ABSTRACT: One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, eight in ten American churches consist of predominantly one ethnic group. In the pursuit of greater ethnic harmony, white Christians can benefit from learning about and learning from the black church, including its history in America. That history reveals the limits of racial-diversity initiatives, the need for sympathetic listening, and the interdependence of white and black Christians. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We are bound in a single garment of destiny,” and we will not grow up into the fullness of Christ without each other.

One of the pressing issues for American Christians to confront in our day is the racial divide in the church. No less pressing is the complacency many Christians feel toward this divide. According to a report on a 2015 LifeWay Research study, “Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life, with more than 8 in 10 congregations made up of one predominant racial group. And most worshipers like it that way.”1

Racially divided worship may feel comfortable to most people, but this comfort is out of step with our Savior’s heart, who died to tear down such divisions. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile.2 He did this so that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). Christ’s peacemaking mission fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham centuries before to bless all the nations in Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 22:18). We catch a vision of this blessed community in Revelation 7:9, where John describes “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” worshiping God together.

Therefore, when we pray as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we are, among other things, asking God to set his Revelation 7:9 choir in our midst, free us from our cultural silos, and give us an ear for Zion’s praise.3 What can we do, then, to challenge (rather than cater to) our comfort with racially divided worship? How can we pray and work to see God’s multiethnic kingdom become more of a reality in our churches?4

“White and black believers are bound together in a ‘single garment of destiny.’”

In this article, I want to focus specifically on the black-white divide in the church, and I want to explore how white Christians, in particular, can help bridge this divide.5 Out of the many possibilities that present themselves, I limit myself to the following: I want to encourage many white believers to do more to learn about and learn from the black church. To that end, I will survey the history of the three major streams within black Christianity: Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal. Then I will make three concluding observations about what white believers can learn from this history.

Before beginning this discussion, I want to acknowledge the important work that many white Christians have done and continue to do to bridge the racial divide. Much work remains to be done, but God has been faithful in each generation to raise up a contingent of white and black brothers and sisters who have joined together in the struggle for racial unity. I long for more white believers to join this contingent. But I don’t want to overlook those who already have. For this reason, I take care in this article to avoid making sweeping statements about all white believers without exception.

What Is ‘The Black Church’?

The phrase “the black church” encompasses three types of mainly black congregations: (1) churches affiliated with one of the seven historically black denominations, (2) mainly black churches that are part of mainly white denominations, and (3) mainly black churches unaffiliated with a denomination.6 As we will see below, the black church is the product of the eighteenth-century religious awakening in America as well as this country’s long history of race-based chattel slavery, segregation, and discriminatory treatment of African Americans. The black church was born out of tribulation. It is, historically, America’s own version of the persecuted church.7

The black church is not a uniform institution. It is as dynamic and complex as any other large-scale movement in society. In their extensive study of African-American Christianity, religion scholars Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya explain that black churches differ in the extent of their involvement with social and political concerns, in their support for black consciousness movements, in their organizational structures, and in the degree to which they accommodate or oppose white cultural expectations.8 Black churches also differ from one another in their doctrinal beliefs, emphasis on personal piety, and views on issues such as sexual morality and abortion.9

According to Lincoln and Mamiya, African-American Christians inhabit a “black sacred cosmos,” a way of viewing the world that stresses God’s commitment to deliver his people from oppression; the full humanity of Jesus, especially as seen in his experience of suffering, death, and resurrection; and the equal dignity that all human beings possess as God’s creation.10 Sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson extend this concept of the black sacred cosmos and present what they call “the five building blocks of black Protestant faith.” They argue that black Protestants (1) prioritize the role of experience in the Christian life, (2) view their faith as an indispensable resource for persevering through the evil and suffering in this world, (3) make room for the perplexities of Christian teaching and practice, (4) highlight God’s regular intervention in the details of life, and (5) are “committed to social justice and equality for all individuals and groups in society.”11

When I speak about the black church in the remainder of this article, I fully acknowledge the diversity and complexity of the institution. I also want to clarify that I do not endorse everything that falls under the category of the black church. Believers should submit any church’s teaching to the authority of Scripture (Acts 17:11). The black church, just like any collection of churches, has its own assortment of wheat and chaff. In asking more white believers to learn from and about the black church, I am not asking for them to romanticize the black church.

