♪ GATES: I Believe, I Believe I will go back home.
♪ ♪ Well, I Believe, I Believe I will go back home.
♪ ♪ I Believe, I Believe I will go back home and be ♪ ♪ My mother's family has worshiped in this church for generations.
The lessons I learned here, the power of faith, the importance of community have remained with me and sustained me in the same way the black church has sustained the African American people from the days of slavery to this day.
SHARPTON: The black church was more than just a spiritual home.
It was the epicenter of black life.
Out of it came our black businesses, our black educational institutions.
WINFREY: The church gave people a sense of value and of belonging and of worthiness.
I don't know how we could have survived as a people without it.
WEST: We had to have some individual and institutional armor in order to preserve our sanity.
WRIGHT: Culture says you're inferior!
The Christ says you are an equal.
GATES: From hush harbors to suburban mega churches, it's been a sanctuary in which black people could reinterpret the bible in their own image and praise god in their own voices, creating some of the most sublime music the world has ever heard.
♪ FRANKLIN: Just as soon as I see Jesus ♪ ♪ CHOIR: Oh yeah ♪ ♪ FRANKLIN: The man who made me free.
♪♪ ADAMS: The role of music in the black church is so important.
It sets the tone for how you will feel when the word comes forth.
LEGEND: It's such a distinct flavor of music, distinct from the traditional western hymns.
It's its own thing.
It's a very black American thing.
GATES: Like all human institutions, the black church and its leaders have their shortcomings.
MCKENZIE: We were very quick to address racism, but very slow to address sexism and abuse.
GATES: Today we stand at a crossroads.
What will be the future of the black church?
PIERCE: Where's the African-American church in Black Lives Matter?
Where's the African-American church with environmental justice movements?
BARBER: I think that the church, particularly when the focus has been three-fold prophetic social justice, holiness, and spiritual empowerment of worship, when those three things are held together the church has been a powerful force against sin.
The sin of racism.
The sin of oppression.
GATES: I've spent my career exploring stories about black life, but there's one I've never told, and it might be the most important one of all.
It's the remarkable history of the black church.
♪ WOMAN: Jesus walk with me.
♪♪ MOSS III: Some brothers came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him in the house to lay him before Jesus, and they couldn't get in the house because all the religious folk were blocking the entrance.
So they decided to make their own entrance, and that is what I love about this text.
This thing is so beautiful.
Look at this.
Everybody is in the house.
They want to hear Jesus, but they don't necessarily want to practice what Jesus is teaching.
And here you have some brothers.
They try to get in the house, but you had all these people that had positions.
Never confuse position with power.
MOSS III: Pharaoh had a position, but Moses had the power.
Herod had a position, but John had the power!
The cross had a position, but Jesus had the power!
Lincoln had a position, but Douglass had the power!
Woodrow Wilson had a position, but Ida B.
Wells had the power!
George Wallace had a position, but Rosa Parks had the power!
(congregation clapping and cheering).
Lyndon Baines Johnson had a position, but Martin Luther King had the power!
We have... ALL: Power!
MOSS III: We have the power!
Don't you ever forget how much power... ♪ JACKSON: Never been to Houston oh boy but.
♪ ♪ MAN: But I've been told.
♪ ♪ JACKSON: Never been to Houston oh boy but.
♪ ♪ MAN: But I'm told.
♪♪ GATES: The black church has been the seminal force in shaping the history of the African American people.
It's the root, out of which, so many of the most celebrated aspects of black culture would branch.
It's the first institution that enslaved black people and their freed descendants created, and it would become the longest lasting, and without a doubt, the most consequential.
♪ MAN: Oh, dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: Hey Lord.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I shout dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I sing dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: It makes me happy.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: Early one morning.
♪♪ PIERCE: African Americans adopted Christianity, but I also think they adapted Christianity.
They made it their own.
They created it so that it could provide for them something that was nurturing, something that provided catharsis, something that provided hope.
♪ MAN: I sing dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I shout dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪♪ GLAUDE: Wherever African peoples find themselves in the diaspora, they're bringing with them ways of knowing, frames of reference, cognitive schemes to make sense of the world.
