African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Global Phase

Part Three: African-American Religion—The Global Phase, 1906–Present

     The period from 1906 to the present is the global phase of African-American religious history.

     The global era begins when the maturation of the United States as a fully transcontinental nation binds together in a new way the Atlantic world and the Pacific world. California was a crucial link in this chain of connection—and the year 1906 was an especially memorable one in California. The great San Francisco earthquake occurred that spring. In the fall, in the midst of growing controversy surrounding Asian immigration to the West Coast, the San Francisco Board of Education decided to segregate its Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students into separate schools—a decision that provoked a vigorous protest from the government of Japan. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a southern black preacher, William J. Seymour, was presiding over the spiritually intense and racially inclusive Azusa Street revival meetings—a landmark event in the history of the most expansive Christian movement of the twentieth century, Pentecostalism.

     Seymour, born in Louisiana, was the son of ex-slaves. His movement from the South to the Midwest and then on to California is emblematic of the wider migration of African Americans in the twentieth century. In great waves triggered by the First and then the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of blacks left the South for the cities of the North, the Midwest, and the West. Like Seymour (and unlike York, the slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific century earlier), they went because they chose to do so. They went as free people, not slaves. But if Seymour’s travels are prophetic of the way African Americans in the twentieth century chose to spread themselves more widely across the whole North American continent, his career also foreshadows their increased involvement with the entire globe. Writing about the Azusa Street meetings, Seymour placed them on a worldwide landscape. “People of all nations came and got their cup full, ” he said. “Some came from Africa, some came from India, China, Japan, and England.” Rhetoric such as this, which reaches both eastward back to Africa and Europe and westward to Asia, and connects the whole world to a spiritual event occurring in a largely black context in California, signals the beginning of a new era in African-American religious history.

     In this global era, to put it abstractly, African-American religion develops in the context of a set of sustained and interrelated human interactions that are increasingly worldwide in their extent. In many ways, African Americans more and more find their own religious lives intertwined with those of diverse peoples everywhere. To use an economic analogy, one might say that in the increasingly global “free market” in religious ideas, practices, and institutions, African Americans have become both worldwide “buyers” and “sellers.” It has been estimated, for example, that about one-fourth the membership of the Soka Gakkai International–USA, the American offshoot of a Japanese Buddhist movement, is African-American. The image of East German Protestants, singing “We Shall Overcome” as part of their effort to bring down the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, is just one late twentieth-century example of the reverse process. But the global era is not simply about such religious exchanges. It also involves a growing tendency among African Americans—as evident in William Seymour’s reflections on the Azusa Street meetings—to see their destiny, in religious terms, in relation to all the world’s peoples. Especially, to other peoples of color.

     If African Americans were “on their own” in the continental phase of their history, they become increasingly less so after 1906. The religious links among Africans, African Americans in the Caribbean and South America, and persons of African descent in the United States—so important during the Atlantic world phase—have once again grown in importance in the global phase of African-American religious history. One early example of such reconnections is evident in the career of Bishop Charles Manual (also known as Emmanuel) “Daddy” Grace, who gained prominence in the twenties and thirties as the charismatic founder of the United House of Prayer for All People. He was an immigrant from the Cape Verde Islands, which had been from the late fifteenth century an important part of the African-Portuguese Atlantic. Many more such examples can be found in the lives of the thousands of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who have entered the United States since American immigration laws were rewritten in the mid-1960s. Especially striking is the growing practice in North America of such African-Caribbean religions as Santería and Vodou.

     A reappearance of Islam in the religious lives of African Americans is another important feature of the global era. This has been brought about in part by the emergence, between the two world wars, of indigenous Islamicizing movements such as the Nation of Islam. Especially in their early days, these movements have eclectically blended elements of classical Islam with beliefs and practices drawn from Christianity, Freemasonry, and a variety of New Age religious movements. Among such groups, there has also sometimes appeared a vivid restatement of the belief, already evident on occasion among black Protestants during the continental era, in a coming racial apocalypse, when white people in general and America in particular would suffer violent retribution for their sins against blacks. Especially as the twentieth century has advanced, however, the practice of Islam among African Americans has more and more been shaped by their participation in forms of Islam brought to the United States by immigrant Muslims from many lands. Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca in 1964 remains an especially vivid moment in the twentieth-century reconnection of African Americans to the international world of Islam.

