*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 24th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Damon in Auburn, Alabama wrote a question- real fast- I love Alabama. I’ve been there a few times—lots of friendly people. The Auburn Tigers should have beaten Alabama earlier this year; that would have made a better playoff. Secondly, you are not far from Huntsville, also known as Rocket City- I am currently wearing a shirt of the finest minor league baseball team in the land- the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
The question: Damon recently watched the PBS two-part special the Black Church in America and wondered if the Black Church in America is an anomaly- that is, is there anything like a black/white divide in the church’s history?
So many places to go here- first: the black church or the distinction between white and black churches is a primarily American phenomenon. However, having separate churches based on ethnic differences, cultural differences, etc.…is nothing new.
And with churches divided into cultural, political, or ethnic lines, some suffer from an imbalance of power- culturally and politically.
This historical imbalance that the black church in America has experienced has referred to itself as the “invisible institution.” At first, invisibility was necessary. Enslaved people congregating could be seen as a threat to the establishment. When enslaved people gathered for the church, they were often denied having a black pastor preach to them. Still, someone brought in by the plantation masters to make sure the freedom offered in the Gospel wasn’t suggested as some absolute freedom in the here and now.
I’m speaking in thumbnail sketches- and I have had to learn and continue to learn from scholars of the Black Church in America and those who make up the Black Church today.
And of course, I can hear those saying, “We shouldn’t have a black church! We should have church! And Amen to that. But when your very humanity has been called into question and paths for education and ordination are primarily unavailable or closed, you might expect new approaches and churches to start to develop out of necessity.
Let me finish with a few thoughts- and please don’t think I have said everything that can be displayed on this question.
The Black Church (and as for defining that phrase, I’ll leave it to others for now- that PBS doc is excellent on this, though). The historic black church was not just a place for an hour or two on Sunday. It could be a literal lifeline for people holding on to the hope of Jesus when that’s about all they had. In this way, it is closer to the New Testament church than many of our affluent American megachurches.
Secondly, church life was all-encompassing- it was where the Gospel was preached and the center of cultural life. In this sense, it is closer to the Medieval and Early Modern Church that was at the center of town, both literally and figuratively.
And this of necessity! These were people who could understand the story of the Exodus in a way that others couldn’t. Freedom from bondage wasn’t just a theological notion- but one as accurate as it could be.
I don’t always do this- but if you go to the rough transcript and notes for today’s show, you will find a link to a recent study by the Pew Research Center on the history, present, and possible future of the Black church in America- https://www.pewforum.org/2021/02/16/faith-among-black-americans/.
Damon, thanks for the question- if you all haven’t heard, next week marks the beginning of the Christian History Almanac Weekend Edition. One of my goals is to dig in a little deeper on questions like this and bring in other voices in short edited interviews.
The Last Word for today comes from Galatians- that great statement of Christian unity that was likely used as part of a baptismal liturgy Galatians 3:26-28:
26 You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither enslaved person nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of January 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite minor league baseball teams include the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, and the Binghampton Rumble Ponies. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose mood today depends on what happened yesterday with the Rams, which is still tomorrow for me now. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.