In what ways can the African American religious experience be characterized and described?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The African American religious experience has been developing since the days of legal North America slavery and the Great Awakening of 1720 to 1740. At first, slave owners hesitated to introduce slaves to Christianity, fearing that being taught Christianity would awaken feelings of equality and desires to be free. However, soon slave owners began to think that being taught certain aspects of the gospel would "foster docility in their subjects" (Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, "African American Religious Experience"). Scholars attribute being taught limited knowledge of the gospel with the common slave vision of Christ being a "meek, humble, and compassionate figure with whom they could converse about their earthly tribulations" ("African American Religious Experience"). With the Great Awakening (1720-1740), African Americans began joining evangelical churches, including Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. Slave owners often took their house slaves to attend service at the master's white church; however, after the masters' had retired for the night, slaves often held their own private services in their own quarters, which they referred to as "'praise houses' or 'hush arbors'"("African American"). Slaves often held services "deep in the woods" or in caverns and swamps ("African American"). As these secret services developed into established African American churches, Africanisms started becoming apparent in the African American religious experience, Africanisms such as "call-and-response" preaching, "ancestor worship, initiation rites, spirit possession, healing and funeral rituals ... and ecstatic ceremonies enlivened by rhythmic dancing, drumming, and singing" ("African American"). Music especially became an expression of Africanisms and even of the folk music that developed during field labor.

As time marched on, the African American religious experience became more and more diversified. It especially became more diversified as African Americans began moving to Northern and western cities. As African American's moved, especially in the early 20th century, African Americans became attracted to a wide variety of religious sects, including "Holiness-Pentecostal or Sanctified, Spiritual, Islamic, Judaic," and others ("African American"). There were also two religious movements that especially became popular during the 1920s and 1930s at the time of the Great Depression: (1) the Father Divine Peace Mission and (2) the Daddy Grace's United House of Prayer for All People. Both movements catered to the "social and psychic needs" of African Americans struggling in the working class during the Great Depression ("African American").

Hence, as we can see, the history of the African American religious experience gave rise to the very diverse religious experience we still see today. Many Africanisms can also be noted that are tied to African and slave roots.