Can You Write This After 2019? (part two)

Another entry under the category of timelines, this time with a striking contrast of narratives.

This is the narrative of the black evangelical church from 2019:

White Christianity is the offspring of evangelical revivalism and various forms of American exceptionalism. White Christianity then is a combination of biblical religion and a certain view of power, privilege, access and influence. It’s a religion that sees itself as best-suited for life at the top. It assumes that at the very least it should have influence over the entire culture and that it should shape the moral and ethical outlook of the citizenry. Certain varieties see the country as a “Christian nation” and sees progress as a matter of reclaiming this Christian ideal now largely lost or threatened. 

Black Christianity is the offspring of American evangelicalism and the “hush arbor.” The hush arbor is the term used to describe the worship of slaves who snuck away into the bush, usually at night, and worshipped according to the dictates of their own conscience and the needs of their own community. So black Christianity is one part biblical religion and public piety (evangelical revivalism). But it is also one part clandestine resistance and self-care. It views itself as working from the bottom and the margins, not to climb atop of everyone else, but to be free, whole, joyful, and useful. 

Because they share one parent (evangelical revivalism), they have a great deal in common. But because they also have different parents, they have very different characteristics too.

In 2007 the genealogy of the black church looked different and its recent expressions not so welcome:

Three theological streams flowed through the doctrine of salvation in African American history. The first stream was the Calvinism adopted by the earliest generation of northern writers, preachers and thinkers and the broadly reformed thinking of African Americans in the plantation South. Their convictions included the doctrines of radical depravity, sovereign election, the necessity of regeneration and a general denial of free will. . . .

The Wesleyan/Arminian tradition, sparked among African Americans by the labors of Methodist churchmen, was the second stream of thought. Institutionalized by Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Arminian soteriology with its higher view of human moral ability and freedom spread in African American faith communities during the 1800s. . . Holiness and Pentecostal revivals in the late 1800s and early 1900s represented flash floods of Arminianism and helped establish this soteriological view as the dominant perspective among African Americans to the present. . . .

The worst part of the decline came now with the move to Wesleyan/Arminiansm, which retained significant elements of orthodox doctrine found in the broader Reformation, but with the distortions of theological liberalism and word-of-faith and prosperity “gospel excesses on the other. Theologically liberal streams opened up in the mid-1900s in the mainstream ideas of the Civil Rights movement and the revolutionary propositions of Black Theology. Black Theology achieved some academic success and reputation, and the iconic stature of theologically liberal leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped shape much of the church’s social ethics. However African Americans remained largely evangelical in their view of Scripture and conversion. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [2007] 211-213)

Can You Write This after 2019? (part one)

Chalk this one up again in the category of timelines:

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)