Religion in Human Transformation of the African-American Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Religion in Human Transformation of the African-American topic with a focus on the African-American Christianity experience. The writer explores the transformation to Black Christianity and uncovers some of the underlying features of its existence. The writer examines the patterns and experiences of spirituality for the Black Christian experience in North America as well as the ways that the particular historical experiences of Blacks in the United States assisted in creating distinct forms of spirituality in the communities. There were five sources used to complete this paper.

The Christian movement in North America is a large one. Millions of Christians worship in churches across the continent each week and the numbers continue to climb. African-American Christians have a faith and spiritual path that is somewhat different than white Christians follow. The terms "black church" and "black Christian" can be heard periodically in theological discussions. From the music to the underlying beliefs, Black Christianity has developed from the days of slavery until current times through the path that African-Americans followed since the beginning of their North American journey.

The differences in Black Christianity as compared to White Christianity are founded in that path and the exploration of its history and transformation to today's faith is one that spans centuries, and miles of hard earned faith.

Experts have a difficult time agreeing on the point of turn for African-Americans and Christianity.

'Historians and theologians differ in their views on the origins of Christianity among African-American slaves during the 18th century. On one side are those who claim that slavery did not destroy the African culture of the slaves and that the influences of Africanisms continue their manifestations in Afro-American culture. Others reject this position, however. They argue that the role of African culture in the rise of black Christianity was insignificant

The transformation and nature of the black slave Christianity has been the topic of debate and guessing for many years among theologians, historians and folklorists.

'The central issue, for most researchers, has been what Lawrence Levine calls "a questions of origins." By uncovering the degree to which black Christianity was rooted in African religions, historians (and others) hope to explain the seemingly unreasonable behavior of slave converts

In Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South the author takes the readers on a discussion of African Religious tradition which is important information for the purpose of tracking Black Christianity.

Raboteau gets knee deep in the debates when he presents a double edged sword regarding black Christianity and its roots

. He first says that slavery stripped African-Americans completely clean of African-American history, tradition and culture. By this standard the culture could not have had anything to do with the transformation to black Christianity.

However, on the other hand the author discusses the impact and importance that the African-American traditions and culture had on the development and path of Black Christianity. It is this contradiction in statements that has kept the debate alive and burning concerning Black Christianity and its development and transformation to today

In The Myth of the Negro Past, Melville Herskovits, a historian known for his defense of African-American culture and history, attacked the apriori positions that "primitive" cultures, such as those in West Africa, could not possibly survive once transplanted into a "civilized" milieu. He maintained that far from being childlike people drawn from the lowest ranks of an underdeveloped society, African slaves left behind a sophisticated social structure and carried with them their languages, world views, and values

. Upon establishment in North America, these cultural elements were not simply swept aside by a European orientation, argues Herkovits, but were "reinterpreted." European words were translated into African speech patterns" and "European culture was translated into African value and behavior systems

Regarding religion it is his belief that African-Americans simply adopted many of the white traditions into its own for the purpose of solidifying things including Christianity. He maintains however that the African-American population maintained its own identity and traditions even during the transformation to Black Christianity.

"In outlining the Herskovits-Frazier debate, Raboteau places himself somewhere between the two. He writes, "the resolution of the . . . debate lies in recognizing the true aspects of both positions." However, Raboteau seems ultimately more sympathetic to the Herskovits position; he at least takes it more seriously. His critique of Herskovits is two-fold. At a general level, Raboteau feels Herskovits undercuts his arguments by relying on impressionistic evidence and generalizations. Pointing to a natural "religious bent characteristic of Negroes everywhere" as even a partial explanation of the development of black Christianity is an untenable position, argues Raboteau, and it is an argument well made. It is ironic that Herskovits, whose intention was to demythologize the African-American past, fostered certain myths in his own analysis.

On a more specific level, Raboteau takes issue with the Africanisms Herskovits claimed were institutionalized in the Black Church

. Here, however, his critique is less valuable and it points to a more general problem with Raboteau's work. Early in the first chapter of Slave Religion, Raboteau points out the importance of realizing that in the Americas the religions of Africa have not been merely preserved as static "Africianisms" or as "archaic retentions

." Instead, he argues, they have "continued to develop as living traditions" because of their ability to adapt and merge with other traditions.Yet, when Raboteau discusses Herskovits' consideration of spirit possession during baptism as an African survival, his critique is not at a conceptual level, but rather is a somewhat narrow dispute over details. Instead of debating the validity of Herskovits' search for "archaic retentions," Raboteau counters that the "descent of the spirit" during baptism "has the warrant of scripture" and is quite different from African spirit possession

In all fairness, the contradictions in Raboteau's assessment are partially explained by a distinction he draws between African-American religions in Latin America and those in North America. The ritualistic nature of the Catholic church, a much higher proportion of African born slaves and far fewer European settlers, argues Raboteau, all fostered the survival of coherent African religious systems in Latin America, rather than merely discrete elements of such as in North America. The African gods made the move with their devotees to Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and elsewhere, but, as Raboteau puts it, on the British colonial mainland, they died

Another expert, Mechal Sobel believes that African-Americans maintained their African tradition and culture and incorporated it with Black Christianity. According to Sobel the Black Christian faith and African faith still have enough in common that it is apparent the path to Black Christianity involved the incorporation of African religious beliefs and traditions as well

There is some validity to her argument.

If one studies the history of African-American transformations one can see that there was little opportunity initially for white or European tradition and beliefs to be imposed on African beliefs or traditions as the numbers were not enough.

"The implication here is that, at least initially, there was little opportunity for European values and beliefs to be imposed upon arriving Africans. She also questions the notion that slaves were purposefully mixed by traders and planters to minimize resistance. Sobel argues that planters considered it "most important to get good workers, and if a particular people worked better and adjusted more easily, then they were purchased." The slave market naturally reflected planter preferences, resulting in "large enclaves of several tribal peoples . . . from Maryland south

In addition when examining the actual slave situation in the states the slaves seemed to have quite a bit of spiritual freedom.

"Sobel finds evidence of this "space" in the maintenance of African personal names, in widespread slave rejection of Anglican missionary efforts, and in their "ability . . . To laugh at the ways of [their] oppressor(s)

The true turning point when it comes to Black Christianity came during the 18th and 19th century. Slaves at that time began to adopt Christianity during that time frame.

Until this time period most of the attempts by Anglo Saxons to convert Africans to Christianity were met with disdain and refusal. The movement was largely ignored by Africans as they continued to practice their faith. It was during the 1740's and 1750's that there seemed to be a widespread conversion of African-Americans to the Christian faith.

"Though many of the older denominations experienced "awakening" during those decades, it was the separatist or Arminian Baptist and Methodist denominations which experienced phenomenal growth, in large part because of the strong attraction they held for blacks

According to experts the Baptist faith provides a forum in which African-Americans can maintain their African values and still convert to Christianity. It is this ability that allowed for the widespread conversion to the Christian faith that was witnessed during this time period.

"Baptist encouragement of active, emotional worship and a comparatively egalitarian denominational structure were instrumental in bringing African-Americans into the Baptist fold. Furthermore, unlike the Anglican sacred cosmos which drew a…

Cite This Term Paper:

"Religion In Human Transformation Of The African-American" (2005, May 18) Retrieved August 17, 2017, from

"Religion In Human Transformation Of The African-American" 18 May 2005. Web.17 August. 2017. <>

"Religion In Human Transformation Of The African-American", 18 May 2005, Accessed.17 August. 2017,