The Black Church, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Press, 2021.
Summary: A companion to the PBS series on the Black church, surveying the history of the Black church in America focusing on why the church has been central to the life of the Black community.
It is practically a truism that the church is a central reality in the Black experience, and in many local Black communities. But why is this? That is the question Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores in this companion book to the PBS series, “The Black Church.”
Gates contends that the church provided a place, first of all, for refuge that they could control and find hope in, when they were brutally subjugated, whether under slavery or Jim Crow. It was fascinating to learn that Spanish Catholics were responsible for the conversions of African-Americans in the early year. Gates also traces the elements of Muslim and traditional religion back to the earliest periods of slavery. White slave owners often were resistant to the conversion of slaves, recognizing the liberating messages to be found in the Bible, Anglican missionaries persuaded slave owners that it could be taught in ways that supported their control. What they couldn’t control was the introduction of music and dance that reflected African heritage, including the “ring shout.” and the unofficial gatherings in “praise houses.”
Many more were converted during the Methodist revivals, but when they were segregated, Richard Allen led the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Gates traces how the church increasingly becomes a force for abolition (and in the case of Nat Turner, for uprising) as well as renewal. Then with Emancipation, Gates traces the further growth of the churches of the south, the Bible women who helped spread the gospel message, and the “frenzy” that presaged Pentecostalism, which can trace its roots to William Joseph Seymour, who led the Azusa Street Revival, leading to the formation of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal body in the country.
With the Great Migration, Gates traces the growth of Black megachurches in northern cities like Chicago and New York, and with this the growth of Gospel music from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Shirley Caesar, and from this, the development of blues and jazz. This led to a growing tension between the music of the clubs on Saturday night and the music of the service on Sunday. The music and the preaching connected, nowhere more so than at the March on Washington when Mahalia Jackson urged King to “Tell them about the dream.” The gospel songs morphed into the freedom songs and sustained the movement.
Gates describes the period after King as a “crisis of faith.” He describes the development of Black theology, including the thought of James Cone and Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who married the Obamas. He observes the tensions around sexuality, the patriarchy of churches, and the conservatism around LGBT sexuality as well as the ascent of Blacks into the middle class, the ministries of pastors like T.D. Jakes, and how Obama revealed different sides of the church to white America. The chapter concludes with the resurgent white nationalism and Black Lives Matter.
An epilogue traces Gates own religious journey, his decision to join the church, his fear of “the Frenzy” and speaking in tongues and the irony that DuBois “Talented Tenth” were less the missionaries of culture than the Pentecostals, whose experience did more to uplift the marginalized. Gates observes that the experiential connected back to the African religious roots of the Black church.
Gates gives us an account of the Black church that both traces history, and enriches it with interviews with contemporary Black leaders and celebrities, drawing out the experienced significance of the Black church. The church that emerges is one of refuge and uplift, of resistance and abolition, of music and ecstasy. It is also an account of Black pulpiteers and the development of Black preaching from Richard Allen to Raphael Warnock. The appendix includes an alphabetical list of the great preachers of the Black church. Here as throughout this history, Gates does not confine his account to Christians, including figures like Malcolm X.
As history, this is more popular survey than an in-depth, scholarly account. Gates use of contemporary interviews interlaced with his history creates a much richer sense of the ethos of the Black church than one might get from a historical narrative alone. He captures the various ways the church epitomizes and sustains the identity of Black people. He concludes:
“It’s that cultural space in which we can bathe freely in the comfort of our cultural heritage, and where everyone knows their part, and where everyone can judge everyone else’s performance of their part, often out loud with amens, with laughter, with clapping, or with silence. It’s the space that we created to find rest in the gathering storm. It’s the place where we made a way out of no way. It’s the place to which, after a long and wearisome journey, we can return and find rest before we cross the river. It’s the place we call, simply, the Black Church” (p. 219).