A lot of African Americans grow up in the Christian church. The church is a huge part of our culture and in some aspects has even accompanied or inspired the people of our decent in times of struggle. In fact, the bible was one of the main tools used to teach black slaves how to read in the 1800’s. We are taught when we are young to have faith in the Lord and to trust in him. We have even created our own traditions within this religion that have shaped the black community.
It was instilled within us that God is the Supreme Being and Lord of all creation. We were taught that church is the house of God: the physical place where the presence of God is manifested. In the same way that we would wear our finest clothes to meet the Queen of England, Black churchgoers dress to encounter royalty on Sunday morning. There are many other customs that were acquired in the history of black peoples relationship with Christianity, but where did it begin?
We all know we came from Africa, and while we lived there we were in different countries, had different tribes, languages and religions. When we were brought to America, we were stripped of those cultures and we had to learn a new way of communicating, thinking, and living. Through out this process we were introduced or in other words converted to Christianity.
Slaves were taken from many different parts of Africa, and therefore many different cultures
were represented plantations. In many instances, owners tried to separate those who spoke the same language in order to hinder communication. West African religions, which often emphasized the family and the community, did not make as much sense without a familiar social context.
As African beliefs were lost, it became easier for Christianity to come into the African slave’s life. Most African religions were polytheistic, meaning that they believed in many different gods. Some gods were more powerful than others. When Africans were captured and brought to America by the Europeans, they often attributed the Europeans’ power to the power of the Europeans’ God. Therefore, it was often easy for African slaves to begin to worship the victorious Christian God in place of their own Gods.
However the old gods and the old ways of worship did not disappear. Often, African practices were brought into Christianity in new and interesting ways. Enslaved Africans in Roman Catholic nations often converted easily because of Catholicism’s ability to accommodate and absorb other beliefs.
This was less common in Protestant nations, where opposition to other beliefs was much stronger. In Protestant nations, such as the United States, Christianity was much more opposed to accepting African beliefs. There were less synthesis of the two, which meant two things: fewer of the old African practices survived and those that did survive stood out in direct opposition to Christianity and remained distinct.
The most important aspect of Christianity for the enslaved was the promise of heaven made by plantation owners. This idea preached the notion that for all the suffering that is done in the physical world, your soul will be preserved and you will experience a hardship-free spiritual life.
What this did for enslaved Black people was give them hope for the future. Converted enslaved people’s belief in heaven allowed some to passively resist their plantation owners and focus on the afterlife. With that belief, all of the beatings and lashings meant nothing because in heaven the enslaved person would be rewarded and the master would be punished.
Christianity preaches a specific message to oppressed people by elevating their sense of spiritual worth. The enslaved Africans, who got no such reassurances in their everyday lives, were buoyed by Jesus’ claims of love for all individuals.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
Enslaved Africans were even able to find anti-slavery messages in Jesus’ teachings. While Jesus never specifically spoke out against slavery, he did highly praise freedom and spoke often of the equality of men before God.
Jesus said, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles god it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44) Enslaved Africans in the British colonies, and later the United States, often were able to hold their own religious services. The services were a place for people to get together and to socialize and a meeting place for friends and sweethearts.
They were often an exclusively black forum, which meant that they provided the opportunity for exercising leadership and responsibility.
They were a place where blacks could express their own cultural values without fear of reproach and also a place for recreation. Since then the black community has used this religion to nourish our evolution in an American society.
Despite Christianity replacing our belief in our former gods, we have had to overcome adversities including slavery, becoming a part of society, civil rights, and even in current situations today. African Americans have successfully used a tool meant to destroy their lives, to fight back and make a name for themselves.
Nobel Michael is a senior mass communication major from Lancaster, Calif.