♪ MAN: It makes me happy.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: Early one morning.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪♪ PINN: It's a mistake to think that enslaved Africans came to North America tabula rasa.
That is to say, that they came with nothing.
That is not the case.
That they came bearing a rich cultural heritage, and this cultural world got filtered through black churches.
♪ GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I love dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪♪ YOUNG: We often think of religious identity as an either/or.
You're either a member of this religious group, or you're a member of that.
Religious practice in West and West Central Africa was much more open.
There was a wide and broad network of rituals that people could participate in, and people would move in and out of those religious zones.
GATES: The roots of the black church run deep in the African continent.
The human beings ensnared in the nightmare of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade practiced a wide variety of religions, including traditional ancestral worship, Islam, and, in the kingdom of Congo, a form of Catholicism that predated Columbus.
Braving the horrors of the middle passage, enslaved African's brought these ways of believing with them, along with their beliefs in the supernatural and their own protective deities.
Over time, throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, Yoruba and Congo-based religions mixed with Roman Catholicism to create new religions.
Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil.
Here in the United States, religious practices, such as Hoodoo, Obeah and Conjuration reflected their African religious roots.
While slave owners in the British colonies were largely resistant to converting these African peoples in the first century of the trade, for fear it would cause them to press for their freedom, the goal of evangelical preachers became converting as many souls as possible, even black souls.
Incredibly, 210,000 Africans were brought here to the Carolinas and Georgia, nearly 50% of them arriving through the port of Charleston.
Today, off the coast of Georgia, we can find some of the deepest traces of Christianity, in places like Sapelo island, home to the Gullah Geechee people.
But the Muslim religion's strong roots persisted as well.
Islam survived in ways that creolized black Christianity.
COOPER: During the '20s and '30s, people descended on Sapelo, researchers and writers who were also looking for the African origins of black culture.
GATES: Right, the missing link, yeah.
COOPER: The missing link, right.
So, the stories that they told contributed to a wealth of knowledge about the existence of black Muslims on Georgia's coast.
GATES: What happened to the descendants of the Muslims who were here?
Are you descendant from a Muslim?
COOPER: I am actually, I mean but most people from Sapelo are also descendants.
GATES: So, the practice of Islam did not last very long within the community.
Soon people were converted to Christianity.
COOPER: There was a time where there were people who seem to remember that there might be specific traditions that might be associated with Islam, burial practices, you know, where graves are facing... GATES: There's a lot of east to west orientation that I've seen.
COOPER: Yeah, yeah.
One of the things that I think that is the story of black religion in America is that, um, what enslaved people did in this new context was they attempted to merge and, you know, fuse these different worlds that they lived in.
GATES: Melissa is a descendant of Bilal Muhammad, who was brought to the island in the early 1800s, one of the many devout Muslims captured and enslaved in Senegambia.
A quarter of the ancestors of African Americans came from this region.
Bilal testified to his beliefs in a book of letters, written in his own hand.
COOPER: He left a written record of both his attempts to reclaim and recall what he was remembering of his religious instruction.
GATES: Right, and in other words, he was determined to preserve his identity, this aspect of his identity.
COOPER: Exactly, exactly so you know this was Bilal's daughter.
And her sons would become very instrumental in the creation of the First African Baptist Church on the island.
♪ WOMAN: Dark and thorny is the desert ♪ ♪ through which pilgrims make their way.
♪♪ GATES: In 1930, Katie Brown, a former slave and the great granddaughter of Bilal Muhammad, recalled her own religious awakening as a young child.
BROWN: When I heard the old people singing, it made me feel like I ought to been a Christian.
And I prayed and I prayed until I got my religion.
♪ ♪ FRANKLIN: I didn't become born again until I was 15.
I was in church, but I hadn't made the personal connection.
And I knew that the way that I was living wasn't right.
I was smoking, drinking, and so, it wasn't until a friend of mine, who was the good kid, got shot and killed.
Something pulled my heart.
And so, I remember getting on my knees and, uh, and just having that conversation about, I know that my life isn't the way it should be and I want to know you as my personal savior.
GATES: Music and dance would function as a unifying force of adulation and exaltation, signifying inheritance and belonging.
