African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Continental Phase

Part Two: African-American Religion—The Continental Phase, 1808–1906

     The period from 1808 to 1906 is the continental phase of African-American religious history.

     In 1803, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the United States purchased the vast Louisiana territory from France. To explore the territory, establish commercial and political ties to the major Indian nations inhabiting it, and to signal to other world powers the United States’ determination to become a transcontinental power, Jefferson despatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the head of the famous exploratory expedition that (between 1803 and 1806) trekked to the Pacific coast and back. Accompanying the expedition was Clark’s black slave, York. Coming just before the outlawing of the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, York’s participation in the Lewis and Clark expedition signals a reorientation of African-American life. While blacks in North America retained important ties of heritage and sentiment to Africa, more and more their attention was turned westward toward the interior of the continent rather than eastward across the Atlantic.

     Slavery had been a central reality shaping African-American life during the Atlantic world era. It continued to be of pervasive importance in the continental phase. But slavery, like religion, changes and develops over time and the broad historical meaning of slavery for African-Americans changed in the nineteenth century. In the period from 1441 to 1808, the blacks brought as slaves to North America were caught up in the creation and development of the Atlantic world, in which the transatlantic slave trade played a central role in bringing together in new ways African, European, and Native American peoples. After 1808, North American blacks were a central part of the great historical controversy surrounding the place of slavery in the creation of a transcontinental nation-state. Like Columbus, Lewis and Clark took the lead in projecting westward a social world in which African slavery was a central institution. But the extension of slavery into the trans-Mississippi west proved to be the most divisive issue the United States has ever faced. In the new circumstances created by the great Civil War occasioned by just this issue, slavery itself was abolished. Yet the heritage of slavery—and its relation to the American nation-state remained a defining reality for African Americans. Was the United States to be a single nation in which the basic civil and political rights of all its citizens were to be uniformly respected? Or would the former slave states of the South be allowed to lock African-Americans into second-class status—legally, politically, and economically? During the brief period of Reconstruction, it seemed that national standards of equal citizenship might prevail. But by 1905, when legal segregation had been firmly established in both the law and practice of the southern states, it seemed that most American blacks had become permanently trapped on the physical and social terrain of slavery’s legacy.

     African-American religious life during this period was fundamentally shaped by these realities. To put it abstractly, just as during the Atlantic world period African-American religious history had emerged and developed in the context of a sustained and interrelated set of human interactions mediated by the Atlantic Ocean, during the continental era African-American religious history developed in the context of interactions mediated by North American space.

     Concretely, this meant at least two things. African Americans invested much time and many resources during the continental phase in building up nationwide religious institutions. They also devoted a great deal of time and energy reckoning with the painful problem of the religious meaning of their experience of North American space.

     The great black Baptist and Methodist churches that remain such a central feature of African-American religious life were built during this period. Black Methodists took the lead in creating fully independent black denominations. The first of the major black Methodist churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in 1816. It was in many, many ways the pace-setting African-American religious group of the nineteenth century. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded in the early 1820s. A third major black Methodist denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, was established in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. (In the 1950s, it changed its name to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.) Baptists, less given than Methodists to centralized forms of organization, were slower to form stable nationwide denominations. The National Baptist Convention, destined to be the pre-eminent black church organization of the twentieth century, was founded only in 1895. (It would suffer a serious split in 1915, which yielded the very similarly named National Baptist Convention, Incorporated.) But building truly nationwide organizations was difficult for all black religious groups. Given the religiously repressive aspects of the laws regulating slave life (a subject curiously omitted from most discussions of the history of religious liberty in America), the independent black churches of the antebellum period were largely limited to the free states or the cities of the border South. Only through the politically centralizing events of the Civil War and Reconstruction did they too become fully national organizations.

     During the continental phase of African-American religious history, African-American evangelicalism gradually became the dominant form of religion among North American blacks. Rooted in the evangelical awakenings of the eighteenth century, it was an adaptation of Protestant evangelicalism to the traditions and realities of African-American life. It early found an important following among urban blacks, both slave and free, and spread widely among southern slaves in the late antebellum period. The great black Methodist and Baptist churches became its primary institutional form, but African-American evangelicals were also to be found—often in separate black congregations—in a wide range of predominantly white denominations and movements. (A notable example of African-American Presbyterianism is to be found in the life of Catherine Ferguson, an ex-slave whose piety and cheritable work among the poor children of New York City in the early nineteenth century was memorialized in an orbituary written by Lewis Tappan.) Black evangelicals did not, of course, agree about everything. There were significant differences of religious belief, style, and organization among them. Not all blacks, moreover, adhered to this tradition in any of its forms. A small but significant black Catholic population stood outside the African-American evangelical tradition. There were still Muslims among the slaves during the late antebellum period, and some residual practice of Islam may have persisted in later years. And there were, of course, among African Americans as among other Americans, many persons who cast a skeptical eye on all types of formal religious institutions while now and then adopting whatever spiritual practices seemed to promise immediate results in securing worldly well-being. But it was black evangelicalism that set the dominant tone for African-American religious life during the continental phase of its history.

     Nowhere is this more evident than in the efforts made by black Americans during the nineteenth century to grapple with the religious meaning of North American space. African-American evangelicals shared with European-American evangelicals a belief that the Bible provided not only an account of God’s past dealings with the world, but also a set of clues for deciphering the meaning of contemporary history. But they drew differently on a common stock of biblical images. White Protestants often likened America to the Promised Land. Black Protestants were more inclined to see it as Egypt, the land of their captivity—and to long for an exodus. For a while, emancipation seemed their great deliverance. Just as God had afflicted the Egyptians and brought the children of Israel safely through the Red Sea, so had God afflicted white America with the Civil War and led an African-American chosen people through the waters of war to the safe ground of freedom. But where then was the Promised Land? Throughout the increasingly trying times of the late nineteenth century, black Protestants found themselves hard-pressed to answer that question.

     Some began to think the answer lay in a coming worldwide deliverance of peoples of color. America at the turn of the century was increasingly moving out from its continental base toward a more extensive deep participation in the affairs of the entire globe. The United States was increasingly a factor in the Great Power diplomacy of Europe. The American occupation of the Philippines and annexation of Hawaii, both of which occurred in 1898, marked the arrival of the United States as a major Pacific power as well. Meanwhile, the prospect of linking its Atlantic and Pacific interests through the building of an isthmian canal embroiled the United States further in the world of Latin American politics. Such developments as these created a new international context in which African-American religion around 1906 entered the global phase of its history.

     Foreshadowings of these later developments are to be found, of course, even earlier in the nineteenth century. The United States had a growing commercial presence in the Pacific throughout the century and even during a period when America was primarily concerned with the affairs of their own continent, they had a slowly growing interest in the Pacific world as well. One thinks, for example, of Herman Melville’s experience in the South Seas in the 1840s, or Commodore Perry’s “opening” of Japan in 1854. At an even earlier point, American missionaries had begun to work in Hawaii. Among them was a black woman, Betsey Stockton, whose Journal provides an account of her voyage to was then called the Sandwich Islands and her early experiences there.

     For bibliographical suggestions about the study of black church history (including many sources for the history of the black churches during the continental phase), see “Retelling Carter Woodson’s Story.”

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African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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