The Black Church Book Summary - The Black Church Book explained in key points
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The Black Church summary

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song

4.3 (63 ratings)
29 mins

Brief summary

"The Black Church" by Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the importance and influence of the Black Church in shaping the history, culture, and politics of African Americans. It is a captivating and enlightening examination of the enduring legacy of this institution.

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    The Black Church
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    Missionaries in the 17th century taught a version of Christianity that justified the enslavement of Black people.

    When Anglican missionaries arrived in New World colonies such as South Carolina in the 1670s, they had a clear goal: to introduce Christianity to the multitudes of enslaved Black people on plantations.

    But this wasn’t going to be an easy task. The masters of the enslaved resisted the idea because they felt Christianity was reserved for white people. They were also afraid that introducing the religion would encourage notions of equality, and, eventually, rebellion. And they needed the enslaved to believe they were less than human, to keep them submissive.

    So, to accomplish their goal of converting Black people, missionaries tailored their message to appease the masters. 

    The key message here is: Missionaries in the 17th century taught a version of Christianity that justified the enslavement of Black people.

    To ensure that enslaved people remained docile, the missionaries taught that freedom was a matter of race, not of religion. This implied that Black people were meant to be enslaved, and white people were supposed to be their masters. The missionaries highlighted messages from the Bible that encouraged submissiveness, such as, “Servants, obey your earthly masters.” And stories of social equality or rebellions were intentionally left out.

    A number of laws also restricted how, where, and when enslaved people could worship and practice Christianity. These laws made it illegal for enslaved people to read and write – preventing them from reading the Bible themselves. And they also prohibited gatherings of Black people if there were no white person present. This made sure that no rebellious ideas were shared.

    But the laws didn’t completely suppress religious expression amongst enslaved people. They found ways to worship in secret, establishing what became known as the invisible institution. This consisted of church services held at night in cabins or anywhere hidden from the masters. In these services, Black people also shared messages from the Bible that were kept away from them.

    Not only did the enslaved practice Christianity away from their masters, they also made it their own. They did this by incorporating elements of tradition and religion brought with them from Africa. Drumming and a circular dance called the ring shout, for example, became part of how Black people worshipped.

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    What is The Black Church about?

    The Black Church (2021) tells the story of Christianity in the Black community, from the conversion of enslaved people in the 1600s to the founding of Black denominations and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. The book highlights how the Black church evolved over centuries, and the various social and political roles it has played. 

    Best quote from The Black Church

    The newly freed, holding deeply felt religious convictions, were especially eager to learn to read the word of God.

    —Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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    Who should read The Black Church?

    • People interested in the culture and history of African American people
    • Those curious about religious history
    • Anyone interested in sociology

    About the Author

    Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a historian, literary critic, and filmmaker. He’s written over 20 books, including In Search of Our Roots, Faces of America, and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. His filmography includes The African Americans, for which he earned an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and an NAACP Image Award. Gates is also the Director of the Hutchins Center for African American Research at Harvard University.

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