(rhythmic thuds and claps) PIERCE: The body remembers.
The body remembers how to worship.
The body remembers how to do ritual.
The ring shout is an African practice that comes across the ocean and is practiced by free and enslaved African-Americans.
ANDREWS: The ring shout really becomes kind of the cornerstone for understanding the nexus between African religion and emerging African American religion.
It's the foundation of singing, worshipping, praising, getting filled with the holy spirit in this circle, which is a way of identifying the cycle of music, the cycle of life.
GATES: In Britain's new world colonies, such as South Carolina, Anglican missionaries had attempted to convert the enslaved with the full message of Christianity, but they failed.
Masters were determined to reinforce the docility and otherworldliness in order to perpetuate the slave regime.
PINN: There's a troubled relationship between enslaved Africans and the Christian faith.
Slaveholder's weren't quite certain what the involvement of enslaved Africans in Christianity would mean.
YOUNG: It had been a longstanding tradition in British common law that Christians couldn't hold other Christians in slavery.
At the same time, one of the key justifications for slavery was that it took Africans out of the continent and introduced them to the light of Christianity.
GATES: This was built in 1725.
GATES: Who would have worshiped here?
GERBNER: White slave owners.
GATES: When did they start letting their slaves' worship with them, do we know?
GERBNER: It took a little while for white slave owners to feel comfortable allowing enslaved and free blacks into their churches.
GATES: Tell me about that debate.
And more specifically about good old Morgan Godwin?
GERBNER: Morgan Godwin was an Anglican minister and he came to Virginia in the 1660s, and he made a forceful argument in a pamphlet called, "The Negro and Indian's Advocate".
GATES: He argued that slaves were human because they could read, they could write, and that they could laugh.
GATES: And therefore, they should be baptized.
But he didn't argue that therefore they should be freed?
He wants to convert them.
GATES: But he doesn't want conversion to equal freedom.
That's exactly right, and that's the position that most Protestant missionaries take.
It allows Christianity and slavery to be compatible.
Missionaries also convinced slave owners that slave conversion is not threatening.
They say race is actually the reason that some people can be enslaved and other people cannot.
The concept of whiteness and white supremacy becomes the new way to justify enslavement.
YOUNG: The planter class, they're only willing to accept proselytizing enslaved people if they can be assured that the theology that's given will be a theology of submission and docility.
But they're keenly aware that that same Christianity could lead them to resist and to rebel.
GATES: As passages of holy scripture were whispered in the slave quarters, enslaved African's learned of a god who was omnipotent and who would liberate the oppressed.
♪ GROUP: Let my people go!
♪♪ WALTON: It's this exodus motif of God siding with those who are enslaved, a God who rises up, a Moses, that with moral courage and clarity declares, "Let my people go."
♪ ARMSTRONG: Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
♪♪ WALTON: From the earliest Africans who were converting to Christianity, they're gravitating to this message because they see themselves.
This isn't just spiritual reality.
This is life for those who are living in shackles, living as chattel property.
♪ ARMSTRONG: To let my people go.
♪♪ GATES: Missionaries were determined to recruit new followers into the Christian fold, even if it meant withholding from the enslaved converts the promise of earthly freedom.
♪ ARMSTRONG: So Moses went to Egypt land.
♪♪ GATES: Anti-literacy laws ensured that enslaved people couldn't legally learn to read or write.
Some defenders of slavery even withheld key passages of the bible, so the enslaved wouldn't be infected by their liberating message.
Take it out.
This is about slaves claiming their freedom.
♪ ARMSTRONG: Let my people go.
♪ ♪ GROUP: Let my people go.
♪ ♪ GATES: The parts of the New Testament challenging imperial power and social hierarchy were ignored.
Forgiveness, obedience and piety informed the heart of the master's message to the enslaved.
PIERCE: Slave holders truly believed that this would imbue a spirit of complacency by encouraging them to follow an example of Jesus as a very meek, mild servant.
GATES: But it was the sacrificial suffering of the carpenter from Nazareth that would ultimately resonate most with enslaved black people.
WALTON: There's something liberating about the message of the cross, particularly about persecution.
Those who are unjustly persecuted, those who are forced to suffer at the hands of an evil empire.
