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Black Christian Faith: Perennial Decline, Respectability, and “the back of the church”


Black Christian Faith: Perennial Decline, Respectability, and “the back of the church”

The sunny South–a negro revival meeting–a seeker “getting religion,” William Ludwell Sheppard, 1873 (Library of Congress)

In the wake of Black religious affiliation surveys, Afro-Protestants have often implored religious institutions (churches, denominations, colleges, associations, conventions, seminaries) to act because they are in danger of losing the youth to “the world.” Irreligion in some form, or a competing religion or spirituality, has served as an existential threat to (Black) Christianity. This perceived threat represents a narrative of Black religious decline that stretches back to preachers’ anxieties at the turn of the twentieth century—despite the endurance of Black Protestant Christianity. Black Protestants who marshal the peculiar and popular phrase “the Black Church,” formerly “the Negro Church,” presume that their religious institutions truly were all-powerful in Black culture and life before the period of decline/disenchantment—despite the relatively short history of Black Christianities in the Western world when compared to more longstanding religions, including religions with an African heritage, and despite the massive work in the wake of Emancipation to “convert” freed people from their “slave religions” to proper Black Protestantism. The perceived decline of Afro-Protestantism justifies a call for Black churches to “modernize,” whether through cultural reforms, home missions, or organizing and advocating pressing social/political/economic concerns. There is no shortage of irony: since the twentieth century, polling Black religious life has persisted alongside narratives of Black Christianity’s decline, which also coexist with the growth of Black Christianity that such statistics may, in part, spur.

What aspects of Afro-Protestantism account for how African Americans grow, maintain, sustain, “return to,” or “age into” (in)visible institutions of religious/spiritual life? This question undergirds my current research as a cultural historian of African American religions. My first book centered the world of jazz to locate the cultural…

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