The Invisible Institution: What the Black Church Reveals about Religious Freedom

By Rev. Jaimie D. Crumley

On Thursday, February 4, 2021, Charles Watson Jr., the director of education at BJC, shared a stimulating conversation with the Rev. William H. Lamar IV, the pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C. They discussed what the Black Church teaches America about faith freedom. I respond to their conversation as a Black woman ordained in the American Baptist tradition and a Black feminist intellectual historian who studies the lives and theologies of Black Christian women in 18th and 19th century America. It is an honor to join this conversation in the month of February as we celebrate the contributions that people of African descent have made to all aspects of American society.

To study Black American History without also examining the Black Church’s role in American History and culture is to miss a fundamental piece of Black American History. As historians Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Barbara Dianne Savage have elucidated in their work on the 20th century Black Church, the Black Church has long held a central place in Black social, political, and theological life. Yet, the history of Black religiosity is much longer than the past 150 years. As historian Albert Raboteau argued in his monograph Slave Religion, the Black Church was an invisible institution in the plantation South where Black believers could express their faith in meaningful and life-giving ways.

I share this historical commentary about the Black Church to situate the Black Church as what it is: a diverse and varied institution that is visible (the local church) and invisible (the prayer closet, the street corner, the barbershop or beauty parlor, the nightclub). The Black Church is rooted in the refusal of people of African descent living in the United States to accept the anti-Black doctrines of white supremacist Christian theology in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also rooted in, as Rev. Lamar articulated, long-standing African epistemologies of the Divine. Just as non-Black Christians live and believe in a multiplicity of ways, so too do Black Christians. At its best, the Black Church represents a broad tapestry of faith to which Black people of all genders, social classes, ages, and sexual orientations contribute.

The diverse community called the Black Church offers a challenge to U.S. imperialism. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (founded in 1794) is the oldest institutional Black American denominational church. Leaving white Methodist churches to create a church by and for people of African descent represented the refusal of Black Methodists in Philadelphia to be assaulted by their fellow Christians while they were in worship. The church’s founding reflected a long legacy of Black religiosity in the Americas. The AME church affirmed a long-standing tradition of the syncretic nature of African American Christianity, which was steeped both in African religions and European religions. It repudiated the centering of whiteness in the practice of the Christian faith. Furthermore, it rejected the violent settler state that thrives on dispossession and social death. AME Church history affirms that Black people are humans, made in God’s image, with rich social and intellectual lives. Since the late 18th century, independent Black Baptist, Episcopal, Congregational, Pentecostal, and Catholic Churches have made the same claim.

Those who are interested in what the Black Church has to say about religious liberty must focus less on the witness of the “visible” Black Church and more on that of the “invisible” Black Church. Today there are many independent institutional Black churches, but the invisible Black Church is still with us. The invisible Black Church is the space that potentially has the most to teach us about the Baptist notion of “soul freedom.” A term coined by church historian Walter Shurden, “soul freedom” points to the historic affirmation of each person’s right to deal with God without the imposition of creed, clergy, or civil government. Black Christians of all ages, genders, social classes, and sexual orientations are pushing the boundaries of orthodoxy in ways that, if taken seriously, will reanimate institutional Christianity. Some of the theological visions advanced by young, female, and LGBTQ+ Black Christians reveal the urgent adaptations we must make if we wish to see the Kingdom of God made manifest in the here and now.

Rev. Jaimie D. Crumley (she/her/hers) serves as the Virtual Ministry Associate at the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. She is also a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Jaimie is a 2016 BJC Fellow.