Those who are enforced to deal with nails and the whips of an old, rugged cross.
Just like our enslaved who are feeling very acutely the suffering of society can identify with that Jesus.
CURRY: They knew there was something about this Jesus that was different, that he was oppressed and put down like they were, and, and he got up from the grave.
♪ BOTH: From the grave he arose.
♪ ♪ GATES: With a mighty triumph for his foes.
♪♪ I love that, too.
I mean, you can feel it, like, he got up.
GATES: Yeah you could feel it.
Yeah, he got up.
♪ GROUP: He just delivered me.
♪♪ GATES: Did you join the church, were you saved?
HUDSON: I, I joined the church at the age of 7.
That's when I was baptized.
I remember it being an Easter Sunday, and I was watching a little Christian films when Jesus was crucified.
I started crying.
And my brother and my sister looked at my mom and was like what's wrong with her?
And she said don't worry about it, she's happy baby.
And that's when I feel like I really got it.
♪ GROUP: He just delivered me.
♪♪ GATES: The good news of Jesus Christ began spreading across the plantation.
At the same time, however, there was resistance, such as South Carolina's Negro Act of 1740.
It made it illegal to teach enslaved to write.
It severely limited their ability to assemble, and it even outlawed the keeping or loud playing of horns and drums in places slaves could assemble.
MURPHY: Under very controlled circumstances were whites willing to allow blacks to participate in the life of the church.
In any gathering of blacks there had to be a white person present who could monitor and see to it that there are no things being told or taught or being instigated.
SAVAGE: In some cases, black people were expected to attend the same churches that whites were controlling and to listen to sermons that were designed to continue to deny the humanity of black people and certainly to argue for the continued enslavement of black people.
GATES: Despite the suffocating confines of slavery, African Americans found surreptitious ways to create sacred spaces in which to worship god in their own voices and in their own image.
The church they created was known as "the invisible institution."
MURPHY: It could be in the cabins of the enslaved at night.
It could be in the makeshift structures with branches and brushes.
It could be down by the riverside.
There is that song, gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside.
SAVAGE: Black people are able to be among themselves and with themselves to invent and create a spiritual world that would be sustaining to them, though it needed to be kept secret.
TIDWELL: Black preachers couldn't preach to us.
Ol' boss would tie em' to a tree an whoop em' if they caught us even praying.
We had a big black wash pot and the way we prayed we'd go out an put our mouths to the ground and pray low and the sound would go up under the pot and ol' boss couldn't hear us.
BATES: My Uncle Ben he could read the bible and he always tell us some day us be free and Massa Harry laugh, haw, haw, haw, and he say, 'hell, no, yous never be free, yous ain't got sense enough to make the livin' if yous was free.'
Then he take the bible away from uncle ben and say it put the bad ideas in his head, but uncle gets another bible and hides it and Massa never finds out.
YOUNG: The preacher I liked the best was Mathew Ewing.
He was black as night.
And he sho' could read out of his han'.
He never learned no real readin' and writin' but he sho' knowed his bible and would hold his hand out and make like he was readin' and preach the purtiest preachin' you ever heard.
CURRY: That was the real church.
GATES: When they were improvising on the liturgy that they had heard in the in, on Sunday morning, for example.
So, you had this two-layered thing, I think, and and even to this day, in the, in the black church.
The black church is where, even if they aren't singing the old Negro spirituals, where you hear the idiom of those spirituals.
It's where when you begin to speak in a certain way, or better yet, when somebody starts singing in a certain way, folk inside, they start reacting and responding, and eventually there may be some shouts and there may be silence, but something is moving.
That's where the black church is found, it's in those heartbeats.
But, but that heartbeat comes straight from Africa?
CURRY: It comes straight from Africa.
No question about it.
And it has been integrated with the Christian story and experience.
♪ TURNER: Ride on, King Jesus.
♪ ♪ No man can a-hinder me.
♪ ♪ Ride on, King Jesus.
Ride on... ♪ ♪ BOTH: No man can a-hinder me.
♪ ♪ No man can a-hinder me.
♪ ♪ In that greatness of the morning ♪ ♪ Fair thee well, fair thee well.
