Researcher traces how black churches became centers of political engagement – Baptist News Global

Black churches became centers of political engagement in the 19th century, when black Christians decided to take full advantage of citizenship in American society, scholar Nicole Myers Turner said during a Baptist History and Heritage Society webinar.

The racial policy was driven “by the need to access resources that had been denied to free blacks and by a deep sense that black freedom and equality must be recognized,” she said. “There was a development of this resistance to marginalization in the post-emancipation period.”

Nicole Myers Turner

Myers Turner, assistant professor of American religious history at Yale University, gave a lecture on her 2020 book, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Post-Mancipation Virginia. The presentation marked the third installment of the society’s ongoing project “Making Black History Public History” and was hosted virtually by First Baptist Church in Hampton, Va., and its pastor, Todd C. Davidson.

The July 7 speech included summaries of case studies from the book detailing the evolution and effectiveness of black religious political advocacy, the emerging voice of women within the black church, the pastor’s pedigree in church leadership and influence of black theological education in these ministerial and gender developments.

“Whenever we think of black churches, it’s not far behind when we hear of someone like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. … I wanted to tease, how did black churches become these spaces? the author explained.

The answer dates back to the late 1880s, when John Mercer Langston became the first black Virginian elected to Congress.

John Mercer Langston

Black churches and associations, previously isolated on issues of politics and theology, began to cooperate in addressing mutual social and political challenges. By the time Langston ran for the United States House of Representatives, he was able to capitalize on these widespread and interconnected associations for support.

“We are seeing a transition in leadership where black church networks are becoming key to political organizing,” said Myers Turner. “It’s the arrival of the black church.”

Black churches and associations, previously isolated on political and theological issues, began to cooperate to address mutual social and political challenges.

The use of the term “freedom of the soul” in the title of the book, she added, refers to this achievement and to the black church’s pursuit of religious freedom, equity and Justice.

Women were also looking that freedom and has achieved it to some degree with the congressional campaign, she said. “Langston has integrated women into his organization. They couldn’t hold office, but they could organize and help black candidates.

A pivotal point for women was also documented in a Virginia congregation’s handling of a single mother and her ultimately unsuccessful appeal for reinstatement of the church in the early 1880s.

Women in the congregation were able to initiate a series of conversations and committee hearings challenging the traditional practice of reinstating men in such cases, but not women.

“We can see that even the presence of this conversation reflected how much women’s voices were gaining strength. Women began speaking out against these inequalities and getting the attention of the church,” said Myers Turner. “So even though the (woman’s) application was not successful, what is remarkable about this case is that in the church meetings, the voices of women were heard and they were able to be included in this process. Whereas in the past, they were the ones who were disciplined and they had no voice.

The case also demonstrated the pastor’s continued rise as the primary authority in black churches, deciding in this case that single mothers would be disciplined while men would not, she said. “While the church used to make community decisions, now the decision was up to the pastor. It’s a transformation that is happening during the 19th century.

The pastor’s ancestry was also enhanced by the development of theological education for black ministers during this time, she said.

Myers Turner quoted the branch Theological Seminary, an institution founded by the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Virginia to educate black ministers and maintain segregation between white and black churches. “That’s one of the places where we’re starting to see theological education and its gendered components, the idea that theological education is just for men.”

But even theological education of black men was seen as dangerous by some because it posed “a real danger to white supremacy of black men being trained and elevated to ministerial leadership,” she said.

The lack of educational opportunities for black women has become increasingly viewed as perilous by black church leaders and educators, Myers Turner said. “In the late 1880s, early 1890s, this idea began to emerge that education was one of the ways to preserve for black women a sense of dignity and protection from the violence that might arise. if they worked for white men.

“So we can start to see that Black ministerial leadership is established in theological education, and it also becomes a model for the protection of black women. The minister becomes a protective figure for black women through the argument of education.

Todd Davidson

In his response to the conference, Davidson said the history of black church activism was alive and well in the churches he served, and he lamented the theological differences that prevent black churches from doing more together.

But he added that Myers Turner’s book demonstrates the importance for churches to diligently maintain congregational histories.

“Churches need good historians or partner with local academic institutions to chronicle this kind of history in the local church,” he said.

Myers Turner, who toured the church and convention minutes and local church records and histories in her research, said she always urges congregations to preserve records and record members’ experiences for future generations.

“We need to partner more around oral histories and around church record keeping. There is so much history to be recorded by church members and also by churches that preserve records. We cannot continue to tell their story without them.

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