Because many preachers were uneducated, on the other hand, they were also criticised as impediments to the broader African-American freedom struggle. The younger generation, declared Frederick Douglass in 1883, demanded 'an educated, chaste and upright ministry. These old-fashioned preachers minister to passion, decry the intellect, and induce contentment in ignorance and stupidity, and are hence a hindrance to progress.' Because ministers were often thrust into the uneasy position of mediating between dominant white political and economic interests and a subordinate black constituency, they were sometimes criticised as too compliant to whites.23

Ministers symbolised the ambiguous role of the churches in the African-American struggle for civil, political and economic justice during Reconstruction and into the early twentieth century. Black theology remained rooted in a prophetic conviction of divine deliverance, and churches were often centres of protest, of political organisation and, when and wherever African Americans held the franchise, of voter mobilisation. In retaliation, many churches were torched by white vigilantes. During the 1870s, federal protection for African-American rights receded, launching a new era of black disenfranchisement, white terrorist violence and Jim Crow segregation, culminating in the notorious 'separate but equal' Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling of 1896. Many church leaders decried the racism and killings, but in local communities across the country the church often served less as an axis of overt political protest than as a psychological sanctuary or protective shell against the abuse. Preachers who saw all too often the consequences of resistance counselled patience and caution to their flocks, fuelling further criticism from progressive black leaders that churches were bastions of social conservatism.

None the less, churches anchored the black community in crucial ways. Most importantly, the church remained a place for joyous communal celebration of the Spirit. The music, the chanted sermon, the participation of the congregation, made worship in the black church a distinctive and powerful sensory experience reinforcing the conviction of a divine presence active in the devotee's life. Churches expanded their co-operative economic self-help functions in the absence of governmental aid or social welfare organisations. Pastors helped newly emancipated people make the economic transition to freedom, emphasising from the pulpit and in Sunday school the necessity for economic and moral uplift through hard work, thrift, savings and racial solidarity Churches, mutual aid societies and fraternal organisations founded and invested in black banks and insurance companies. The church also played a

23 Montgomery, Under their own vine and fig tree, pp. 54, 307-32.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment