Essay: How did black churches function during the antebellum period?
Frederick Douglas, perhaps, said it best when he mentioned that the AME Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia, obviously being a black church, was “the largest church in the Union,” with up to 3,000 worshipers every Sunday. This fact, along with black churches being the most influential institution in the antislavery movement (even more so than black conventions and newspapers) gave the religious aspect of the movement a powerful advantage. With very few exceptions, most leading black abolitionists were ministers. A few black ministers, such as Amos N. Freeman of Brooklyn, New York, even served white antislavery congregations. Black Churches also provided forums for abolitionist speakers and meeting places for predominantly white antislavery organizations, which frequently could not meet in white churches.
Black church buildings were community centers. They housed schools and meeting places for other organizations. Antislavery societies often met in churches, and the churches harbored fugitive slaves. All of this went hand in hand with the community leadership black ministers provided. They began schools and various voluntary associations. They spoke against slavery, racial oppression, and what they considered weaknesses among African Americans. However, black ministers never spoke with one voice. Throughout the antebellum decades, many followed Jupiter Hammon in admonishing their congregations that preparing one’s soul for heaven was more important than gaining equal rights on earth.
Most black Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic congregations remained affiliated with white denominations, although they were rarely represented in regional and national church councils. For example, the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 1819 excluded black ministers from its annual conventions, mentioning that African Americans “are socially degraded, and are not...
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