Historical Survey of the Black Church Tradition

In conversations about the racial divide in the church, it is not uncommon for some white Christians to misconstrue the nature of the black church tradition, assuming, for example, that black churches exist because “birds of a feather flock together” or that the chief legacy of black Christianity is the gospel choir and soulful preaching. To be sure, each of these claims about the black church contains an element of truth. Cultural similarity affects whom we want to be around.12 And the black church, in part because of its roots in the African diaspora and its experience of slavery and racial segregation, has developed unique worship traditions that emphasize communal experience and emotional expression.13 These popular assumptions about the black church, however, represent only a fraction of its theological, political, and cultural significance.

The First Black Churches

In large measure, the black church tradition arose in response to racist attitudes and actions coming from the white majority.14 It was not only unbelieving whites who were to blame. Many white Christians alienated their black brothers and sisters by accommodating and even promoting their unjust treatment. During the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, increasing numbers of whites and both free and enslaved blacks turned to Christ under the ministry of revivalist preachers like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), George Whitefield (1714–1770), and Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764). Methodists and Separate Baptists saw particular success in the South in the decades that followed. This success owed, in part, to the work of black preachers, both lay and ordained, who proclaimed the evangelical message to white and black hearers alike. As more free and enslaved blacks converted to Christianity, they began populating churches that had, up to that time, been predominantly or exclusively white. This influx of African Americans made many white congregants uncomfortable. As religion scholar Albert Raboteau observes,

The swarming of black converts into Baptist and Methodist churches led to mixed, though segregated, congregations. Negroes usually sat in galleries or in back pews. It was not unusual for the black membership in a church to far exceed that of the whites. When Negroes became too numerous, separate services were held for them, or sometimes, particularly in cities, white members withdrew, leaving black members to form a separate church.15

The first black churches were the African (or Bluestone) Baptist Church, founded on a southern Virginia plantation in 1758, and Silver Bluff Baptist Church, founded between 1773 and 1775 on a South Carolina plantation just east of Augusta, Georgia.16 Aside from gathering in organized churches, it was also common for enslaved men and women on plantations to meet secretly for Christian worship. These meetings constituted what historians have called the “invisible institution.”17

“The black church was born out of tribulation. It is, historically, America’s own version of the persecuted church.”

The first black denomination was the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which Richard Allen (1760–1831) founded in 1816. In 1787, Allen and Absalom Jones (1746–1818), along with other black congregants, had walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in protest. They had chosen to pray in a section of the church reserved — unbeknownst to them — for white attendees. Before congregational prayer was over, a trustee of the church had tried to force Jones up off of his knees, insisting that he not remain in the white section. A second trustee came to remove another man. When prayer concluded, Allen, Jones, and the others in their group left the church.

Reflecting on this humiliating experience some years later, Allen wrote, “They were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct. But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigour to get a house erected to worship God in.”18 Two churches resulted from this departure: St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 and pastored by Absalom Jones, and Bethel Church of Philadelphia, also founded in 1794. Bethel would be the birthplace of the AME Church, over which Allen presided as bishop.19

White Supremacy After Slavery

At its inception, the racial divide in the church was both theological and not theological, depending on how we look at it. It was not theological in that black and white believers generally agreed on the basic tenets of the Christian faith.20 They could both trace their spiritual lineage back to the First Great Awakening and, through that, to the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.21 The divide was theological, however, in that it involved competing understandings of what salvation in Christ entailed. Both sides agreed that the gospel made blacks and whites spiritual equals. It delivered all men and women, regardless of color or station in life, from the power of sin and death. The disagreement lay in whether and how far the equalizing force of the gospel extended into American society.