     Among those African Americans defining themselves religiously in relation to the great religions of the Mideast, some have looked to Judaism rather than Christianity or Islam. A number of movements have emerged, some ambiguously related to both Christianity and Judaism, that have in one way or another identified African Americans as the true descendants of the ancient Hebrews. African Americans in the global era have also sometimes traveled—both literally and figuratively—far beyond Jerusalem and Mecca in their quest for religious insight and new religious identities. Well before Martin Luther King, Jr. made Gandhian nonviolence a central feature of the civil rights movement, there was serious African-American interest in Gandhi and his teachings. Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, a powerful religious force in urban black America in the second quarter of the twentieth century, drew on “harmonial” religious currents in American religion which themselves often carry the mark, in however altered form, of eastern religion. The attraction of some African Americans to the Soka Gakkai movement from Japan has already been noted.

     Black Christianity, which continues by far the majority force in African-American religious life, has itself been touched in many ways by the changing realities of the global age. African-American Catholics, while still “a minority within a minority,” have significantly grown in number in the twentieth century. So have the number of blacks identifying with the Eastern Christian tradition. The great black Baptist and Methodist denominations have been rivaled and sometimes eclipsed by Holiness and Pentecostal churches, most especially by the Church of God in Christ. Founded as a Holiness church in 1897 and aligning itself with Pentecostalism a decade later, it is well on its way to becoming the largest and most important African American Protestant denomination. Blacks are also to be found across the entire spectrum of other Christian groups. In the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993, for example, one third of those killed were blacks. Beyond their own increasing diversity, black Christians in the United States have increasingly been affected in a myriad of other ways. In the 1930s, for example, Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman, Benjamin Mays, and Channing Tobias, four influential African-American Protestant leaders, all met with Mahatma Gandhi. In the late twentieth century, leaders of the Black Theology movement began an extended dialogue not only with African Christian theologians, but with proponents of Christian liberation theologies from around the globe.

     A particularly striking, if little known, example of these growing ties between African-American Christians and other persons of color is evident in a leaflet written in the 1930s by Francis Grimké, the biracial nephew of the abolitionist Grimké sisters and a prominent Presbyterian pastor in Washington, D.C. It concerned the influential Japanese Christian and social activist Toyohiko Kagawa and is available on this website. “There is no man in all the world today . . . that shows more of what Christianity can do for humanity . . . ,” said Grimké of Kagawa. And, he added, “I thank God that he is not of this great white race, that thinks that it alone is the favorite of heaven . . .” Grimké’s leaflet is one instance among many of the identification of twentieth-century black Americans with the struggle of all the darker peoples of the world against European and European-American colonial hegemony in Africa and Asia.

     Issues of gender, so salient in the world of American religion and themselves very much shaped by their global context, have also become increasingly sharply debated in late twentieth century African-American religion. Debates among African-Americans about the advance of Islam, for example, often turn on questions about Muslim traditions concerning the role of women. The issue of women’s place in the clergy, already raised within the black Protestant churches during the continental phase, and debated intermittently throughout the twentieth century, has become even more intense in recent decades. Black woman theologians have put their own Womanist Theology beside the Black Theology developed by male theologians. Meanwhile, women continue, as they have in the past, to exercise prominent leadership roles in many black religious communities, both beyond and within the Christian churches. It was Neely Terry, a black woman active in Holiness circles, who was responsible for bringing William J. Seymour to Los Angeles.

     For bibliographical suggestions about the study of black church history (including many sources for the history of the black churches during the global phase) see “Retelling Carter Woodson’s Story” and “African-American Religious History, 1919–1939.”

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African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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