"The Religious Status of the Negro" read before the Virginia Baptist State Convention, at Lynchburg, Va., May, 11, 1888, by W. Bishop Johnson, D.D.
William Bishop Johnson (b. 1858) was a minister in Washington, D.C.
The Negro stands to-day upon an eminence that overlooks more than two decades, spent in efforts to ameliorate the condition of seven million mmortal souls; by opening before their hitherto dark and cheerless lives, possibilities of development into a perfect and symmetrical manhood and womanhood.
The retrospect presents to us a picture of moral degradation--a logical sequence of slavery; mental gloom, unpenetrated by the faintest ray of intellectual light; souls, [out of which should flow the holiest and best forces of life] belitled in capacity; warped in sentiment and lowered in instinct, until the distinction between moral right and wrong had nearly become extinct.
Absolutely sunk in the lowest depths of a poverty which reduced them to objects of charity and stood, as an impregnable barrier, in their way to speedy advancement, in all those qualities that make the useful citizen, with every influence of the church, state and social life, opposed their to progress in an enjoyment of the blessings of liberty, and like some evil genius, forever haunting them with the idea, that their future must be one of subserviency to the "superior race,"
Hated and oppressed by the combined wisdom, wealth and statemanship of a mighty confederacy; watched and criticised--their mistakes strongly magnified by those who fain would write destruction upon the emancipation; they were expected to rise from this condition.
The idea of giving to the newly enfranchised a sound, practical education was considered at the dawn of freedom, an easy solution of what, as an unsolved problem, threatened the perpetuity of republican institutions.
Within a year from the firing on Sumpter benevolent and farsighted northern friends had established schools, from Washington to the Gulf of Mexico, which became centres of light, penetrating the darkness and scattering the blessings of an enlightened manhood far and wide.
The history of the world cannot produce a more affecting spectacle than the growth of this mighty Christian philanthropy which in beginng amid the din of battle has steadily marched on through every opposing influence, and lifted a race from weakness to strength, from poverty to wealth, from moral and intellectual nonentity to place power among the nations of the earth.
Dr. Haygood in "Our Brother in Black" says--"I have seen the Negroes in their religious moods, in their most deathlike trances and in their wildest outbreaks of excitement. In the reality of religion among them I have the most entire confidence, nor can I ever doubt it while religion is a reality to me.
Their notions may be in some things crude their conceptions of truth realistic, sometimes to a painful, sometimes to a grotesque degree. They may be more emotional than ethical. They may show many imperfections in their religious development: nevertheless their religion is their most striking and important, their strongest and most formative, characteristic.
They are more remarkable here than anywhere else; their religion has had more to do in shaping their better character in this country than any other influence; it will most determine what they are to become in their future development.
No man whatever his personal relations to the subject, who seeks to understand these people, can afford to overlook or undervalue their religious history and character. Whatever the student of their history may believe on the subject of religion in general, and of their religion in particular, this is certain--it is most real to them. To them God is a reality. So is heaven, hell and the judgement day.
Their churches are the centres of their social and religious life.
The hope of the African race in this country is largely in its pulpit. The school house and the newspaper have not substituted the pulpit, as a throne of spiritual power, in any Christian nation.
In studying the religious characteristics of the Negroes one who is informed and is only concerned about facts--leaving his theories and pet plans of church work to take care of themselves, will be impressed with the power of their ecclesiastical organizations.
Whether the Negro church leaders have an instinct for government I know not, but this I know, they hold together well. They are devoted to their churches. There is not simply individual enthusiasm but a certain esprit in the congregations that might well be the envy and despair of many a white pastor. They go their length for their churches."
But the prospect shows improvement religiously. The emotional as opposed to the rational element in the Negro's religion is fast becoming a thing of the past. The pew is loud, continuous and universal in its demand for an educated pulpit--one that unites to deep piety a mind well trained; that makes Christ the centre of all its preaching; that aims to awaken in the people, holy aspirations and untiring zeal, to the end, that the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of our Lordand his Christ.
Morally, we are improving. This element of progress is necessarily slow; its opposition is mighty and deep-rooted; it must eliminate the evil habits of generations.
No one who knows the Southern Negro and compare the low moral status in which freedom found him, with his present morality, can deny that his progress has been stupendous.
Go to his home and there you will find a pure moral atmosphere, supplemented by that taste and refinement which is an outgrowth of right living.
Go to the schools, look into the bright intelligent faces of the pupils and see the marks of refinement, in dress and decorum, which are the consequences of proper home training.
Mankind is imitative, the Negro is pre-eminently so. Throw him in a healthy moral atmosphere and he will imbibe the salutary influence and reproduce it in his home.
Since emancipation, under the most dispiriting circumstances he has made rapid and unparalleled improvement in morals; and if this state has attained against countless and multi-form adversities, to what moral heights may he not ascend in the next twenty years, with the refining and elevating influence of the church, the home and the schools as agencies in promoting this great end.
The Negro is pre-eminently benevolent. He contributes to missions, education and every phrase of Christian work.
He gives for the endowment of educational institutions for the erection of public buildings; for the establishment of schools of art and science; for the creation of funds, intended to be used in perpetuating the memory of statesmen and philanthropists; and for the construction of costly and magnificent temples in which to worship God.
His benevolence is one of the most positive qualities in his religion. His profession and practice may be as far apart as the polar regions, but when it comes to pure, simple benevolence he is axample worthy the emulation of all men.
The Negro is a church builder; out of his meagre capital, he builds churches which in architectural beauty and costliness of material will vie with any of the superior race.
Millions of dollars have been expended on the last two decades among all denominations of color, for the erection of church edifices. Is this not an evidence of his religious zeal end benevolence?
The rapidity with which he secures funds for the building of churches is astonishing.
No system of taxation, as a means of securing his contributions or developing his benevolence, is necessary.
The foundation of his benevolence is ever full; its streams flow spontaneously. He has a sympathetic nature and loves to contribute towards the amelioration of his fellow-man's condition.
In view of these facts we are safe in saying his religious status, is exceedingly encouraging.
Full text (Library of Congress/African-American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P.Murray Collection, 1818-1907)