Of pressing concern at the time was the issue of slavery. On this topic, Raboteau writes about what he calls “the irreducible gap between the slave’s religion and that of his master.” “The slave knew,” he continues, “that no matter how sincerely religious his master might be, his religion did not countenance the freedom of his slave. This was, after all was said and done, the limit to Christian fellowship. The division went deep; it extended as far as the interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of the Gospel.”22

Intertwined with the issue of slavery was the racial hierarchy that slavery had constructed and reinforced — in the South as well as in the North. It was this hierarchy that persisted even after emancipation. It was this hierarchy that the Civil War left largely undisturbed. Historian Mark Noll describes the Civil War as a “theological crisis” because white Christians — on both the abolitionist and pro-slavery sides — were largely unable to see that it was not slavery per se that contradicted Scripture but rather the dehumanizing ideology of white supremacy. “The crisis,” writes Noll, “created by an inability to distinguish the Bible on race from the Bible on slavery meant that when the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished, systemic racism continued unchecked as the great moral anomaly in a supposedly Christian America.”23

“How can we pray and work to see God’s multiethnic kingdom become more of a reality in our churches?”

Many African Americans saw clearly how the Civil War had failed to address racism, but many white Americans largely ignored their concerns as they pursued their own vision of national prosperity. As Noll writes, “Because African Americans were progressively deprived of a public voice in the decades after the [Civil War], national politics reflected scant influence from the only constituency that thought it was important to understand the Bible for its message on race as well as its implications for American national destiny.”24

A Lasting Color Line

We can see the abiding influence of racism after the Civil War when we consider the birth of modern Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century. William Seymour (1870–1922), an African-American pastor from the Holiness tradition, presided over the famed Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909. Seymour had learned Pentecostal teaching from a white evangelist named Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), who had opened a Bible school in Houston, Texas. Attending a ten-week training course from the end of 1905 to the beginning of 1906, Seymour was forced to sit outside of Parham’s classroom and listen to his teaching through a partially opened door. According to the state of Texas, Seymour’s skin color disqualified him from participating fully with his white peers in their educational pursuits.

In spite of the racial exclusion he had endured, or perhaps because of it, Seymour went on to lead a movement that eschewed racial segregation from the beginning. From 1906 to 1909, multitudes flocked to an abandoned warehouse on Azusa Street to receive the gift of tongues under Seymour’s preaching. Observers noted the racial diversity of the crowds. In fact, one commentator remarked that, during the revival, “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”25

This assessment was premature, however, because after the revival drew to a close in 1909, the racial divide resurfaced. The Church of God in Christ, which had begun in 1897 under the leadership of Charles H. Mason (1866–1961), was a black Holiness denomination that became Pentecostal after Mason attended the Azusa Street meetings in 1907. Initially, it was the only Pentecostal denomination that licensed ministers, and so white Pentecostal pastors, out of necessity, had to submit themselves to African-American oversight. This arrangement lasted for seven years. In 1914, white ministers from the Church of God in Christ joined with other white ministers to form the Assemblies of God denomination. Their departure from the Church of God in Christ left it a largely African-American denomination, which it continues to be today. Because of white racial prejudice, modern Pentecostalism — which began, in the words of Lincoln and Mamiya, as “a distinctly interracial movement” — went the way of the earlier Baptists and Methodists by separating along racial lines.26

Lessons from the Black Church Tradition

Even a brief glimpse into the history of the black church tradition raises several important points for us to consider.

Primary Responsibility

First, white Christians, by and large, bear primary responsibility for their broken fellowship with black believers. To say it another way, when looking at the racial divide within the American church, white Christians, for the most part, historically have been the offending party, and black Christians have been the offended party. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this point powerfully when he wrote, “It is to their everlasting shame that white Christians developed a system of racial segregation within the church, and inflicted so many indignities upon its Negro worshipers that they had to organize their own churches.”27

“White Christians need black Christians, and vice versa. We will not grow up into the fullness of Christ without each other.”

Some readers may object that a claim like this tries to load the consciences of white Christians with guilt and offers them no hope of redemption. It represents law rather than gospel, some might say. But this objection overlooks how, because of Christ’s death on our behalf, Christians need not run from guilt. Christ was condemned in our place, which means we can face wrongdoing head-on — both our own and that of our forebears — and allow it, by God’s grace, to lead us to repentance. In itself, grief is not dangerous. It is worldly grief that Christians aim to avoid. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

“But,” some might ask, “how can we repent for the deeds of our ancestors? I did not personally own slaves. I did not drive Richard Allen out of my church or make William Seymour sit in the hallway during class lectures.” This objection is true to a point. God does not hold contemporary white Christians personally responsible for sins they were not alive to commit. As we read in Ezekiel 18:20, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” However, patterns of sin often make their way from father to son, especially if the son fails to recognize and repudiate them. In this sense, a son can share in his father’s guilt if he repeats in his own day the same type of transgression his father committed.