♪ ♪ In that greatness of the morning ♪ ♪ Fair thee well, fair thee well.
♪ ♪ In that greatness of the morning ♪ ♪ Fair thee well, fair thee well.
♪ ♪ In that greatness of the morning ♪ ♪ Fair thee well, fair thee well.
♪♪ GATES: Thank you Jesus!
That was smoking.
So, these were illiterate people who were taking the King James Bible and interpreting it and setting it to music.
GATES: And I could hear people harmonizing on the plantations.
ANDREWS: And these songs literally carried them through all the dangerous toils and snares.
MAN: I, I love the lord!
GATES: The religious earthquake that shook up Britain's North American colonies was a soul-saving message exulting Jesus' gospel of blessed redemption and heavenly salvation in a fallen world.
A forerunner of the American revolution, it introduced an ecstatic and passionate style of worship to protestant Christian churches.
Today, we refer to it as the first great awakening.
PINN: The first great awakening, a recognition that everything has gone wrong, that here you have communities that had forgotten proper relationships with God and as a result they are suffering, They were really deeply concerned with making certain the soul is saved and leaving the rest to God.
GATES: Ministers would preach the teachings of the bible at massive revival camp meetings.
Exuberant preaching styles, active participation from attendees, and call and response sermonizing and singing were all part of the revival meeting experience.
PINN: It's a worship that involves not only whites, but enslaved and freed Africans are participating.
PIERCE: Camp meetings like most of American society at that time were segregated.
African Americans, either they'd would sit to the back or they would sit outside.
Or they would have their own camp meeting in tandem with the larger camp meeting that was going on by the white worshipers.
GATES: One of the most influential voices of the first great awakening was the evangelist from England, George Whitefield.
Whitfield's theatrical preaching style was legendary and infectious.
SIMMONS: Whitefield preaches in ways that make black folks say, "Okay, now that was interesting.
That was powerful.
That sounds like what we would do."
PINN: It provided a context in which black Christians could be themselves.
They could worship in public in a way that made sense to them.
PIERCE: There would be a time in which there would be a call to the altar.
Men and women could come forward, to give their testimony, proclaim that they had received salvation and that was a radically egalitarian space.
Sometimes they would be allowed to raise the song or sometimes offer a word of testimony that was sort of really a sermon.
This was a space in which they felt a freedom that they traditionally had not felt within white churches.
WALTON: It was during that period that Africans started converting to Christianity en masse, as well as the rise of the African exhorter, black preacher.
MOSS JR: I declare victory while I'm still leading slaves to freedom with bloodhounds on my trail.
Thanks be to God!
WALTON: People chiming in, letting him know that he's hitting the mark.
The music comes in, begins to frame the worship experience, right?
As we all get caught up in something greater than ourselves.
It's not that people, they've lo their minds, no.
Actually, people are in their minds and they're connected spiritually to one another.
♪ WOMAN: Children go where e I send thee.
♪♪ MOSS JR: At the age of 10 in at a revival meeting the minister said, "I believe today I'm baptizing a minister."
And it sort of frightened me.
That's too much for a 10-year-old.
But at 17, I could not keep that burning desire any longer.
♪ WOMAN: Born, born, born in Bethlehem.
♪♪ MURPHY: In revival meetings you had musical formats in which the leader sings the first line, and the congregation would sing it, had no hymn books.
And so you had to do the lining out of the hymns.
Blacks also had a tradition from the African pastor with call and response singing.
So this was not something newly introduced to them but appropriating that into Christian hymnody, creating their own types of hymns, a kind of modern day reminiscence of that is... ♪ I heard the voice of Jesus say ♪♪ and then the congregation comes, ♪ I, oh Lord, I heard the voice.
♪ ♪ ANDREWS: The spirituals really come out of the folk songs of African Americans.
It really begins in the 18th Century and really it's the collective expression of early African-American Christians, a mirror of early African Americans thinking, theologically, about a saving God, a redemptive God, a God who can even in the fiery furnace can rescue you.
And so, we understand, I think, something about what was important to those early Christians.
GATES: What's your favorite Spiritual?
