I originally gave this speech June 25, 2022 at the “Better” Conference hosted by The Atheist Network Group (TANG). Below is the text version and the video is available on my channel Freedmen Freethinkers.
It should seem that Negroes, of all Americans, would be found in the Free-thought fold, since they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity. – Hubert Harrison
Those words are quite provocative aren’t they? Hubert Harrison, an activist of Jamaican descent yet fully anchored himself in his American Citizenship, socialist, and atheist said those words over 100 years ago yet Black People in America would find themselves being the highest represented group in America in the ‘dubious blessings’ of Christianity. According to Pew Research, 83% of Black Americans believe in absolute certainty that there IS a God. 79% of Black Americans identify as Christian and 94% of Black Christians are affiliated with a Historically Black Protestant Denomination. Juxtaposed to Black American positionality, Black Americans own less than 2% of the wealth in the United States. Over a million Black Families with a single parent live at or under the federal poverty line. Black American women are 2-3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Black American infant mortality rate is 10.6% and the highest out of all races according to the CDC. The 6 leading causes of death to Black Men in America are due to Police Violence. According to the FBI Crime Statistics, bias against African Americans overwhelmingly comprised the largest category of race-based hate crime incidents, with a total of 56% of race-based hate crimes being motivated by anti-Black bias. Although the Buffalo Shooter wrote a 180 page manifesto regurgitating tenets of the Great Replacement Theory while spewing antisemetic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, he SPECIFICALLY targeted a predominately Black American community in Buffalo to perform a mass shooting and killed 10 Black People at a grocery store on a Saturday. It even was more telling that on the bump stock on his AR-15 was written “here are your reparations.”
It is confounding that the most God believing group in America that cleaves to Jesus like Linus cleaves to his blanket is also the most marginalized. One arrives at that conclusion not by conjecture but by empirical evidence.
Hubert Harrison also said Show me a population that is deeply religious and I will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains, … content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the waters of affliction. The pie in the sky before you die…
When I come to die
When I come to die
Ooh, when I come to die
Give me Jesus
Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus!
You may have all this world
With it toils and snares
I know this thing for sure
Give me Jesus!
Jesus was given to Black People instead of a social safety net, proper policies, and protections – and we have been falling ever since.
But how did Black America end up here?
In a Washington Post article published April 30, 2019 entitled The Bible was used to justify slavery. Then Africans made it their path to freedom, it says, “The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions. Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.
Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved.”
Some preachers encouraged slave owners to allow their slaves to attend worship services — though only in separate gatherings led by white proslavery preachers. They had to be seated in the back or the balcony of a segregated church. Those men of God argued that the sermons on the injunction in Ephesians and Colossians, “slaves, obey your earthly master,” would promote docility among enslaved workers. The “slave Bible,” published in 1807, removed portions of Scripture including the Exodus story that could inspire rebellious thinking. Some ministers promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed in the book of Genesis, and thus their enslavement was fitting. The LDS Church also seconded that notion. As early as 1844, leaders suggested that black people were less valiant in the pre-existence. The church’s first presidents, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, claimed that black skin was the result of the Curse of Cain or the Curse of Ham.
So if people from European descent held such beliefs against Black Folks, How in the Hell did we become so religious? To get a better understanding, one first has to look at the social construct we call race and how that construct affected slaves and their descendants. When English people came to the shores of what is now Virginia, they came with a clearly defined self-identity. They were Christians first, English people second, and sometimes used terms like “free-born” to describe themselves. Their identity did not include any concept of being white. This change came about due to the economic and social conditions of the second half of the 17th century. The first people to harvest the tobacco plants in Virginia were English people whose passage to Virginia was paid for by wealthy landowners as part of indentured servitude. The typical term of service was four to seven years and at the end of that period, the indentured servant would be granted a small plot of land to farm as a free person. The labor was harsh and their treatment by those who oversaw the work was very near to that of slavery. Laws were created that could punish the servant class by adding years to their indenture for any infractions. These laws were often abused by the ruling class, taking advantage of their indentured servants by finding reasons to extend their servitude. By the mid-century, these conditions had created a shortage as less of the labor class came to Virginia.
