Literary Representations of the Black Church Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The black church has been described as the single greatest institution in the black community. It has traditionally served the spiritual, social, cultural, educational, and political needs of its clientele. The black church is distinctive in a number of ways, owing to the early intermixing of African religious beliefs and practices with Christian influences. Although Christianity has historically been the form of religion most frequently practiced in African American communities, it was not successful in eradicating traditional thoughts and practices of the slave societies into which it was introduced. From the rhetorical style of ministers to its music, the black church has influenced the cultural life of America in general, and the black church has shaped the content and form of African American literature in specific ways.

Representation in Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

African Americans have traditionally written from a religious perspective. Jupiter Hammon’s poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” (1761) is reported to be the first poem published by a black man in America. It reflects a strong influence of Methodism and the Wesleyan Revival present in America during the mid-eighteenth century. Phillis Wheatley’s volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) treats, among other things, recognition of the African’s possession of a soul. Similarly, spiritual and secular narratives written during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflect a strong religious influence. The spiritual narratives of Julia Foote, Jarena Lee, Zelpha Elaw, and Amanda Barry Smith, among others, suggest a spiritual authority that overtly challenges traditional female roles.

As the black church gained in prominence, writers turned to it as a feature of black life to complement historical and sociological accounts. W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) outlines the characteristics of the black church with observations on preachers, music, and spiritual, social, and political concerns. Carter G. Woodson’s History of the Negro Church (1921) posits the church as central to all enterprises—economic, education, and political—in the black community. Benjamin E. Mays’ The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938) challenges...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

As Woodson asserts in his 1939 article “The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution”:The Negro church touches almost every ramification of the life of the Negro. . . . All efforts of the Negro in things economic, educational and political have branched out of or connected in some way with the rise and development of the Negro church.

Woodson’s observation extends to the creative enterprise of literature. The presence of the black preacher, the rivalry between Methodists and Baptists, the struggle of women to hold leadership positions in the church, the spirituality engendered by Fundamentalist sects, and the church as social stabilizing force or social outlet are all accounted for in the literature from the eighteenth century to the twentieth.

In addition to full-blown treatments of religious life, central to fiction and histories, such works as Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) evoke the spiritual power derived from Scripture.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. 1903. Reprint. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961.

Mays, Benjamin E. The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature. Boston: Chapman & Grimes, 1938.

Simpson, George Eaton. Black Religions in the New World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Spiritual Narratives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.