Perhaps you remember the 2008 ABC News compilation of short clips from the sermons of Jeremiah Wright, pastor of then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The clips, which aired repeatedly, showed Wright calling for God’s judgment on the nation for the sins of racism and imperialism. The controversy lay not in the fact that a black church was politicized, not because his religion inspired political action, nor because he endorsed a candidate from the pulpit. No, Wright’s preaching proved controversial because of his ideas. He narrated God’s relationship to the nation in a way that challenged how many white Americans understood themselves, their nation, and their God.
Nineteenth-century black preachers and politicians made similar moves. Like Wright, they spoke often of God’s judgment and favor upon certain peoples. Consider William H. Hunter, a black Union chaplain who was in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the day of emancipation. On February 22, 1865, as black Union soldiers occupied the city, free and enslaved blacks lined the streets to cheer, dance, and celebrate. One woman spotted her son among the soldiers. He was one of many young men who had left home as slaves and now returned as liberators. Their presence meant the end of slavery. Marching with the soldiers was Chaplain Hunter who, like many of them, was born a slave in the area. He now returned with authority and good news. At a Methodist prayer service for the newly emancipated a few days later, an observer described Hunter as stretching “himself to his full size and displaying to the best advantage for a profound impression his fine uniform.” He announced that emancipation was the work of God and that Confederate defeat was God’s judgment against slaveholders. The congregation erupted in shouts of joy. To Hunter and many black Christians, emancipation marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. White southerners noticed.
In the days and weeks that followed, local whites reported profound changes in the city’s black population. Wilmington’s leading white Methodist minister, Lingurn Burkhead, complained about their “exhibitions of the spirit of the newly acquired boon of freedom.” They flagrantly violated rules of deference to whites. Black women, for example, no longer ceded the sidewalk to white women. Burkhead mocked them, but for Hunter and the black congregants who soon after challenged Burkhead for control of the church and then organized conventions demanding equal citizenship, there was nothing laughable about their reversal of fortunes.
How Hunter and other black Christians understood God’s plan for the race and the nation figured into their political activity. Historians have missed important aspects of black politics by paying little attention to the content of black religious ideas, by thinking of black religion as only providing motivation or institutional resources. Different black religious ideas led to different black political choices in the period following emancipation. Almost all black Christians agreed that God was at work in history on their behalf, the clearest evidence being the emancipation of four million slaves. For decades, black Americans had prayed for and prophesied the coming of freedom. When freedom finally came, it proved to them that God was on their side and had already begun a plan to vindicate and elevate their race. Discerning God’s plan in emancipation formed part of nearly every political debate, from how to oppose Jim Crow segregation to whether to join political third parties.
As the word debate implies, black Christians did not agree on God’s purpose for the race post emancipation. Let’s take, for example, black responses to the collapse of Reconstruction. If some expected emancipation to inaugurate an era where the fortunes of African Americans steadily improved, then they faced a stumbling block just out of the gates. Radical Reconstruction brought what many had prophesied; citizenship and voting rights for black men followed on the heels of freedom. Some of the former slaves in Wilmington who had organized conventions after emancipation found themselves serving in the state legislature three years later. But even this victory was short-lived, as conservative white Democrats, armed with militias and vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, regained power. Black legislators such as North Carolina’s James Harris, himself a former slave, asked members of the General Assembly to consider what God’s purpose had been in freeing the slaves. Harris tried to reconcile his great hope from emancipation with his great suffering from the collapse of Reconstruction. To him, the political struggles for control of southern states were cosmic battles between the forces of heaven and the forces of hell.
Other black Christians wrote their experiences into different narratives. Some turned to the exodus, the story of the Hebrews’ flight from Egyptian slavery, through forty years in the wilderness, to the Promised Land in Canaan. Were the years after the 1870s a vast desert that stood between slavery and the Promised Land? Black American use of the exodus is well known, but it was not the only story. Other black southerners turned to tales of the Israelites in exile. These stories recounted God’s people living among and overpowered by the ungodly. One black writer described the Klan in Mississippi in 1872 as the blasphemous Chaldeans in the Book of Daniel who feasted on plates stolen from the Jewish temple. The message: sometimes God’s people have to watch God’s enemies prosper, if only for a time.
Both exodus and exile narratives challenged conservative white southerners’ telling of history. For most white southerners, the end of Reconstruction marked a permanent return to the racial order God intended. The narratives of exodus and exile instead cast white violence and Democratic power as temporary and unnatural setbacks in a larger story about black freedom. Yet despite the similarities, when black southerners employed these different stories, they arrived at different political actions.
Some who retold exodus narratives noted that God’s people undertook a large migration between slavery and the Promised Land. All across the South in the 1870s, disgruntled black workers organized migrations out of the region. The large numbers of African Americans fleeing Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee for Kansas christened the southern Great Plains “a new Canaan.” Would-be migrants in South Carolina formed the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. By 1878, they had raised enough money to purchase the Azor, which harbored in Charleston before taking 206 passengers to Liberia on its first and only voyage. Some looked to the American Colonization Society (ACS) for help. For example, just two years after the Azor sailed, 100 black refugees from Arkansas became stranded and penniless in New York, having sold their possessions to fund travel expenses in hopes of boarding ACS vessels bound for Liberia. In the Hebrews’ exodus, possession of the land followed emancipation and migration. So, many black Christians expected their own land as a consequence of emancipation. When prospects for land ownership in the South collapsed with the failure of Reconstruction, to many blacks, biblical exodus narratives urged them to search for land elsewhere.