♪ TURNER: Steal away, steal away ♪ ♪ Steal away to Jesus.
♪ ♪ Steal away.
♪ ♪ Steal away home.
♪ ♪ I ain't got long to stay here.
♪ ♪ GATES: As the machinery of slavery churned on, with no end in sight, enslaved black people found their first glimpse of heaven on earth in the praise house.
In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, praise houses provided African Americans with a space for worship, fellowship, and community.
LEGREE: In slavery, you couldn't go down the road and visit anyone.
So, by them gathering here, they not only prayed, but after the services were over they could talk to each other about who might have had a baby up the road, who might have died, who was sold.
And finally, it was a place of transition from the praise house into now a big church that they were able to build.
♪ SHORTY: Whoa, Jesus is on the mainline.
♪ ♪ Tell him what you want.
♪♪ GATES: As the free black community slowly began to grow in the years before the declaration of independence, the first institutions that they created, along with their enslaved sisters and brothers, were houses of worship.
One of the earliest was in Savannah, Georgia.
Today, it's known as the first African Baptist church.
Reverend, I feel like I'm in the presence of black church religious history.
Tell me the story of this church.
It's a like a miracle.
TILLMAN: Well, the church actually had its beginnings in 1773, when George Leile, who was a slave was granted permission to preach up and down the Savannah River.
In August of 1777, he was able to obtain his freedom.
He was able also to constitute the church that same year.
GATES: You know what I love about this church?
I always, whenever I go into a black church, I look to see what color God is.
What color are the angels, what color is Jesus?
Your saints are your predecessors who founded and perpetuated the tradition.
I think that's brilliant.
TILLMAN: This sanctuary actually would not have been built if it had not been for Andrew Cox Marshal who preached for 44 years about how he wanted to build a brick church, not just a temporary wooden building that had been built.
When we think of those who built the church, they're definitely of recent African descent.
This building has so many symbols in it that are codes for various things in the windows, in the ceiling, on the side of the pews.
GATES: After long days of labor, the free and enslaved members of first African Baptist worked through the night to create a home in which to worship their god.
The people who built these pews paid homage to Christ but also left a surprising trace of another African religious past, Islam.
DIAKITE: This is a Arabic type of writing.
GATES: It's amazing that it survived.
DIAKITE: Oh, yes.
GATES: I'm sure that if Christians knew that it was Muslim, they would have just painted it over or something.
But those who also wrote this they may be Christian themselves, but for them religion is a continuity.
Different ways of maybe worship but it's the same God, the same principle.
And it was written to be a legacy for the future generations.
GATES: First African Baptist in Savannah, Georgia was born on the heels of an eruption of evangelical Christianity in the 1700s.
The first great awakening.
African Americans would reinterpret the scriptures, finding new meanings that resonated and spoke to their urgent needs for survival.
In the early 1800s, the second great awakening would bring an even greater influx of African Americans, both to the Baptist and the Methodist churches.
But it would be Methodism that would profoundly change the face of worship in the black church.
MURPHY: The Methodist Church declared itself opposed to slavery.
So, Methodism began as an anti-slavery movement in the US, and it was because of that anti-slavery stance that blacks were drawn to it.
JOHNSON: In Charleston the number of whites in the Church in 1817 is around 350 and the number of African Americans is about 5,400.
So gigantic difference.
It's a black church in its membership over more than ten to one.
GATES: In the North, the freedom faith would convert an enslaved young man named Richard Allen at a Methodist revival meeting.
Born a slave, Allen worked hard to purchase his freedom.
In 1786, just 3 years after America won its revolution, Allen joined Saint George's Methodist episcopal church and began to advocate a message of liberty and justice through political petitions outside of the church.
Richard Allen was inspired by the very same ideals that had sparked the American revolution.
MCKENZIE: As the story goes, people enjoyed his preaching.
And freed men, freed men and women were active participants in St. George's Church.
NEWMAN: When Richard Allen gets there in the 1780's he's really operating under the sense that hope will prevail.
That the black struggle for freedom will combine with the white struggle for freedom and this will be the blueprint for the new United States in both secular and sacred terms.
It doesn't happen.
