Top 7 Most Sanctified Moments in Black Church History
Members of the congregation applaud at the mention of President-elect Barack Obama's name during a service, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)

There are countless conversations we can have about various aspects of the Black Church. But right here, right now, we’re going to focus on what I believe are the Top 7 Most Sanctified Black Church Moments.”

“Sanctified” means “set apart, holy, consecrated.” So, we’re talking about some pretty dynamic and game-changing moments in the history of the Black Church in the U.S.

Let us know what you think of this list. What did we get right? What did we get wrong? What moments did we leave off? We love feedback, so please send it to me at aswad@defendernetwork.com. And let the church say, “Amen!”

#7: Hush Harbors – During the enslavement of our people, originally, there was a big debate about whether or not to let Blackfolk in the church. Those who voted to keep us out did so for several reasons. One, some of them believed we had no souls, because to them, we were “barely human,” if at all. Others figured that baptizing Blackfolk would, by the teachings of the faith, make all involved one with Christ and equal in the eyes of the Lord. And that couldn’t stand, because equality would destroy their cashflow which was built on the back of human trafficking and stolen labor/lives/wealth.

Others reasoned that the enslaved would then have to learn how to read if brought into the church. However, “massa’s” entire system required keeping the enslaved as “ignorant” as possible. Still, others feared enslaved Blacks would find inspiration in the scriptures to fight for their freedom, as nearly the entire Old Testament is the same story over and over–the oppressed crying out to God for help, and God helping the oppressed fight for and eventually winning their freedom. You see how that could be problematic for folk making all their money off slavery, right?

It wasn’t until the Haitian Revolution that started in the late 1790s and ended around 1804, that whitefolk in mass were ready to open wide the church doors. Why?

Those who “owned” our ancestors feared that the success of our cousins in Haiti in taking their freedom by violent force would inspire Blackfolk in the U.S. to do the same, and these “owners” could best control their enslaved by brining them into the church and teaching them a brand of Christianity that taught 1) obedience to “massa” was the same as obedience to God, 2) God had ordained Blackfolk to be enslaved and 3) only the obedient enslaved person would get their heavenly reward after death.

So, Blackfolk were let in the doors of the church, where we sat in segregated sections and heard a gazillion sermons that all basically said the same thing: “slave, be obedient to your master.” But, unknown to the truly ignorant folk on the plantation (the so-called “owners”), African people were the first to recognize there was a power greater than ourselves, the first to devise the spiritual technology we call prayer and the first to create spiritual systems we call religions.

Nat Turner. Artist’s rendering.

African people had been relating to, calling on and relying upon this invisible creator of all things for thousands of years before Europe was even a thing. So, as our enslaved ancestors sat in those plantation (enslaved labor camp) churches, being preached down to, something inside them so strong demanded that they worship in the way of their ancestors. So, risking their lives and well-being, these enslaved sisters and brothers began sneaking away on Sunday afternoons and evenings to go out to the forests and swamps and hold worship services of their own.

Some historians call them the Hush Harbors. Others label them the Invisible Institution. Whatever name you roll with, these ongoing shows of spiritual defiance were bold acts of agency by our foremothers and forefathers. These acts reflected the fact that even though we heard constant messages meant to blind us to our inherent worth and connection to God during those “massa-led” services, we fought to reject that nonsense, and to nurture our own relationship with the Great I AM.

#6: Founding of Black Churches and Denominations – Even while our ancestors were enslaved, they pushed to control their own religious institutions. The most well-known of these is the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church founded by Bishop Richard Allen.

Allen had, for a long time, advocated for Blacks to start their own denomination. He and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society which was not only a mutual aid society (more on that in a minute), but a breeding ground for Black confidence and aspirations. However, many of Allen’s contemporaries in Philadelphia feared such a move would—and stop me if you’ve heard this concern before—make white people mad. So, Blackfolk continued attending the status quo, segregated Methodist worship services in Philly.

