The white evangelical church of the 1700s is largely credited with giving birth to the African American church in the plantation south. Missionaries and evangelists associated with Baptist and Methodist churches were the first to make successful inroads into the religious lives of African Americans. Contrary to what might be supposed given the prohibition of education, reading and writing among slaves, early black Christians evidenced a rather sophisticated and clear theological corpus of thought. This clarity of early theological insight produced perhaps the most authentic expression of Christianity in American history, forming the basis for the African American church’s engagement in both the propagation of the gospel and social justice activism.
However, over time, especially following emancipation from slavery through the Civil Rights era, the theological basis for the church’s activist character was gradually lost and replaced with a secular foundation. The church became less critical theologically and increasingly more concerned with social, political and educational agendas. Disentangled from its evangelical and Reformed theological upbringing, the church became motivated by a quest for justice for justices sake rather than by the call and mandate of God as expressed in more biblical understandings of Christianity. Secularization overtook the African American church, along with its “white” counterpart.
As secularization took root, the predominant framework for understanding the African American church shifted from theology to sociology and was influenced by the work of W. E. B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, and others. With an emphasis on a sociological framework for studying the church, the African American church came to be understood primarily as a social institution and self-help organization with a vague spiritual dimension, rather than as a spiritual organism born of God’s activity in the world. This is not to imply that the church has not always played a role in educational, social and political agendas, but to point out the loss of a God-centered understanding of why such pursuits were appropriate for the church. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, 17-18)