Generally speaking, many white believers have not turned from the sins of their fathers. To understand what I mean, we need to see the common thread running through many white Christians’ repeated failures to confront racial injustice in their generation. The common thread is that, by and large, many white Christians in America have not listened in earnest to the concerns of their black brothers and sisters. If they did, they might be more aware of the significance and extent of racism in American society.

Sometimes, white believers think we can heal the racial divide in the church simply by bringing whites and blacks together to learn from each other’s perspectives. To be clear, interracial relationships are crucial to racial unity. However, it is important for white Christians to understand that, for centuries, African Americans have had to become fluent in the white perspective in order to survive. In fact, it was chiefly the white perspective that created the racial divide in the church in the first place.28 Studying the history of the black church tradition shows that the racial divide in the church is less like the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2) and more like the rift between Joseph and his brothers after they had sold him into slavery (Genesis 37–50). Joseph longed to be reunited with his family. However, before he was willing to reveal himself to Reuben and the others, he needed to see that their hearts had truly changed. Otherwise, he would reenter their lives only to suffer further mistreatment. A hasty reunion would serve neither Joseph nor his brothers, because it would encourage his brothers to continue running from the healing and freedom that only repentance can bring.

Beyond Multiethnic Churches

A second point that the history of the black church raises is that racial diversity initiatives alone likely will not bridge the divide. As we have seen, African Americans have shared the same worship spaces as whites before. The problem is that they have done so as second-class citizens.29 For Christians to pursue biblical diversity, we need to take whatever corrective steps are necessary to ensure that our churches look not only to the interests of ourselves, “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Historically, the black church has provided African-American Christians with opportunities to lead and innovate. It has protected and encouraged black cultural achievements. The black church also has provided a safe place for African-American believers to lament injustice and to organize for social progress. If white Christian diversity efforts presume that black Christians will sacrifice what the black church has made possible for them, these efforts may end up doing little to heal the racial divide in the American church.30

When white Christians overlook the advantages they have inherited in American society — willingly or not — because of their racial identity, they risk reproducing in their churches and institutions the very racial hierarchy that has plagued our land for centuries. Sociologist Korie Edwards explains this danger well:

Blacks, by necessity, are aware that whites are culturally and structurally dominant. The implication of color-blindness or ignoring white privilege for multiracial churches is that they, without any specific intent to do so, can reify white supremacy, a belief in the cultural and structural dominance of whites. As a consequence, they can communicate to members that the experiences, preferences, and beliefs of white members are more important and relevant than those of blacks.31

In other words, before proposing multiracial churches as a solution to the racial divide, white Christians might seek to understand how multiracial churches can actually contribute to the problem.

Testing Ourselves

Finally, the history of the black church teaches white Christians to take a sober look at their attitudes toward, and assumptions about, their black brothers and sisters. Do we regard black Christians as more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? Or do we act and speak in ways that suggest otherwise? What is our demeanor toward like-minded black churches in our area? Do we care to know about them? Do we pray for them? In our attempts to bridge the racial divide, are we willing to collaborate with and learn from our black brothers and sisters? Do we grieve not only individual acts of racism but also systemic injustices that affect many African Americans? Do we have any black theological heroes? If not, are we willing to search them out? When we think about American church history, do we include the black church in that narrative? How often do we read books or articles by black Christian authors? Do we have any close friendships with African-American believers?

We Need Each Other

In his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King Jr. reflects on how the fortunes of black and white Americans are inescapably intertwined. “The black man needs the white man,” he writes, “and the white man needs the black man.” To illustrate this mutual dependence, King remarks that “we are bound together in a single garment of destiny.”32

If this is true of Americans in general, regardless of religion, how much more is it true of American Christians? White and black believers are bound together in a single garment of destiny, and this single garment is the crucified and resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ, who died to make one new man out of both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:15).33 White Christians need black Christians, and vice versa. We will not grow up into the fullness of Christ without each other (Ephesians 3:18–19; 4:15–16).