Indentured servants who managed to complete their terms of service found their living conditions to be less than ideal. They were given land along the borders of the Colony in close proximity to very anxious Native Americans who were concerned about how far west the English might go. By 1676, those disaffected by the ruling class rebelled in what is now known as Bacon’s Rebellion.
Nathaniel Bacon was a highly ambitious and reckless member of the gentry and a cousin to Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, the wife of the Colonial Governor, Sir William Berkeley. His ambition caused him to galvanize the frustrations of those who were on the periphery of Colonial life. In rebellion, hundreds of Bacon’s men marched on Jamestown and burned it to the ground in September 1676. Nathaniel Bacon died the following month on October 26, 1676 of what was then known as the “Bloody Flux” (dysentery). His death caused the rebellion to lose momentum and, though the rebellion continued for a short time without Bacon, ultimately led to defeat. As punishment for the rebellion, 23 rebels were tried and convicted of treason.
The ruling class was concerned that these punishments were not enough to quash the potential for future rebellions. How would the ruling class prevent further collaboration between the English servant class, Indigenous peoples, and West African peoples? This is where our modern concept of race comes into play. If being a member of the elite gentry was simply a matter of wealth and landholdings, theoretically anyone could transform their status. But race, as defined by the color of your skin, was not something you could change. Suddenly, the way English Christian people began to self-identify was that of “white.”
In law, white began to define those holding privilege in both Maryland and Virginia. Longstanding Common Law precedents were overturned in order to justify and maintain this distinction among residents of the Colonies. Soon, those who were not white had their rights taken away. These included the right (and in fact the obligation) to bear arms, the right to assembly, the right to testify in court, and many other rights that now were the sole privileges of the white population. This pacified the English servant class by making them superior to West Africans as the shift towards an entirely enslaved group of laborers from West Africa continued and thrived. In 1650, the population of enslaved people in Virginia was just over 300. By the 1700s, the population had risen to 16,390. These non-white residents, who were at one time free, often found themselves enslaved because of these new laws.
So how did Black Americans become largely Christian? Historically, between 15% and 30% of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims, but most of these Africans were either enticed or forced into Christianity during the era of American slavery. According to Pew, the largest number, by far, were followers of traditional religions common in West Africa at the time. Many of these African belief systems included a supreme, distant god who created the world and a pantheon of lower gods and ancestor spirits who were active in daily life. Interactions between enslaved people and Christian missionaries (and other evangelists) led to the spread of Christianity among Black Americans. Many slave owners initially resisted these evangelistic efforts partially out of concern that if enslaved people became Christians, they would see themselves as their owners’ equals. On July 21, 1656, Elizabeth Key became the first woman of African descent in the North American colonies to sue for her freedom and win.She was born in 1630 to a Negro Slave Mother and a White Planter Father. Her arguments that by the Common Law the Child of a Woman slave begot by a freeman ought to be free. Also because she has been long since Christened as well. Not only did she win her freedom, her master was ordered to give her Corn and Clothes and give her satisfaction (money) for the time she had served as a slave.
By 1706, this fear by slave owners had spurred legislation in at least six colonies declaring that an enslaved person’s baptism did not entail their freedom. In addition, many enslaved people who did become Christians had to deal with restrictions by masters who forbade them from attending church or prayer meetings. To get around these restrictions, and for alternatives to sermons by White clergy asking them to obey their owners, many Christian enslaved people held secret services with distinctive styles of praying, singing and worship. These services were typically held in their cabins or in nearby woods, gullies, ravines and thickets.
Historians say the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt provided a good deal of inspiration to the enslaved people. This was reflected in coded lyrics to some of their religious songs, or spirituals. In “Go Down, Moses,” for example, the lyrics plead with the Hebrew prophet to “tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” Frederick Douglass wrote that when he was a child, before he had escaped slavery, “a keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven.
