The history, legacy and future of the Black Church

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Howard University professor Yolanda Pierce talks with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian about the origins of the Black church from slavery to the Civil Rights movement and it’s legacy to Black activists and Liberation.  

Pierce was the first woman appointed dean in the Divinity School’s 150-year history.  She describes her upbringing attending a storefront church, often four days a week. a When she left for college at 16, she thought she would never enter a church again. “I had enough church in my life, but God has a sense of humor, because now I am the Dean of a Divinity School,” she says. “I spent almost all of my free time in churches or at various religious institutions.”  

Under the tutelage of Princeton University’s Cornel West, she learned the value, beauty, and traditions of African American culture, which propelled her career studying Black religious history and womanist theology. 

The following excerpts from the interview have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: : Three hundred or four hundred years ago, when Africans arrived enslaved into the US, what religious practices did they bring with them and what was the African American experience with the church? 

Yolanda Pierce: “It's really important for us to remember that although enslaved Africans were stripped of almost everything — their names, any property they tried to bring with them, their original languages, their sense of the sacred — a notion of God, a notion of something bigger and larger, was able to survive the Middle Passage. And it's important to remember that Christianity itself was birthed in an African cradle and African peoples had a long standing tradition with Christianity as well as Islam in addition to other African traditional religions. 

What they encountered in North America primarily, was a westernized Christianity, but it was a Christianity they did not adopt wholesale. They adapted it and transformed it to meet their own needs and their own purposes.”

KCRW: When do we see congregations of Black churches crop up. What were those like?  

Pierce: “Some African American congregations were [founded] because they were not allowed to worship at white churches. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which is the oldest African American denomination in this country, really is founded as a protest movement. They were worshipping at a white church, [then] two African American men went to the altar to pray at the front of the church. They were physically violently removed from that church. And so they started the first African American church and the first African American denomination.

So many of them were literally birthed out of a protest against racism, out of a protest of having to sit at the back of the church or having to sit in the balcony of the church. Some of these churches were really born out of the traditions of many enslaved Africans worshipping outdoors in the hollows and the hills and the secret places. We call it the invisible institution, that even if they were allowed to worship at white churches, and did so on a regular basis, they would have separate secret services. Some of those services were for the purpose of running away from enslavement, but many of them were for the purposes of worship and catharsis and having a space of your own, and having a space where you were not under white surveillance, as they may have been within white churches.”

KCRW: Talk about the rise of the Black preacher, which has become so seminal and so unique in Black American history.  How did some of these figures shape the church?

Pierce: “There's nothing really in history like the African American preacher. The African American preacher emerges as sort of a mythic figure, kind of like a John Henry. The preacher is gifted rhetorically,  can preach and can teach, but the preacher is also someone who is politically politically savvy. And so he  —or now we can include she — but predominantly  he would be the person who really was an intercessor between Black culture, Black tradition, and a larger white world and culture. 

When you look at a figure like Martin Luther King, you have someone who is highly educated, has a PhD is an academic, but he is also a preacher and a civil rights leader. Look at someone like Jesse Jackson, who is the last of that generation that embodied what it meant to fuse political leadership and activism — also with this really serious sense of religiosity — and that religious fervor and, of course. [who was] birthed out of enslavement. 

If you look at the history of enslavement in this nation, the first African Americans to learn how to read or write were often the preachers. They sometimes were allowed access to the Bible. Or they stole learning, as we would say, and learned how to read the Bible, and that person generally was the most educated person on the plantation. 

So the Sunday school that is birthed in Black churches wasn't necessarily to teach the stories of the Bible but it was literally school on Sunday to teach for enslaved and formerly enslaved men and women to read and write. So the wedding of political and social activism — the justice-oriented sense with religiosity, caring for the community and a theological figure — becomes wed within the tradition of the Black preacher.”

I am interested in what your thoughts are on the Church’s role in Black Lives Matter? How have some of the conservative Black churches responded?

Pierce: “The Black Lives Matter movement has been quite vocal, and rightfully so that this generation and moment is not going to be dependent upon whether or not the Black church is involved.  Fifty years ago, it would be unthinkable for a major political movement within the African American context to not be founded in a church. But the Black Lives Matter movement started organically, it's not connected to a church or key religious leaders. 

The critique leveled at the church is that ministers and church folks are too relaxed, too lenient, not aggressive enough, not marching, not rallying, not protesting, too comfortable. It’s an important critique that is coming from a new generation of activists who care deeply about social justice, but aren't necessarily tied to a religious faith.

It is a very, very different way of doing justice work. The church might have a ‘get out the vote’ drive or ‘souls to the polls’ drive but Black Lives Matter protesters are saying voting is insufficient; it’s one thing but it can't be the only thing. They are pressing the church to do more, to be more active,  more vocal. And I think that this is a great moment of critique.

Some preachers and pastors are taking up that banner and [are calling] for social justice. But there are some whose theology is quite traditional. And so if you have a movement that saying: we’re gay and trans and LGBT and cisgender: we’re young: we're old: we’re able-body: we're folks with disabilities and it extends past the orthodoxy of the traditional Christian Church; the Christian church often does not know how to respond to that.

I'm also very heartened to see some Black churches that are growing and shifting and changing. And I would simply say they have to shift and change if they want to stay relevant. You have to listen to what people are talking about in their current political context. 

Black churches have to ask themselves the question, do we want to survive for the next 100, 200 years as we've survived for the past 300 years? And if the answer is yes, then they have to have space and room for everyone with their multiple identities, including their sexual orientation, their gender expression; they have to have space for that.”

Can the Black Lives Matter movement exist on a secular level or does there need to be a religious or spiritual component to go along with it for the long term? 

Pierce: “It’s a deeply spiritual movement. People are thinking about what matters in life, about questions of justice. For me, justice is theological; it’s tied to the spiritual. So in order to sustain this movement, it has to be spiritual, but it does not have to be religious. But it’s also important for our churches, mosques and temples to really take stock of what it means when people are having spiritual awakenings, especially when they're not necessarily having those spiritual awakenings tied to a particular religious tradition.”



  • Yolanda Pierce - Professor and Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. Previously she was the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies and Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary where her research specialties included African American Religious History and Womanist Theology. - @YNPierce


Andrea Brody