Theological reflection for Black people in the United States does not start with the great councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, or even the 15th-century reformers.
While those have been important for many Christian traditions, for black folk in the USA, theological reflection starts with God’s encounter with Black flesh in the midst of unimaginable circumstances – chattel slavery.
Like a teenage Mary grappling with the promise of mothering the very Son of God, Black religion contends with the hope and messiness of God in the flesh, among us, as one of us, with us.
Between de earth and sky, thought I heard my Savior cry,
You got a home in-a dat rock, Don’t you see?
Black historians like Albert Raboteau have helped us understand the importance of the “invisible institution” pointing out the ways black folk, during enslavement, had to practice their faith underground and outside the gaze of their white masters and owners.
It was in the hush harbors and forest clearings, where enslaved Africans were able to care for each other and their bodies in ritual solidarity and expression.
It was in these spaces that they framed their Christianity in the remnants of their African traditional religions.
Have you got good religion? Certainly, Lord
Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord
Their engagement with the Christ and the biblical witness was not textual in the scholastic sense, but experiential in the physical sense.
The spirituals, the field songs, and the folktales made it possible for those enslaved Africans to narrate their own experiences of oppression, God, community, and life, and liberation on their terms.
In this way, to understand black worship practices, one must appreciate experiential integration between the body and the divine – where the Holy Spirit can fall on, mount, and dwell in the midst of the people.
And while it might be easy to characterize Black worship as inherently ecstatic because of its embrace of the body, and the popularization of Black Pentecostalism as THE representation of black worship, such a simplification eclipses an understanding these expressions as divine reclamations of a human body which had been and is still too often denied human consideration.
In worship, the black body was not for the slaver’s or master’s purposes, but for God’s purpose and God’s desire to affirm black subjectivity and being by dwelling in black flesh.
Black bodies could hear from God, engage God, touch God, and love God.
I know the Lord, has laid his hands on me
Still, one must acknowledge the impact Pentecostalism, with the Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s, led by black folks like William and Jennie Seymour, and Neely Terry, impacted Black worship and the entire globe.
20th-century Black worship has been indelibly shaped by the aesthetics that emerge from black Pentecostal traditions.
Whereas many black traditions coming out of reconstruction found it expedient to position themselves in parallel with their mainline white counterparts, Pentecostals emerged as a counter-culture, whose religious expressions more readily aligned with the highly physical practices born in the hush harbors.
Even as Black Pentecostals emerged in Northern industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, their ecstatic worship practices belied the refined sensibilities of the urban North.
Nonetheless, the Spirit enabled a kind of liberation and freedom, that the constrictors of urban life did not afford.
I’m gonna sing when the Spirit says sing,
And obey the spirit of the Lord.
From the use of sound amplification systems and vinyl recordings to the co-opting of the Hammond organ as the black church organ– the 20th century collectively ushered in an age of cross-pollination within black worshiping contexts and across them marking black worship as a living, evolving, and an ever-changing cornucopia of traditions.
From the heartfelt Baptist choir music of James Cleveland to the tight harmonies of the Clark Sisters – black worship continued to mediate the power of God born in embodied artistic and creative expression in ways that tend the diversity within Black communities.
From the fantastical hats of the women of the Church of God in Christ to the pristine white gloves of Baptist deacons and ushers on communion Sunday– worship always has privileged and welcomed the offering of one’s best to God.
Moreover, this offering of one’s best is a testimony to Black worship’s ability, over the centuries, to affirm blackness, empower blackness, and acknowledge that black bodies have something of worth to offer God and the world God loves.
I want to be ready, Lord
To walk into Jerusalem, just like John
Black worship has historically privileged the body and lived experience as the site for divine interaction and connection.
This post and others like it, help us see how communities have different starting points for understanding and narrating their Christian experiences.
Recognizing these differences helps us tend to diversity within Christian orientations and subjectivities.
Nick Peterson is a PhD student at Emory University working in Liturgics and Homiletics. His research explores the relationship between worship and racial identity formation. Nick is also a candidate for ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.