The first Black Protestant denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was founded in the early 1800s by Richard Allen, who had bought his freedom from slavery. Allen had become a Methodist preacher in the 1780s, but in 1787, he and others left the predominantly White church after being pulled from their knees in prayer for being in a section of the church where Black worshippers were not allowed. Three decades later, he and representatives from five other congregations founded the AME denomination. A similar chain of events in New York led to the creation of the AME Zion Church in 1821.
Toward the end of the Civil War, and in the decades immediately afterward, Black Protestant denominations cemented their place more deeply in the U.S. religious landscape. Especially after emancipation, the AME and AME Zion churches sent large numbers of missionaries to the South, leading many Black Christians to leave mostly White churches and join predominantly Black ones. The AME Church grew from 20,000 members just before the start of the Civil War to 400,000 in 1884, while the AME Zion Church’s membership jumped from 4,600 at the start of the war to 300,000 in 1884. 26 Other major denominations that came into existence during this period were the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870) and the National Baptist Convention (1880).27 Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau counted nearly 2.7 million “negro communicants” at Christian churches in 1890, reporting at least a fourfold increase in Black Christians over the previous three decades. It also found that Black people in 1890 were more likely than White people to be members of a Christian congregation (36% vs. 33%)
So here is where the problem comes. Often Black Americans evocate history like this and implore apologetics saying, “See here atheist!” The formation of the Black Church and the theology led to our liberation!” They forget that even during this time White Christian leaders like Joseph E. Brown, (one of the founders of the SBC, a former Whig, and a firm believer in slavery and Southern states’ rights) was a leading secessionist in 1861, and led his state into the Confederacy) exploited mostly black laborers in his coal mines in Georgia. He used the same brutal punishments once practiced by slave drivers. Or Basil Manly Sr., (a prominent pastor, politician, and slave owner) who was a staunch defender of the institute of slavery and often preached that the institution was biblically sound and those who practiced said institution was in the right. Or how about Montgomery’s most prominent pastor, Henry Lyon Jr., who denounced the civil rights protesters and the cause for which they were beaten. He famously said during an address to the White Citizens’ Council, “I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am nonetheless a Christian. If you want to get in a fight with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God. The difference in color, the difference in our body, our minds, our life, our mission upon the face of this earth, is God given.”
We also cannot and should not overlook that according to a survey conducted in 2018 by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that white Christians — including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics — are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans.
And white Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism. White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” And these trends generally persist even in the wake of the recent protests for racial justice.
There are far too many contradictions concerning faith between Black and White Folks who call themselves “believers” or even “Christian”. How can there be such a dichotomous point of view between Christians who are Black and White? It seems, in a historical point of view, White Religion was used to control the Negro and Black Folks tried to use it to Liberate the Negro and perhaps, make the Negro prosporous. Though the control seems to work in some shape, way or form, the prosperity of Christian Black People has not been realized. My partner (Arthur Ward) and I had the pleasure of interviewing filmmaker Jerimiah Camara who released a film called Contradiction: A Question Of Faith. Contradiction addresses the saturation of churches in Black neighborhoods coexisting with poverty and powerlessness. Why are there so many churches yet so many problems? Is there a correlation between high-praise and low-productivity? I will never forget a particular scene where a Black Woman was smoking crack while being interviewed. She said she had asked God to take the taste of Crack out of her mouth. She also mentioned she is a loyal member of a church that attends just about every Sunday. When asked if giving up belief in Jesus would stop her from using crack, would she do it – she passionately responded JESUS IS THE NUMBER ONE IN MY LIFE! In other words, nah.
Going back to Hubert Harrison’s words, deep indoctrination and revisionist history of the “dubious blessings” of Christianity has thwarted a larger population of Black People finding themselves in the Freethought fold. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are at an all time low in God Belief sitting at 81% which is 10 points lower than 10 years ago. Even Black Americans, according to Pew, who are non-religious are currently at 18% which is the highest it has been in years. Still the element of “God Belief” and “Pie in the Sky” hovers over our community like an ominous cloud. In the book “The Fire Next Time”, James Baldwin eloquently said, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
Maybe, just maybe, it is time to take the elder’s advice.