Can today’s churches regain the power they once held?
Religious practices have always been a part of the Black experience. Since the first enslaved African arrived in America, they and their descendants have practiced some form of worship. There are learned beliefs considered sacred in Black society that determine the values and morals for living.
The story of Black religion and the power of the Black church is a narrative that includes the history of Black migration, self-determination, social class and urbanization. From the early 1800s, Chattanooga became the destination of Black rural peasants from the surrounding areas. They viewed the city as a place of freedom and opportunity. They were attracted to the city by the potential for work, free public education and a “better life” for their children. They were escaping anti-Black violence, lynchings, poverty and exploitation, and they maintained the “faith” through their proscribed religious practices.
They became urban proletariats, living side-by-side with other arriving ethnic groups including the Scotch-Irish, Jews, Lebanese, Irish and Germans. Living, working and worshiping were common activities among all the ethnic immigrants. But the color line separated people in all aspects of social life, even church membership. Oddly enough at one time before the Civil War, African Americans in Chattanooga were given access to white sanctuaries such as Cumberland Presbyterian to use as a place of worship. While the order of service followed a basic Christion doctrine, there was also the “shouting” and convulsing in the spirit or “getting happy”. The early preachers tended to be more emotional than intellectual. Like the old blues song used to say, “Oh I think I get religion, I think I’ll join the Baptist Church, then I can become a preacher and I won’t have to work”.
The urban migrants brought the memories of the rural-based “invisible underground church” and the “praise house” with them. The invisible underground church that had existed through slavery up until the end of the Civil War was clandestine in nature. In most slave-holding states there were conduct laws which prohibited free Black and enslaved Africans from gathering. The early form of church provided them with an outlet to come together and fellowship.
In most cases, the religious ceremonies followed the doctrines of Christianity. There was a form of syncretism that occurred when traditional religious beliefs were merged with Christianity. From this resulted various forms of voodoo, hoodoo, and condomble. This was based on a Yoruban cosmology which was polytheistic. Interestingly enough, our city was always known for its share of Blacks who were palm readers, root doctors, and fortune tellers. Evidence of this is found in local Black folklore and superstitions.
As they became acculturated to urban living, Blacks began to organize their own Christian churches. At first they had patronage from white Methodists and Baptists. A few white Southern congregations welcomed them into their midst as equals as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Because urban life was more complex, Black religious people also had to adjust some of the moral codes. By the early 20th century, most Black Baptist and Methodist congregations had dropped their ban on dancing, socializing, card playing and some sports. Slowly, the Black church also added social programs and social services for its members. In some cases, Black churches and ministers got involved in campaigns to end lynching and segregation. The music of the Black church also became more secularized with the marriage of the spirituals and the blues—which gave birth to “gospel music”.
Like all American ethnic groups, African Americans in Chattanooga recognized the importance of organized religion. Not only was it a place to get “salvation”, it could also be a place to build economic cooperation, education and enter the arena of politics. Black organized religion enabled people to build their own churches and form their own “mutual aid societies”. It was inside the Black church that some of the first independent Black schools were set up to teach basic literacy, mathematics—and of course, religion.
Historically, the majority of African Americans worshiping in Chattanooga have been either Methodist or Baptist. There were also very small congregations of “salvation cults” such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. Salvation cults seek salvation through not being identified as Christian and/or Western influenced. The founder of the Black Hebrew Nation, Prophet F.S. Cherry, started The Church of the Living God, the Pillar of Truth of all Nations in Chattanooga in 1886. Soon after its start, Prophet Cherry migrated to Philadelphia where he continued to grow his congregation.
At the end of the Civil War, the number of African Americans living in the city continued to increase. Former enslaved Africans and free Blacks pooled their talents and skills in order to build church sanctuaries. One of the earliest Black churches to be organized in the city was Rock Baptist Church in 1866. It later became known as Shiloh Baptist Church, and by 1885 it was known as First Baptist Church on East Eightth Street. (The church today is recognized as a historical landmark by the federal government. Ironically, this same congregation rejected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as its pastor in the mid-1950s. The majority of its members thought that he was too young to shoulder the responsibilities of pastor.)
In 1867, the First Congregational Church was founded. Between 1880 and 1890, Blacks in Chattanooga founded Grace Memorial Church, St. James Church, Monumental Baptist Church, Leonard Street Church and Warren Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was at Warren Chapel in 1901 where a rare interracial program of service was held.
At one time, Chattanooga was the location of Zion College. Zion had a department of religious studies and was located on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard near Central Avenue. After moving into the Fort Wood community, it became Chattanooga City College in the mid-1960s and later was merged with the University of Chattanooga.
The Black church has always played an active and pivotal role in Black politics. Without the Black Church and its resources, there would not have been a modern-day civil rights movement. In the 1960s, a number of Black ministers and churches got involved in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Paul McDaniel of Second Baptist Church made history in front of the U.S. Supreme Court when he sucessefully challenged a ruling that attempted to prevent clergy in Tennessee from serving in elected office. He went on to serve several terms as a Hamilton County commissioner along with fellow clergyman and attorney Rev. Rhuebin Taylor. One of the most outspoken ministers in modern time in the city was the Rev. John Edwards, Sr. of Cosmopolitan Community Church. Before he went on to become well known for his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King, Rev. C.T. Vivian was very active in the local movements for social and economic justice in Chattanooga.
Sadly, today membership in traditional Christian Black churches is declining. There is also the problem of escapism, religious fanaticism and materialism. The emerging mega-churches with their message of “prosperity” have ignored the realities of racism, sexism and class inequality. It is time for the Black church to get off its knees and back into the freedom struggle. Homelessness, mass incarceration, residential segregation, poverty and a host of other problems will not end by simply praying and hoping for prosperity. Any successful strategy for liberation will have to come from a well-thought-out and pragmatic view of the situation—which includes social action.