Other biblical stories, such as exile narratives, differed sharply from the more familiar narrative of exodus. By understanding themselves in exile, some black southerners found a political voice and ways to protect themselves (with violence, if necessary) as an ethnic minority living in a hostile land. In December 1870, as Reconstruction seemed to be collapsing in North Carolina, seventeen black state legislators gathered in Raleigh to devise a political strategy to stop the impeachment of the Republican governor. They feared more terror from the Ku Klux Klan and new curtailments on black freedom. In the meeting, the lawmakers issued to the states’ black ministers a circular that framed the political crisis within an exile narrative—the story of Queen Esther in Persia.
The circular compared the impeachment trial with the persecution of Mordecai. In the biblical account, Haman, a Persian official, became outraged because Mordecai, a prominent Jew, would not bow down before him. Haman then secured an edict from the king calling for the massacre of all Jews and the plunder of their property. Mordecai’s cousin Esther, who had kept her Hebrew nationality secret, gained the favor of the king and became one of his queens. While Haman built gallows to hang Mordecai, Esther proclaimed a three-day fast among the Jews. After the fast, the king heard Esther’s plea for safety for all of her people, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai. In the circular’s extended comparison, the governor facing impeachment was the persecuted Mordecai. The state’s African Americans were the persecuted Jews, and the black legislators, as leaders of an oppressed minority, played the role of Queen Esther. They appointed January 13, 1871 as the day for all black North Carolinians to pray and fast.
White newspaper editors expressed alarm, fear, and vitriol at the publication of the Esther circular. One conservative editor warned that the circular purposed to “incit[e] the negroes to violence and outrage” and would lead to “strife, bloodshed, and anarchy.” How violent could prayer and fasting be? For those unfamiliar with the ending of the Esther story, the editorials’ fear of violence seemed far-fetched. But both the newspaper editors and the circular’s authors had in mind the rest of Esther’s story. After the Persian king ordered the execution of Haman, the problems for the Jews did not end. Under Persian law, a royal order, such as the one Haman secured from the king ordering the massacre of the Jews, could not be repealed, not even by the ruler who issued it. So, when the king later favored Esther and her people, he could not reverse the binding edict calling for their genocide. Instead, he issued a second edict authorizing the Jews to defend themselves.
By evoking the Esther story, the black legislators subtly claimed a right to armed self-defense: if conservative Democrats continued to use violence to disfranchise African Americans, then the state’s black population had the right to protect themselves, or at least seek the military protection of others. The Esther circular did not narrate the Jews’ acts of self-defense; it didn’t have to. The authors could assume that their audience would know the story well, and given the fearful reaction of some white newspaper editors, they assumed correctly. This exile narrative allowed the legislators to imagine what would be necessary in their new political crisis. The Jews of Esther’s day were able to have peace in Persia only by holding some political power—in their case by currying favor with the king—and by being armed and organized, able to fend off future attacks.
Historians for a long time missed that the black legislators were calling for military protection or armed self-defense. There’s a lot of black politics that we can miss, if we don’t take seriously the religious ideas of black people. Unsurprisingly, in 2008, few stopped to take seriously the religious ideas of Jeremiah Wright, though Obama did respond with a speech that narrated America’s racial past with the kind of complexity and context not usually given by candidates for public office. The genre of television news and the heat of a presidential election are not conducive for careful understandings of black religion and politics; historians, however, can offer those careful understandings. Political histories can see religion not just as inspiration for activism or otherworldy distraction. Both politics and religion ask grand questions: Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? To understand black politics well, we have to wrestle with the specific and differing answers that people of faith gave to those questions.
Three misconceptions about black religion stand in our way. First, historians have often debated whether black religion inspired political action or inaction. Missing in this analysis, however, is the content of different religious ideas and the different political actions they called for. Second, a long tradition of writing about “the Black Church,” as if it were a unified or homogenous institution, still makes it hard to see political differences among black Americans as rooted in theological differences, despite recent scholarship that has highlighted the diversity of black religious traditions. Third, contemporary white observers wrote of black people as naturally religious and emotional. When black people referred to specific theological ideas or biblical passages in political documents, it became easy to take them as evidence of black people’s religiosity rather than attempt to understand what they were saying.
Matt Harper is Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. He is the author of The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (2016)
1William McKee Evans, Ballots and Fence Rails: Reconstruction on the Lower Cape Fear (1995), 22; Arnold, Wilmington, N.C., March 29, 1865, letter, in Edwin Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (1992), 165-67; L.S. Burkhead, “History of the Difficulties of the Pastorate of the Front Street Methodist Church, Wilmington, N. C., For the Year 1865.” An Annual Publication of Historical Papers Published by the Historical Society of Trinity College, Series VIII (1908–09), 35-43.
[2Burkhead, “History of the Difficulties,” 35-43.
[3Speech of Hon. James H. Harris on the Militia Bill, Delivered in the North Carolina House of Representatives Monday, January 17, 1870 (1870), 12–23.
[4Washington New National Era, March 14, 1872, quoted in William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979), 405.
[5Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1977), 195–96; James T Campbell, Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005 (2006), 99-113; Kenneth C. Barnes, Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s (2004), 11, 13-32.
[6“Address to the Colored People of North Carolina,” circular, Dec. 19, 1870.
[9“A Blasphemous Address,” Daily Southerner, Jan 5, 1871; “‘Cry Mightily Unto the Lord.’” Daily Sentinel, Dec. 24, 1870.