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Religious Duty to the Negro

September 22, 1893 — World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


The strength and weakness of the Christian religion as believed, preached, and practiced in the United States is aptly illustrated in its influence as a civilizing and educational force among the colored people of this country. The negro was brought to this country by Christians, for the use of Christians, and he has ever since been treated, estimated and gauged by what are called Christian ideals of right and wrong.

The negro has been in America so long and has been so completely isolated from everything that is foreign to American notions, as to what is compatible with Christianity, that he may be fittingly said to be entirely the product of Christian influences. The vices and virtues of the American negro are the same in kind and degree as those of the men and women from whom he has been learning, by precept and example, all that he knows of God and humanity. The fetiches and crudities of the dark continent have long since ceased to be a part of his life and character, he is by every mark, impulse and aspiration an American Christian, and to the American church belongs the credit and responsibility of all that he is and is to be as a man and citizen of this republic.

Religion, like every other force in America, was first used as an instrument and servant of slavery. All attempts to Christianize the negro were limited by the important fact that he was property of a valuable and peculiar sort, and that the property value must not be disturbed, even if his soul were lost. If Christianity could make the negro docile, domestic and less and independent and fighting savage, let it be preached to that extent and no further. Do not open the Bible too wide.

Such was the false, pernicious and demoralizing Gospel preached to the American slave for two hundred years. But bad as this teaching was, it was scarcely so demoralizing as the Christian ideals held up for the negro’s emulation. When mothers saw their babes sold by Christians on the auction block in order to raise money to send missionaries to foreign lands; when black Christians saw white Christians openly do everything forbidden in the Decalogue; when, indeed, they saw, as no one else could see, hypocrisy in all things triumphant everywhere, is it not remarkable if such people have any religious sense of the purities of Christianity? People who are impatient of the moral progress of the colored people certainly are ignorant as to how far false teachings and vicious examples tended to dull the moral sense of the race.

As it is there is much to be unlearned as well as to be learned. That there is something higher and better in the Christian religion than rewards and punishments is a new lesson to thousands of colored people who are still worshiping under the old dispensation of the slave Bible. But it is not an easy task to unlearn religious conceptions. “Servants, obey your masters,” was preached and enforced by all the cruel instrumentalities of slavery, and by its influence the colored people were made the most valued slaves in the world. The people who in Africa resisted with terrible courage all invasions of the white races became through Christianity the most docile and defenseless of servants.

Knowing full well that the religion offered to the negro was first striped of moral instructions and suggestions, there are thousands of white church members even who charge, or are ready to believe, that the colored people are a race of moral reprobates. Fortunately the negro’s career in America is radiant with evidence showing that he has always known the difference between courage and lawlessness of all forms, and anarchy in this country is not of negro origin nor a part of his history.

There was a notable period in the history of this country when the moral force of the negro character was tested to an extraordinary extent and he was not found wanting. When the country was torn asunder by the passions of civil war, and everybody thirsted for blood and revenge in every violent form, when to ravage and kill was the all-controlling passion of the hour, the negro’s opportunity for retribution was ripe and at hand.

The men who degraded the race and were risking everything to continue that degradation, left their widows, their daughters, their mothers, wealth and all the precious interests of home, in the keeping of a race who has received no lessons of moral restraint. It seems but tame to say that the negro race was loyal to that trust and responsibility. Nowhere in Christendom has such nobleness of heart and moral fortitude been exampled among any people; and a recollection of the negro’s conduct under this extraordinary test should save the race from the charge of being lacking in moral instincts.

There is yet another notable example of the moral heroism of the colored American in spite of his lack of real religious instruction. The African Methodist Episcopal church, with its million members, vast property in churches, schools, academies, publications and learned men and women, is an enduring monument to the righteous protest of Christians to establish the mean sentiment of caste in religion and degrade us to a footstool position at the shrine of Christian worship. The colored churches of all denominations in this country are not evidences of our unfitness for religious equality, but they are so may evidences of the negro’s religious heroism and self respect, that would not book the canting assertion of mastery and superiority of those who could see the negro only as a slave, whether on earth or in heaven.

There is another and brighter side to the question as to how far the Christian religion has helped the colored people of America to realize their positions as citizens of this proud Republic. Enough has already been said to show that the colored American, in spite of all the downward forces that have environed him, must have been susceptible to the higher influences of the false teachings thereof. Though the Bible was not an open book to the negro before emancipation, thousands of the enslaved men and women of the negro race learned more than was taught to them. Thousands of them realized the deeper meanings the sweeter consolations and the spiritual awakenings that are a part of the religious experiences of all Christians. These thousands were the nucleus out of which was to grow the correct religious life of the millions.

In justification of the church it must be said that there has always been a goodly number of heroic men and saintly women who believed in the the manhood and womanhood of the negro race, and at all times gave the benefit of the best religious teachings of the times. The colored people gladly acknowledge that, since emancipation, the churches of the country have almost redeemed themselves from their former sin of complicity with slavery.

