African-American religion is a tale of creative and variety. Africans was transported and enslaved in the New World beginning in the 15th century, in which brought them a wide range of local religious beliefs and practices. Islam had a powerful presence in Africa for several centuries well before the start of the slave trade. An estimated twenty percent of enslaved people were practicing Muslims, and some retained elements of their practices and beliefs well into the nineteenth century.
Preserving African religions in North America proved to be very difficult. The harsh circumstances under which most slaves lived, high death rates, the separation of their families, and the concerned effort of white owners to eradicate non-Christians, rendered the preservation of religious traditions difficult and often unsuccessful. Isolated songs, rhythms, movements, and beliefs did survived well into the nineteenth century. But these increasingly were combined in creative ways with the various forms of Christianity to which the European Americans introduced and forced on the African slaves.
In Latin America, where Catholicism was most prevalent, slaves mixed African beliefs and practices with Catholic rituals and theology, resulting in the formation of a entirely new religions such as vaudou in Haiti (later referred to as “voodoo”). North American slaves came into contact with the growing number of Protestant evangelical preachers, many of whom actively sought the conversion of African Americans.
By 1810 the slave trade in United States also came to an end and the slave population began to increase naturally making way for the preservation and transmission of religious practices. This transition coincided with the period of intense religious revivalism known as the “awakening”. In the southern states there was an increasing numbers of slaves converted to evangelical religions such as Methodist and Baptist faiths. Many clergy taught on the idea that all Christians were created equal in the sight of GOD, a message that provided hope and sustenance to slaves. The clergy also encouraged worship in ways that many Africans found to be similar, or at least adaptable, to African worship patterns, with enthusiastic singing, clapping, dancing, and even spirit-possession. Many white slave owners insisted that their slaves attend white controlled only churches, since many whites did feared that if slaves were allowed to worship independently the would ultimately plot rebellion against them. It is clear that many blacks saw these white churches and ministers promoting obedience to one’s master as the highest religious ideal, African Americans saw this as a mockery of the true Christian message of equality and liberation as they knew it.
In the northern states, freed African Americans enjoyed a greater, if not yet equal, measure of freedom. Like their southern counterparts, they, too, were drawn to evangelical Protestant churches, and were encouraged by the message of racial equality that they found there. Yet while spiritual equality was preached frequently, it was not always practiced. By the 1790s, as more and more migrants fled southern states and settled in northern cities, some white evangelical leaders sought to control black members by seating them separately and by strengthening white control over the churches.
Black leaders such as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, many of whom were educated, literate, and ready to organize, began to desire their own independent black churches. In cities with large numbers of freed blacks such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, leaders broke away from white Methodists and Baptists. By 1816, the first independent black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, came into existence, and was quickly followed by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821.
In these independent churches, African Americans combined evangelical zeal with work on behalf of struggling free blacks and antislavery advocacy. Because limited educational and vocational opportunities were open to blacks in northern states, churches also served as schools, training centers, and centers of community organization. Many of the early black newspapers published were facilitated or spearheaded by black clergy, and thus the churches helped to bring African Americans across distances together into a more self-conscious community. They also linked African Americans to wider networks of evangelical life in Great Britain, the Caribbean, and the small communities of migrants who were moving to the colonies of Sierra Leone and Liberia after the 1820s, thereby sowing the seeds for an international “Pan-African” movement. Indeed, some of the first “black nationalists,” leaders who advocated for the full rights of African Americans and who favored a worldwide political movement of African-descended peoples, were Protestant clergy.
In recent years have scholars begun to investigate the varieties of African-American religious experience in nineteenth-century America. They argued that Christianity had prevented blacks from doing more to further their own political causes by encouraging submission to authority and passivity in the face of violence.
Two debates have occupied much of the literature on African-American religions over the last several decades. The first surrounds arguments about the extent of African survivals in black Christian traditions: to what extent did over 400 years of forced exile and enslavement eradicate African customs altogether? And if Equally prominent has been the question of whether Christianity was, in retrospect, a helpful or harmful ideology for slaves and free blacks.