This great Nation has annually recognized Black History Month since 1926. It was first known as "Negro History Week" and later changed to "Black History Month" to honor the month in which both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born. However, what you might not know is that Black history had barely begun to be acknowledged or studied when this tradition began. Although Blacks had been in America since 1619, it was not until the early 1900’s that Blacks began to gain a respectable presence in recorded history.
America owes the celebration of Black History Month, and more importantly, the study of Black history, to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the Black population. When they did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected negative stereotypes and the inferior social positions they were assigned at the time.
As the Nation begins to celebrate yet another Black History Month, I have been inspired to address a subject that many view as incendiary as a Molotov cocktail. This often ignored topic is, “Why do Blacks still cling to the same religion that was forced upon their forefathers who were brought from Africa in chains?” Now before we begin to tackle a subject that is as socially tender as grandma’s bunions, I feel it’s important to offer the disclaimer that I’m a Black man who strongly disagrees with the term “African-American.” I believe whole-heartedly in the binary notion that we are either American or not. Therefore, throughout this entire article I chose to use the term “Black” rather than the highly-divisive and hyphenated “African-American.”
My ancestors, who were forced into slavery, had their own religions long before ending up on American soil at the genesis of the slave trade. It’s even estimated that 10-20% of Africans arriving in America were Muslims. In fact, Muslims from Spain and West Africa were part of American history long before Columbus’ grandparents were even thought of. A mountain of evidence suggests these Muslims arrived in the Americas at least five centuries before Columbus.
That said, prior to the first slaves being chained and herded thru the “Door of No Return,” many Africans believed in a supreme god who created all things. Nearly 100 years after the first African slaves were introduced into the New World; a Great Awakening swept the Nation and increased religious enthusiasm between the early 1700’s and late 1800’s. Christianity came alive in all of America and slaves were not exempt from this “Awakening.” Once exposed, they began to combine their African religious beliefs with newly indoctrinated Christian beliefs in order to make up what was known as “slave religion.” At the beginning, slave owners were not keen on converting their slaves into Christians. But some owners believed that slaves were more than just “property” and therefore eligible for Christian redemption. However the overwhelming majority of slave owners believed that converting slaves into Christians would only cause problems because worshipping the same God may begin conjuring thoughts of equality within the minds of the slaves.
Therefore, during the Great Awakening white preachers made a point to teach slaves that they had to obey their masters as a sign of being faithful to God. In addition, white churches continued to emphasize that slaves were not equal by holding segregated church services and controlling the free worship by slaves. Nevertheless, slaves prayed secretly to God as their only master and asked to be freed from their owners. If God was able to liberate the Hebrew slaves then surely He would be able to free them from their bondage.
It was this new relationship with their true Master that inspired slaves to steal away and meet in the woods where they could receive the Holy Spirit who made them: sing, pray, preach, shout, and enjoy their own free religious experience. This practice eventually led to the fiery sermons and brilliant oratorical skills that we can still find today by simply visiting any Pentecostal or Southern Baptist rooted church on any given Sunday.
Bottom line, it was Christ who delivered Blacks from the bondage of slavery and that is why so many generations later we still cling to this faith. An unbiased review of history clearly shows that it was not Christianity that enslaved the millions of men and women from Africa, but rather man alone who chose to enslave his brother largely because of greed, prejudice, and financial gain.
James Hackley is a philanthropist and author of the bestselling book Body, Mind & Spirit: The Awakening. Please visit him at http://www.jameshackley.com and discover more about what God has called him to do.