Spiritual bondage

Divinity School historian Curtis J. Evans sees roots of racial segregation in early American notions of black religiosity.

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

Photography by Dan Dry

For generations, Evans argues, stereotypes about blacks’ “simple faith” kept them apart from the rest of American society.

In 1930 The Green Pastures won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Written by white New Yorker Marc Connelly, the play featured Old Testament stories set outside New Orleans with an all-black cast. Stage notes describe angels who “look and act like a company of happy Negroes at a fish fry,” complete with corn bread, biscuits, boiled pudding, and ten-cent cigars, while the dialogue aims to replicate a black Southern dialect. Portraying what Connelly called the “simple faith” of blacks in the rural South, the play was a hit, running for 640 Broadway performances.

But The Green Pastures, says religious historian Curtis J. Evans, depicted African Americans as overtly emotional and “naturally religious,” an idea he argues hindered blacks’ integration into mainstream society. In The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008), Evans, who teaches the history of Christianity at the Divinity School, traces how the perception of blacks as innately spiritual—a quality many white authors, researchers, and other thinkers saw as a fundamental racial difference—developed and shaped national debates about blacks’ role in America from the days of slavery through the 1940s.

African American religion first became a subject of national consideration in the 18th century, when Anglican missionaries began converting slaves in the southern colonies. Would teaching the Christian doctrine of human equality incite rebellion? No, white preachers assured slaveholders: Christianity would make blacks more obedient, industrious workers.

By the 1830s, however, abolitionists were using African Americans’ religion to petition for slaves’ freedom. Influenced by a growing emphasis on literature, historical writing, and science on national differences between peoples, says Evans, these “romantic racialists” argued that blacks had an emotional and Christ-like nature that, once they were freed, would be their unique contribution to society. Antislavery novels reinforced this idea, particularly Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted Uncle Tom as a dutiful, devout slave who “got religion.” Blacks’ gentleness and gift for religious sentiment, abolitionists said, would balance out whites’ aggressive nature and the stern rationalism of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. “They are not naturally daring and enterprising,” Stowe wrote of slaves, “but home-loving and affectionate.”

Yet blacks’ natural religiosity soon became suspect. After the Civil War, when debates raged about how freed slaves would fit into the reconstructed South, black religion came to be seen not as a sign of humanity or societal contribution but as a backward, culturally inferior, and potentially dangerous form of worship. By the late 1870s, says Evans, most whites in both the North and South viewed black religion negatively, though Northerners typically believed education could improve blacks. Southerners argued that their worship practices—chanted sermons, free-style spirituals, outbursts of praise, falling to the ground in religious ecstasy—confirmed blacks’ racial inferiority and preordained subordination to whites.

Even abolitionists like Charles Stearns, who in 1866 established a 1,500-acre cooperative commonwealth plantation in Georgia, where he intended to share profits with black employees, publicly denounced black religious services as “heathenish observances” and “insane yellings” that led to laziness and immorality. Descriptions of African American worshippers as primitive and wildly emotional, Evans argues, legitimized racial discrimination against them in the South and “left little room in the national imagination for blacks as productive and useful citizens.”

Amid lynchings and Jim Crow laws, many black leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the church as their best hope for mobilizing the community. W. E. B. DuBois envisioned a united “Negro Church” that would lift the position of blacks in America by defeating racial oppression. Booker T. Washington, who advocated self-improvement through economic rather than political means, criticized rural black preachers for encouraging fervent emotion above industriousness, which he saw as necessary to empower blacks. Black preachers, meanwhile, “had to undertake the burden of proclaiming a message of Christian unity and brotherhood,” Evans says, “in the face of massive division between black and white Christians.”

As a boy, Evans witnessed that division firsthand. He grew up a member of the Church of God in rural Waterproof, Louisiana, where railroad tracks divided black and white neighborhoods. Now researching a book on an early 20th-century phenomenon called Race Relations Sundays—one-day events, especially in the South, when black and white pastors would swap pulpits—Evans spent his undergraduate years at the University of Houston believing “race was too close to me” to be an academic focus. He changed his mind when a Harvard doctoral adviser nudged him toward sociological studies of African American religion from the 1930s and ’40s. The university’s archives turned up a “huge mountain of hatred and racism,” some in the papers of former Harvard professors, that triggered nightmares about lynchings and violence. Evans considered abandoning his studies, but in the end the research became cathartic. “Once I had become haunted by all of this history,” he says, “only by further researching and writing could I exorcise some of these disturbing images that had crowded into my head.”

Those images belie the “safe and idealized” notion of rural Southern blacks in works like The Green Pastures. Coming amidst the Great Migration, when more than a million black Southerners relocated north between 1915 and 1940, Connelly’s portrayal was praised by white reviewers as picturesque. Some black critics, however, were offended by its representation of religiosity, which, Evans argues, expressed white longing for the days before blacks flooded into Detroit, Chicago, and New York. African American journalist George Schuyler, for example, derided the play for reinforcing white stereotypes of a black “child of nature unfortunately stranded in the midst of white civilization.”

In the 1940s both white and black social scientists started to discredit the notion of innate black religiosity. As more blacks settled into urban areas and labor groups and other organizations competed with churches for black involvement, church attendance dropped—a change that diversified African American life. Studying Chicago, Harlem, and other areas, says Evans, researchers realized they could “no longer maintain this older, unscientific notion” that African Americans were naturally religious. The death of the idea of blacks as “biologically different and religiously peculiar,” he says, was a “foundational step toward the potential integration of African Americans into American society.”

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