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. Predominantly white denominations, such as the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal churches, also sponsored missions, opened schools for freed slaves, and aided the general welfare of Southern blacks, but the majority of African-Americans chose to join the independent black denominations founded in the Northern states during the antebellum era. Within a decade the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches claimed Southern membership in the hundreds of thousands, far outstripping that of any other organizations. They were quickly joined in 1870 by a new Southern-based denomination, the Colored (now "Christian") Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by indigenous Southern black leaders. Finally, in 1894 black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention, an organization that is currently the largest black religious organization in the United States.
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. Northern blacks, having already gained freedom, wanted to bring their nascent black churches to their freed Southern brethren. Yet they saw Emancipation as an enormous logistical challenge: how could black Protestants meet the many needs of newly freed slaves and truly welcome them into a Christian community? For both Southern and Northern blacks, Emancipation promised a meeting between two African-American religious traditions that had moved far apart, in terms of both theology and ritual, in the previous seventy years. In significant respects, the story of African-American religion between Emancipation and the Northern migration that began just prior to World War I is a tale of regionally distinctive communities that found several areas of common cause, not the least of which were the advent of Jim Crow and lynching as ominous new forms of racism.
Of course, many African Americans still go to church
Freedom also brought with it opportunities for self-improvement and "getting ahead," and differences of class and location also fostered different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. Gradually, Southern religious life became as variegated as that in the North, with Protestant churches to suit a variety of styles. Generally, poorer and more rural churches tended to cling more tenaciously to older customs, and to more experiential forms of worship, and since the vast majority of Southern blacks remained in rural areas, many of the traditions inherited from the "hush harbors" of slavery--including root work, chanted preaching, and particularly musical styles--remained a part of church life. In Southern cities, as the numbers of educated and middle-class African Americans grew, so too did the interest in a more codified and uniform religious experience like that of the North.
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Most significant for us today, these African American church leaders recognized the importance of what they were doing for future generations of Americans. They wrote histories, biographies, memoirs, and other accounts of religious life in the South during this era. It is through these written texts that we still have access to the many voices that comprise the first century of the black church in the United States.