GLAUDE: Around 1792, the incident in St. George's Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones praying and being forcibly removed, told to go to the "nigger pews," to give you a sense of how deeply segregated American Christendom was.
GATES: Allen and Jones led the black congregation out of the building.
From that bold beginning an independent black Christian denomination would soon be born.
GLAUDE: Imagine one comes to understand one's relationship to God, and you enter into quote-unquote "His House," and you still have to experience your subordination.
Come on, man.
GATES: Allen and his congregants called their sanctuary the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
By 1816, it had grown into a fledgling denomination with Allen at its head.
NEWMAN: For Richard Allen, the black church is a freedom church.
It's a vehicle for his civil rights struggle.
It's a fellowship that is hopefully going to make a difference in the world.
So, in that sense it's more than a denomination or a community of worshipers.
It's a way of looking at the world.
MCKENZIE: The African Methodist Episcopal Church was really not founded on theological differences.
It was founded because of racial differences.
People wanted to be able to worship in dignity.
GATES: That freedom, however, had limits, even within the black church.
In the early 1800s, in Philadelphia, Jarena Lee asked Richard Allen for the right to preach.
LEE: I went to see the preacher in charge of the African society, Richard Allen, to tell him that I felt it my duty to preach the gospel.
He said that our discipline knew nothing at all about it.
That it did not call for women preachers.
JONES: There's a great scene in which she describes listening to a man give a sermon.
He does a lousy job.
And she springs out of her seat and holds forth.
LEE: During the exhortation, god made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labor.
I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened.
I imagine I should be expelled from the church.
JONES: Remarkably in her case, Allen, who was witness to this, says to the gathering, actually, this is all the evidence we need, and we need to, in essence, honor Sister Jarena Lee's calling.
HIGGINBOTHAM: The church has two identities.
It has the identity of being oppressive of women.
And it's interesting because when you look at slavery, the church of the slave master, it's that same kind of message that would go to the slave.
So, when women began to demand empowerment, they call out this dual contradiction.
And I think for them to give up to women was in many ways in their head's emasculation.
And then they had the bible.
They had the bible to tell them that they were supposed to be on top.
It's just that the women had the bible, too, that could say to the men, the bible's saying more than that, dear.
MCKENZIE: Let me introduce you to 5 uppity women.
These women with uncommon courage emerged as valuable contributors to community life.
Their story is told in Numbers, the 27th chapter.
JENNINGS: An important religion item today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME with 2.5 million members, has a woman Bishop for the first time.
ATTKISSON: Vashti McKenzie is making history at the top of American's oldest Black Church.
REPORTER: It took four years of aggressive campaigning for McKenzie to shatter what she calls the AME's stained glass ceiling MCKENZIE: It ain't about me, it's all about God!
GATES: Compare your experience with Jarena Lee's.
Certainly, you've thought about her and all that she had to deal with?
MCKENZIE: Jarena Lee is an extraordinary woman.
She walked thousands of miles and preached, I think it was like 147, 150 sermons in a year.
I can't imagine preaching that many sermons.
She just kept doing the work.
Do the work.
The bible says your gifts will make room for you.
And they do.
GATES: Your gifts will make room for you.
I like that.
MCKENZIE: The night when I was elected a bishop in the AME church.
I said I stand here for all the women who were called and never ordained.
The word was just in them.
It's like the prophet says, "the fire's shut up in my bones, it's shut up and it can't get out."
And so, they preached wherever they could preach, however they could preach, whenever they could preach.
Never recognized, never ordained, never affirmed, never supported.
But, yet, they preached anyhow.
And because they did, I am.
GATES: As northern states followed the slow, inevitable process of emancipation, free black Christians took a leading role in the abolition movement, becoming the tip of the spear.
Meanwhile, the notion of emancipation met with stiff resistance in the south.
The liberating momentum that came out of the Revolutionary War was no match for king cotton.
The cotton gin, invented in 1793, would dramatically transform the economy of the south and lead to a massive expansion of the slave trade, before it was banned in 1808.
The freedom faith, preached by Richard Allen and his colleagues, increasingly threatened the slave regime.
GAUDE: By January 1, 1808, with the end of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States, the reproduction of the slave population shifts to a domestic industry.
