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The church

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment concerns the role of the church and religion in African-American history.

The church

Throughout the history of black people in America, religion has played a significant role. Even today, the black church is the center of activity for many African-Americans.

That fact is an irony because religion was used to rationalize slavery. Other than the Quakers, all Christian sects sanctioned slavery. As the authors of African-American History noted: "Servants, obey your masters," was a familiar text in many pulpits.

Earnest white religious leaders sought to convert slaves to Christianity. But the efforts were stymied because slave owners did not want large groups of blacks gathering for fear they would revolt.

Plantation owners also forbid the practice of African religions because drums figured prominently in those services. Drums were principal means of communication for the expatriated Africans and could be used to organize slaves for revolts.

While conversion to Christianity was tolerated, some owners did not want their slaves to read the Bible. They feared the slaves would learn of the equality in its teachings.

Segregation forced black people to form their own churches, creating the paradox of the message of brotherhood being preached Sunday mornings in a highly segregated setting.

Because of the church's significance, it is little wonder that some of the strongest and most popular black leaders _ including politicians _ have been ministers. Examples include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, the late U.S Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and even William Gray, former majority whip in the U.S. House and now president of the United Negro College Fund.

One of the earliest black leaders to emerge from the church was Absalom Jones, who was born on Feb. 13, 1746. He joined with Richard Allen to establish the Free African Society in Philadelphia. That church provided not only religious services but civic and social functions as well. Church members assisted Philadelphia officials in treating those affected during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

From Black Jews and Black Muslims to African Methodists and Southern Baptists, black people practice a wide range of religions. Just as there is no monolithic political philosophy for black people, there is no single religion.

Black churches are popular meeting places and have evolved into social centers. More and more they provide such services as day care, tutoring, drug-abuse prevention, clothing assistance, meals and even housing. They fill the void left by shrinking government support for social programs.

They also are growing in size as well as number. Some black churches, such as St. Petersburg's Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, hold double services on Sunday to accommodate the larger memberships.

Sources: Negro Almanac, African-American History

Discussion questions

1. Beyond religious reasons, what roles were and are played by the black church?

2. Why did some slaveowners prevent slaves from reading the Bible but encourage the practice of non-African religion?

3. Discuss the notion of separate churches for blacks and whites in a society that is supposedly integrated.