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Lecture 19: "Toward a Sociology of Black Churches"

May 12, 1999

Lincoln & Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (1990)



Premise: "black religion … is significantly part & parcel of the American experience in religion…."

"The Black Church" refers to the pluralism of black Christian churches. The book looks at seven major historical black denominations:

African Methodist Episcopal (AME) 2.2 million/9.3%
African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) 1.2 million/5.1%
Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) 0.9 million/3.8%
National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated (NBC) 7.5 million/31.6%
National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (NBCA) 2.4 million/10.1%
Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) 1.2 million/5.1%
Church of God in Christ (COGIC) 3.7 million/15.6%

More than 80 percent of all black Christians are in above denominations w/ the remaining in the ones cited below.

Smaller black communions 1.4 million/5.9%
Predominantly white Protestant groups 1.2 million/5.1%
Roman Catholic 2 million/8.4%

Three major assumptions

  1. there is a distinctively "black sacred cosmos"
  2. Black Church is central institution of Black Culture & only partially differentiated
  3. there are several dialectical tensions within the Black Church recognition of which is necessary to understand complexity & plurality within Black Church

Assumption #1:

Meaning of word "freedom" is multilayered. But it’s deepest & most enduring meaning has always been "the absence of any restraint which might comprise one’s responsibility to God" (4)

"Frenzy": "intense enthusiasm & open display of emotions & feelings" among worshippers, a purifying explosion of emotions that eclipses the harshness of reality.


Key Point: there is a qualitatively different form of Christian religion is found in most black churches.


Assumption #2:

The Black Church is the central institution of African American life and is only partially differentiated differentiation.


Assumption #3:

There is a series of dialectical tensions that help to explain the variety of forms religion takes within the Black Church.

Five models or types of Black Churches:

  1. Assimilation
  2. Isolation
  3. Compensatory
  4. Ethnic community-prophetic
  5. Dialectical

Dialectical model of the Black Church: Six pairs of dialectically related opposites:

  1. The dialectic between priestly and prophetic functions
  2. The dialectic between other-worldly versus this-worldly.
  3. The dialectic between universalism and particularism.
  4. The dialectic between the communal and the privatistic.
  5. The dialectic between charismatic versus bureaucratic.
  6. The dialectic between resistance versus accommodation.

So what? The point of these models is that all these dialectical polarities give us a more dynamic, complex and nuanced view of the Black Church as a social institution.

Adolph L. Reed, Jr.’s argument that a complete differentiation of spheres between the Black Church and politics has, in fact, occurred. And that the black clergy as political leaders are no longer needed.

Lincoln and Mamiya stress the "cultural starting point" of African Americans in strong opposition to the notion that Africans were brought as slaves to the new world as "blank slates" without culture.

Gary Marx on effects of religion on civil rights protests and militancy.

The political ambiguity of the Black Church (227)

Du Bois’s Double Consciousness (228)

The survival tradition

The liberation tradition