Beyond Speeches and Leaders: The Role of Black Churches in the Reconstruction of the United States

Beyond Speeches and Leaders: The Role of Black Churches in the Reconstruction of the United States

Black churches were at the center of remaking the United States’ post-Civil War political system into one that incorporated formerly enslaved black men into the body politic and revised the legal code to provide civil rights to these new citizens.  Black Baptist and Episcopal Churches of Virginia provide insight into how black people began to access the levers of political change. These black Christians recrafted their communities in alignment with the extant practice around who could be included in the body politic (men), while determining on what terms (some form of racial and political or civic equality) and by what means (on the basis of networks and political representation). In this way the black Baptist and Episcopal Churches played an important role in advancing biracial democracy.

Upon emancipation, the civil and political rights and responsibilities of black men and women had yet to be defined.  And while participants in the freedmen conventions relatively easily identified voting rights as a goal, black churches immediately became sites in which church members worked out the terms of internal and external political participation in ways that reinforced the larger political transformation of emancipation.[1]  The exclusion of women from the decision-making, officeholding, and visible leadership posts in church meetings and conventions was an area where the overlap in the internal politics of churches and the external politics of the state became evident.  While some women, through their roles as teachers, were able to exercise authority “without visibly disrupting male leadership,” other women were simply excluded from positions of authority altogether.[2]  This happened in the Gilfield Baptist Church when women, who in 1868 were permitted to bring men to be disciplined in cases of unwed pregnancy, were in 1870 denied the right to do so on the basis that the practice was unscriptural and damaging to the community.[3]   In an effort to establish respectability and biblical fidelity, this church adopted practices that excluded women from leadership and decision-making roles.  The practice overlapped with and was reinforced by the federal government’s policies, other social organizations, and black communities’ own practices of protecting black women from violence by keeping them at home or in school.[4]  Above all, it coincided with the seemingly inexorable push to secure voting rights for Black men.

Portrait of George Freeman Bragg
George Freeman Bragg, 1883. Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University.

While church practices reinforced gendered political outcomes, churches also fostered a collaboration across racial lines that provided social and intellectual foundations that allowed biracial coalitions to emerge.  In some sense being members of predominantly white churches like the Episcopal Church allowed black men and women to develop a framework for working in hostile territory. Reverend George Freeman Bragg, a Black Episcopal priest, suggested as much when he noted how racial independence had made the AME Church the root of independent black political action, while black members of the Episcopal Church had argued the case for equality within the church by “bearing witness to the ‘Fatherland of God and the Brotherhood of All Men.’” [5]  After being dismissed from school on the basis of the racist claim that he “was not humble enough,” Bragg joined the Readjuster movement in which he witnessed the political recognition of black humanity and proof of black political possibility.[6]He learned about making coalitions across racial lines that did not call for a denial of blackness or black rights both from the Readjuster Movement and from being in the Episcopal Church. Bragg’s life suggests that we might envision the political foundation of biracial democracy in the intersections of churches, politics and race.

Regional and state associations of black churches were also central to the emergence of a racial consciousness. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham wrote, “Race consciousness reached its apogee with the creation of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. in 1895.”[7]  In cultivating church associations, black Christians created networks that overlapped party politics.  The recordkeeping practices of Baptist regional and statewide associations stimulated in black voters a sense of their power as voting  blocs.  The associations kept record of their membership  as testimony to the growth of the faith.  In the 1880s, Rev. Henry Williams, statistician of a handful of Virginia’s regional associations and the Virginia Baptist State Convention, noted where the numbers of black Baptists were growing.  In 1886, he lamented, “it is sad to see so many blanks in the American Baptist yearbook” and that “a full and accurate statistic cannot be given of the colored Baptist.”[8]  Even when the records were not forthcoming, he could see that the faith was expanding on the local landscape.  The copious logs of local church names, locations, numbers of members, pastor’s names and post office addresses provided a much more complete view. Statewide conventions also helped to form broader geographies of belonging that transcended local lines and approached regional state and eventually national scope.  This larger conceptualization of community paralleled the political transformation of patronage politics in the Readjuster Party.

Black participation in biracial coalitions had deep underpinnings in black religious communities. Black Baptists and Episcopalians participated in coalitions, not out of ignorance, but out of a sense of the power of their networks.  In and through their church communities, they engaged in some of the fundamental political processes that transformed the nation after the emancipation.  Churches were political spaces where church members established power, belonging and accountability.  Black churches did more than create atoms of organizational influence or singular leaders; they intersected with and reinforced some of the political currents of the moment.  Black Baptist and Episcopal Churches fostered developments of gendered and racial political practices that pointed toward a reconstruction that not only was based on male suffrage, but also pointed toward a biracial democracy inclusive of black independence and political engagement.

[1] Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), chapter 3.

[2] Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 36.

[3] Nicole Myers Turner, Soul Liberty: The evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[4] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and transforming the public sphere: African American political life in the transition from slavery to freedom,” in The Black public sphere: a public culture book, ed. Jr. Baker, Houston, Black Literature and Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 127; Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: women and the politics of white supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Angela Davis, Reflection on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves, The Black Scholar 3 (December 1971).

[5] George F. Bragg, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (Baltimore: Church Advocate Press, 1916).

[6] George F. Bragg, The Colored harvest in the Old Virginia Diocese (Baltomore: s.n., 1901), 18; George F. Bragg et al., “Additional Information and Correction in Reconstruction Records,” The Journal of Negro History 5, no. 2 (April 1920): 243, 242.

[7] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993), 6; James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986), 139.

[8] “Minutes of the sixth annual session of the Bethany Baptist Association (Colored) of Virginia held September 22-24, A.D. 1886,”  (1886) 7, 8.

Nicole Turner

Nicole Myers Turner is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (UNC Press, 2020).

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