The churches saw these people come into the domain of citizenship stripped of all possessions, unfurnished with intelligence, untrained in the school of self-sacrifice and moral restraint, with no way out of the wilderness of their ignorance of all things, and no leadership. They saw these people with no hoes or household organizations, no social order, no churches, no schools, and in the midst of people who, by training and instinct, could not recognize the manhood of the race. They saw the government give these people the certificate of freedom and citizenship without telling them what it meant. They saw politicians count these people as so many votes, and laughed at them when pleading for schools of learning for their children.

They saw all the great business and industrial organizations of the country ignoring these people as having any possible relationship to the producing and consuming forces of the nation. They saw the whole white population looking with distrust and contempt upon these men and women, new and untried in the responsibilities of civil life. While the colored people of America were thus friendless and without status of any kind, the Christian churches came instantly, heroically and powerfully to the rescue. They began and once not only to create a sentiment favorable to the uprising of these people, but began the all-important work of building schools and churches.

They aroused the philanthropic impulse of the American people to such a degree that millions of money and an army of men and women have covered the hills of the South with agencies of regeneration of the white and black slaves of the South. The churches have vied with each other in their zeal for good work in spreading the Gospel of intelligence. Going into states that knew nothing of public school systems they have created a passion for education among both races. States that have been hostile to the idea of universal intelligence and that at one time made it a criminal offense to teach black men and women to read and write, have, under the blessed influence of the missionary work of the churches, been wonderfully converted and are now making appropriations for the education of colored children and founding and maintaining institutions that rank as normal schools, colleges and industrial schools.

Whatever may be our just grievance in the southern states, it is fitting that we acknowledge that, considering their poverty and past relationship to the negro race, they have done remarkably well for the cause of education among us. That the whole South should commit itself to the principle that the colored people have a right to be educated is an immense acquisition to the cause of popular education.

We are grateful to the American church for this significant change of sentiment, as we are grateful to it for making our cause and needs popular at the fireside of thousands of the best homes in the country. The moral force that vouched for the expenditure of nearly $40,000,000, voluntarily given for educational and church work in the South during the last twenty-five years, is splendid testimony of the interest felt by the American people in the cause of the intellectual and moral development of the negro race. Bearing in mind all this good work done by the churches since emancipation, it is proper to ask, what can religion further do for the colored people? This question is itself significant of the important fact that colored people are beginning to think for themselves and to feel restive and conscious of every limitation to their development.

At the risk of underestimating church work in the South I must say that religion in its more blessed influences, in its wider and higher reaches of good in humanity, has made less progress in refining the life and character of the white and colored people of the South than the activity of the church interests of the South would warrant us in believing. That there is more profession than religion, more so-called church work than religious zeal, is characteristic of the American people generally, and of the southern people particularly.

More religion and less church may be accepted as a general answer to the question, “What can religion further do to advance the condition of the colored people of the South?” It is not difficult to specify wherein church interests have failed and wherein religion could have helped to improve these people. In the first place the churches have sent among us too many ministers who have had no sort of preparation and fitness for the work assigned them. With a due regard for the highly capable colored ministers of the country, I feel no hesitancy in saying that the advancement of our condition is more hindered by a large part of the ministry intrusted with leadership than by any other single cause.

Only men of moral and mental force, of a patriotic regard for the relationship of the two races, can be of real service as minister in the South. Less theology and more of human brotherhood, less declamation and more common sense and love for truth, must be the qualifications of the new ministry that shall yet save the race from the evils of false teachings. With this new and better ministry will come the reign of that religion which ministers to the heart and gives to all our soul functions an impulse to righteousness. The tendency of creeds and doctrine to obscure religion, to make complex that which is elemental and simple, to suggest partisanship and doubt in that which is universal and certain, has seriously hindered the moral progress of the colored people of this country.

The home and social life of these people is in urgent need of the purifying power of religion. We do not yet sufficiently appreciate the fact that the heart of every social evil and disorder among the colored people, especially of the rural South, is the lack of those inherent moral potencies of home and family that are the well-springs of all the good in human society.

In nothing was slavery so savage and so relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the negro race in America. Individuals, not families; shelters, not homes; herding, not marriages, were the cardinal sins in that system of horrors. Who can ever express in song or story the pathetic history of this race of unfortunate people when freedom came, groping about for their scattered offspring with only instinct to guide them, trying to knit together the broken tie of family kinship? It was right at this point of rehabilitation of the home life of these people that the philanthropic efforts of America should have begun. It was right here that religion in its humanitarian tendencies of love, in its moral direction and purifying force, was most needed, and still is most needed. Every preacher and every teacher in the South will tell us that preaching from the pulpit and teaching in the schoolhouse is but half done so long as the homes are uninstructed in that practical religion that can make pure and sacred every relationship it touches of man, woman and child.

Religion should not leave these people alone to learn from birds and beasts those blessed meanings of marriage, motherhood and family. Religion should not utter itself only once or twice a week through a minister from a pulpit, but should open every cabin door and get immediate contact with those who have not yet learned to translate into terms of conduct the promptings of religion.