Bishop Richard Allen (left), African Methodist Episcopal Church founder, and Absalom Jones (right), who became the first African American Episcopal priest in 1804 (The Mitchell Collection of African-American History)

But one fine Sunday, Allen and Jones decided to pray in the “white only” section of the church, and they were literally thrown out of the service by the good, white Christian folk of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. It was then that Jones and others came around to Allen’s position. Allen founded Bethel Church. Jones founded his own. Suddenly, there were Black churches popping up all around the region. These congregations then decided to join together under one banner—African Methodist Episcopal.

The CME church, originally named Colored Methodist Episcopal, was founded not too long afterwards. But, just like participating in the Invisible Institution (Hush Harbors), stepping out from under white religious control to form their/our own denominations took courage. That sounds pretty sanctified to me.

#5: Birth of Black Businesses and Education Centers – Every Black business operating today owes a debt of gratitude to the Black Church. For, it was there that our first businesses were founded. Mortuaries, insurance companies and more, were literally birthed in the church. And the funding to start other businesses came from the pockets of church-going Blackfolk.

But wait; there’s more. When it was against the law for Blackfolk to read, many Black churches and church leaders risked life and limb to teach their congregants this critical skill anyway. Also, after we were “allowed” to read, the Black Church was still central to our education. Black churches served as the first classrooms and school houses for our people, which only makes sense. Because back in the day, we looked upon getting an education as a religious obligation.

#4: Mutual Aid Societies – Have you ever wondered where the Benevolence Offering came from? It came from the communal, “I am because we are” nature of the Black Church (a communal nature that we brought with us from Africa). Congregations full of enslaved, and later sharecropping, Blackfolk would literally put their pennies together so that funeral services could be covered for anyone (especially widows and orphans) unable to send their loved ones off to glory properly.

These efforts became institutionalized under the term “Mutual Aid Societies.” These societies expanded their services to providing financial help for other issues besides burials. The idea was, “We’ll all give, and whoever finds themselves in need due to some unforeseen tragedy or circumstance, would receive the funds” for that week or month. Today’s Benevolence Offering works on the same premise, a premise that was foundational to the birth of the first church as founded by the disciples of Jesus: “Give as you are able, and receive as you have need.”

#3: Safe Harbor – Merriam-Webster literally defines “safe harbor” as “something or some place that provides protection.” There are many examples of the Black Church serving as such.

For example, on May 21, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama’s First Baptist Church was exactly that—a safe harbor. A mob of white domestic terrorists surrounded the church which was playing host to a meeting organized by Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and attended by his homies in the struggle, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, to show support for Freedom Riders who arrived in Montgomery the day before and were met by a white mob of hundreds armed with bats, pipes, hammers and evil intentions.

As the service in support of the Freedom Riders began, the number of white domestic terrorists surrounding the church grew. These thugs vandalized parked cars and threw bricks and other objects at the church, while screaming death threats to those who gathered in peace inside the church.

As shared on the website of the Equal Justice Initiative, “As the surrounding mob grew larger and more violent, Dr. King called U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from the church’s basement and requested help. Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals to dispel the riot; the growing mob pelted (the U.S. Marshals) with bricks and bottles and the marshals responded with tear gas. When police arrived to assist the marshals, the mob broke into smaller groups and overturned cars, attacked Black homes with bullets and firebombs, and assaulted Black people in the streets.”

The idea that the “Black Church,” as in all Black churches, were part of the Civil Rights Movement, is erroneous. Certainly, some lent their buildings, members and resources to the struggle for equality. However, for every one that supported the movement by being a “safe harbor” in multiple ways, there were several that chose to do nothing. Montgomery’s First Baptist Church earned them the title of safe harbor.

A minister standing in front of the Black Madonna and Child mural painted by the late Glanton Dowdell.

#2: Unveiling of the Black Madonna & Child Mural – On March 26, 1967, Easter Sunday, the Detroit church known then as Central Congregational Church (now the Shrine), unveiled an 18-foot mural of Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms. This event, which on the surface doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking, actually made national news. Why? Because Mary and Jesus were Black.

Painted by the late Glanton Dowdell, the mural was the brainchild of the church’s pastor, Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., who would later come to be known as the “Father of Black Liberation Theology.” Cleage and his Black Madonna mural were featured in national magazines and written about in newspapers all over Michigan and far beyond. People, both Black and white, wondered what on earth would possess a pastor and a church to unveil a Black Madonna and child?

