Churches in the Black Community Following the Civil War
The challenge facing churches—both black and white—following the Civil War is well described by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp in her essay introducing the collection:
Emancipation from slavery in 1863 posed distinctive religious challenges for African Americans in the South. When the Civil War finally brought freedom to previously enslaved peoples, the task of organizing religious communities was only one element of the larger need to create new lives--to reunite families, to find jobs, and to figure out what it would mean to live in the United States as citizens rather than property . . .
A long history of antislavery and political activity among Northern black Protestants had convinced them that they could play a major role in the adjustment of the four million freed slaves to American life. In a massive missionary effort, Northern black leaders such as Daniel A. Payne and Theophilus Gould Steward established missions to their Southern counterparts, resulting in the dynamic growth of independent black churches in the Southern states between 1865 and 1900.
After the Civil War, the separation of black and white churches continued; a new group, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America, was formed in the South as a result of this division. The Baptist church continued to increase its African American membership. According to Carter G. Woodson
The freedom, which even prior to emancipation meant so much in the growth of the Baptists, was thereafter a still greater cause for their expansion. It was easier than ever for a man to become a prominent figure in the Baptist Church. While the Methodists were hesitating as to what recognition should be allowed the Negroes or whether they should be set apart as a separate body, the Negro Baptists were realizing upon their new freedom which made possible the enjoyment of greater democracy in the church. Every man was to be equal to every other man and no power without had authority to interfere.
Read more of Woodson’s description of the black church following the Civil War. Also read Chapter I of A Plain Account of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America, by F.M. Hamilton. Read Chapters II and III of Once a Methodist; Now a Baptist. Why? by Eugene J. Carter.
- List as many causes of the splits among various denominations as you can identify. On the basis of what you have learned about these causes, describe briefly how events in different spheres, such as the economic, political, or religious, influence each other.
- What reasons does Carter give for becoming a Baptist after many years as a Methodist? Are his views in line with Woodson’s analysis quoted above? Why or why not?
Churches, both Northern and Southern, black and white, sought to help the freedmen by sending missionaries, establishing schools and seminaries, and providing for basic needs of the people. A number of titles in the collection recount this work. Read, for example, from Methodist Adventures in Negro Education or In Christ’s Stead: Autobiographical Sketches.
- Who are the authors of these two works? To what denominations did they belong? What race was each?
- What kinds of work do they describe? Do you think this work was important in the post-Civil War South? Why or why not?
- What evidence of prejudice or condescension can you find in these works? List phrases or sentences that give you clues as to negative views towards African Americans, even from individuals trying to help the freedmen. What might have been the effects of these attitudes?
Black churches in the post-Civil War era were also engaged in missionary work, particularly in Africa. Read one of the following documents to learn more about these missionaries:
What were the goals of African American missionaries in Africa? How did they finance their work? What attitudes towards Africans are apparent in their writing?