How ardently do we all hope that the heart of American womanhood will yet be aroused and touched by this opportunity to elevate and broaden the home-life of these unfortunate women in black. It ought never to be said that a whole race of teachable women are permitted to grope their way unassisted toward a realization of those domestic virtues, moral impulses, and standards of family and social life that alone are badges to responsibility. There needs no evidence to show that these unfortunate people are readily susceptible to these higher and purifying influences of religion. Come from what source they may, Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, or from those who profess no religion but who indeed are often the most religious, the colored people are eager to learn and know those lessons that make men and women morally strong and responsible.

In pleading for some organized effort to improve the home life of these people, we are asking for nothing but what is recognized everywhere as the necessary protection to the homes of all civilized people. Witness how beautifully and grandly the women of Christendom are organized to protect the homes against the invasions of intemperance. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union has gathered up the religious impulse of American womanhood for God, home, and native land. Again, to this union of pure hearts against the sin of intemperance is that other union in behalf of pure homes — “The Social Purity Society”; in fact, good women and brave men continually stand guard at the entrance of American homes, except that of the negro. Our homes need in a special degree those moral helps, promptings, inspirations, and protections that are now and everywhere the necessary safeguards even to the homes of those people who are cultured in all things spiritual and mental.

There is still another and important need of religion in behalf of our advancement. In nothing do the American people so contradict the spirit of their institutions, the high sentiments of their civilization, and the maxims of their religion, as they do in practically denying to our colored men and women the full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The colored people have appealed to every source of power and authority for relief, but in vain. For the last twenty-five years we have gone to legislatures, to political parties, and even to churches, for some cure for prejudice; but we have at last learned that help from these sources is merely palliative. It is a monstrous thing that nearly one-half of the so-called Evangelical churches of this country, those situated in the South, repudiate fellowship to every Christian man and woman who happens to be of African descent.  It is a shameful thing to say of the Christian religion as practiced in one part of our country that a young colored man susceptible of spiritual enlightenment will find a readier welcome in a saloon or any other place than he will in any evangelical church.

The fact is that the heart of America is fearfully wrong in its understanding and sentiment concerning the colored race. The golden rule of fellowship taught in the Christian Bible becomes in practice the iron rule of race hatred. That distinguished representative from Japan who started this parliament the other day by arraigning Christendom for its many hypocrisies must have had in mind the irreligious conduct of white American Christians toward black American Christians.

The hope of the negro and other dark races in America depends upon how far the white Christians can assimilate their own religion. At present there seems to be no ethical attitude in public opinion toward our colored citizens. White men and women are careless and meanly indifferent about the merits and rights of colored men and women. The white man who swears and the white man who prays are alike contemptuous about the claims of colored men.

In every profession, in every trade and occupation of men there is a code of ethics that governs the relationship and fosters the spirit of fraternity among its members. This is the religious sense of the people applied to the details of practical life. Yet, even these religious promptings to deal rightly too often stop short of reaching the man or woman who happens to be black.

Can religion help the American people to be consistent and to live up to all they profess and believe in their government and religion?

What we need is such a re-enforcement of the gentle power of religion that all souls, of whatever color shall be included within the blessed circle of its influence. The American negro in his meager environment needs the moral helpfulness and contact of men and women whose lives are larger, sweeter, and stronger than his. It should be the mission of religion to give him this help.

It should be the province of religion to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines. The American negro in his environment needs the moral helpfulness of contact with men and women whose lives are larger, sweeter and stronger than his. The colored man has the right according to his worth to earn an honest living in every calling and branch of industry that makes ours the busiest of nations, but there is needed a more religious sense of justice that will permit him to exercise this right as freely as any other worthy citizen can do.

I believe that I correctly speak the feeling of the colored people in declaring our unyielding faith in the corrective influence of true religion. We believe that there is too much potency in the sentiment of human brotherhood, and in the still higher sentiment of the Fatherhood of God, to allow a whole race of hopeful men and women to remain long outside of the pale of that ever growing sympathetic interest of man in man.

. . .

There is needed in these new and budding homes of the race a constructive morality.

A man should have the qualifications of a teacher, the self-sacrificing spirit of a true missionary, and the enthusiasm of a reformer to do much good as a preacher among the negroes.

Believing, as we all do, that the saving power of religion pure and simple transcends all other forces that make for righteousness in human life, it is not too much to believe that when such a religion becomes a part of the breath and life, not only of the colored people, but of all the people in the country, there will be no place or time for the reign of prejudice and injustice. More of religion and less church may be accepted as a general answer to this question. In the first place, the churches have sent amongst us too many ministers who have had no sort of preparation and fitness for the work assigned them. With a due regard for the highly capable colored ministers of the country, I feel no hesitancy in saying that the advancement of our condition is more hindered by a large part of the ministry entrusted with the leadership than by any other single cause. No class of American citizens has had so little religion and so much vitiating nonsense preached to them as the colored people of this county.



Source:  Fannie Barrier Williams, “Religious Duty to the Negro,” The World’s Parliament of Religions, (Chicago, 1894), pp. 893-897.