Cleage caught unimaginable flack and ridicule for the bold statement. Still, Cleage stuck to his defense that the artist merely painted Jesus and Mary in the way they were historically—as Black. Fast-forward to 2022, and some of the same Black preachers who chastised Cleage for the move, now have Black Madonnas and other Black religious iconography adorning their churches, websites and materials. What’s more sanctified than stepping out on faith, taking bold actions and letting truth speak for itself?

#1: When the Church was Founded at Pentecost – The season on the Christian calendar known as Pentecost traces its roots back to the ancient Hebrews’ Festival of First Fruits. By tradition, Hebrews from the diaspora would return to the holy city of Jerusalem for the festivities. It was within this context that the disciples of Jesus, who had scattered after his crucifixion/assassination, many of whom returned to their respective home towns, now came back to Jerusalem.

While back in Jerusalem, according to scripture, Jesus’ disciples began meeting regularly in the “Upper Room.” There, they broke bread, recounted the miracles of their master teacher, Jesus, and, as theorized by several biblical scholars, they cried, admitted where they fell short of honoring the teachings of Jesus, forgave each other, and recommitted themselves to their divine calling.

And as they confront each other and themselves, and as they reformulated their bonds, the Bible says they were visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of “the rush of a mighty wind” that entered the room, and “tongues of fire that rested above each of their heads.” And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. From there, they went out into the streets, and filled with the spirit, preached so boldly that 5,000 joined that first day, followed by 3,000 more the next day. It was this experience that religious scholars point to as the founding of the Christian Church.

But what does this have to do with the Black Church? Well, geographically, the vast majority of the Bible story takes place in what the ancient world knew as “Ethiopia” (or “Land of the Burnt Faces”), a land that included not only the continent of Africa, but what folk today call the “Middle East,” and extending east all the way to India.

Also, chronologically, over 1,500 years of biblical history had already been lived and written about before the first Europeans even entered the region in a position of military power, with the arrival of Alexander the “Greek” (he wasn’t great for this ancient Africans) in Egypt. In other words, from “Adam,” “Eve,” Moses, Isaiah, Ruth, Jael, etc., the region known now as the Holy Land, was dominated by people we would today consider Third Ward, Fifth Ward, Acres Homes, Oak Cliff, Liberty City, Chi-town, New Orleans 9th Ward Black. Biblically, Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is said to have come from Ur of Chaldea. And if you look in the right places, you’ll see what the ancient Chaldeans actually looked like.

And long story long, Abraham’s descendants eventually found their way to Egypt where the Bible says they lived for over 400 years. And even the most anti-CRT scholars know that the ancient Egyptians were Black-Black. Hell, the ancient Egyptians say their “people” (i.e. great, great, great grandparents) came from Nubia, which is modern-day Sudan, home to the tallest and darkest people on planet Earth.

Now, if Abraham’s people weren’t Black before their 400-year layover in Egypt, they were sho-nuff Black when Moses led them out of Egypt, marching towards the Promised Land. Because if there is one thing people do when they live in close proximity to each other for decades and centuries, it’s procreate. Additionally, hundreds of years later, when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to save their baby’s life, they went to a place where they would blend in, not stand out like a sore thumb. That’s probably why scripture describes someone we know and love as having “skin the color of burnt brass” and “hair like lamb’s wool.”

Also, the foundationally African practice of ancestor veneration is all throughout the Bible. And maybe the only thing blacker in scripture than ancestor veneration is Cain’s reaction to God’s punishment of him after Cain killed his brother Abel.

Y’all know the story. After God confronted Cain with his crime, God banished him from his people and community, essentially telling Cain, “You don’t have to go home, but you’ve got to get the hell outta here.” Cain replied, “I would rather you had killed me, for this punishment is more than I can bear.” For African people, community and connection was everything. So, disconnection from their group/family/nation was viewed as a fate worse than death.

Thus, however you look at it—geographically, chronologically/historically or biblically—when we’re talking about Christianity and its founders, we’re looking in the mirror. Hence, when the disciples of Jesus founded that first church, they were participating in the most sanctified Black Church moment of them all.

Can I get an Amen?