segregated hour in America, Schmidt teaches her students American Protestantism caught fire in a very different world.

Dr. JALANE SCHMIDT (Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia): During the Great Awakening, especially the first Great Awakening in the late 18th century, blacks and whites were going to those camp meetings together. There was a lot of borrowed behavior going back and forth.

PARSONS: Many whites disapproved of this mixing, Schmidt adds, and the contacts could be fraught with tension and pain. Schmidt and her colleagues watched with fascination this year as race and religion and their own scholarship became dinner-table debate during Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Many historians saw their research jumping off the page.

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PARSONS: Back at Quinn Chapel AME Church in Chicago, the Reverend James Moody says, these issues aren't simply scholarly debates, and he commends Barack Obama for bringing race and faith into the national conversation. Moody was in his car when Obama's speech on religion and race came on the radio. He pulled over and listened to every word.

Reverend JAMES MOODY (Quinn Chapel AME, Chicago): I thought it was just, I think, a watershed moment in American history, actually. And we'll see. When you and I are gone, and the history books talk about that speech and the changes that came out of it through this election, we'll see what history says, right?

PARSONS: All around him, Reverend Moody sees myths falling - in the election, yes, but also in the delicate brown-skinned Jesus painted above his altar 50 years before the black power movement and in his solid stone church, built by a community of free men and ex-slaves in the cruel era of Jim Crow. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons in Chicago.

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