HARVEY: There was a substantial anti-slavery movement in the South and there were people freeing slaves.
Churches in particular faced the question, "Are we going to take a position against slavery or not?"
MURPHY: So, in 1844, the Methodist Church divides into the Southern Methodist Church and the Northern Methodist Church over the issue of slavery, specifically as to whether or not a bishop in the church could be an owner of the of enslaved persons.
GLAUDE: It's one of the tragic features of the American experiment.
So let's be very clear.
To tell the story of American religion is to tell a political story.
So, all of the splits, all of the divisions, all of the contradictions that define this grand experiment of democracy are evidenced in America's religious life.
DYSON: The North is about the radicalization.
Black people couldn't rebel in the South in the same way, they couldn't radicalize.
So, they have to go along.
Let me disguise my rebellion.
SIMMONS: In the South things were so bad that a lot of it was just make sure your soul is saved so you can get to see Jesus.
Most of the sermons they're just about holding onto hope.
Preachers just helped people live another day.
So, if things didn't get better for them, they got better for their children and their grandchildren.
DYSON: Black people had an existential and political reality that says they were a minority who could be wiped out without legal redress or moral compunction, and their religion helped them sustain themselves long enough.
You've got to survive long enough to rebel.
GATES: In 1791, a black religion played a key role in sparking the battle cry for freedom in the French colony of Saint Domingue.
During a now legendary Vodun ceremony, men and women made a pact to end their enslavement, no matter the cost.
The result would be the most successful slave uprising in the history of the world and the birth, on January 1st 1804, of the first independent black republic, which they named Haiti.
NEWMAN: It inspires African American's to be more proactive in the protest initiatives.
But of course, the Haitian rebellion also inspires a great wave of fear among white masters, particularly in the South.
GATES: Denmark Vesey, a Charleston, South Carolina freedman, who was one of the founders of the second largest A-M-E congregation in America, would become the focus of the planters' worst nightmare.
JOHNSON: The Methodist church in Charleston is known among most white people as a Negro church.
And the whites are contravening assumptions about what they should be doing religiously.
GATES: In 1822, Charleston authorities accused the middle-aged carpenter of planning an uprising to murder and rape white citizens and then flee to the independent black nation of Haiti.
HARVEY: The white account from that era was that Denmark Vesey was this radical black minister who's going to lead this huge slave uprising and then one of his followers basically turned him in, and that prevented the uprising from happening.
Was there going to be a rebellion at all?
That's the matter of some controversy.
GATES: Vesey and some 35 other black men were executed, and their church demolished.
It would not be the last attack on this congregation.
PINN: We typically think about black Christianity along two lines.
One that is concerned with spiritual renewal and isn't very concerned with what is taking place in the world.
But then there's a this worldly orientation that understands the Christian faith as demanding social transformation, as demanding political change.
And some of the more vibrant, attention grabbing episodes of this worldly Christianity would involve these slave rebellions.
TURNER: And about this time I had a vision.
I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened.
The thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in the streams and I heard a voice saying, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it."
GATES: Nat Turner was a charismatic preacher in Southampton County, Virginia.
Though enslaved, he was sometimes allowed to preach at a local, predominantly white Methodist church.
PINN: Whites wanted blacks to read scripture in a way that reinforced slavery, "Slaves be obedient."
But Nat Turner and others understood themselves as being linked to the children of Israel in the Hebrew bible.
And God demanded the freeing of the children of Israel.
And that freeing required bloodshed.
GATES: On August 21st 1831, Turner led approximately forty other enslaved men from plantation to plantation, murdering as many as 60 white men, women, and children.
55 alleged conspirators were executed by the state.
200 more were murdered by vigilantes.
SAVAGE: All of a sudden the dangers of independent black religious thought was really brought home to whites.
PINN: For many it pointed to what they feared all along, that Christianity would damage a delicate social balance in which whites were on top, blacks on the bottom.
GATES: At a gathering of the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York in 1843, male representatives of the free black community argued fiercely over the best way to end slavery.
They were keenly aware that their faiths were bound up with those still in bondage in the south.
MURPHY: The initial approach of abolitionists was that of moral suasion.
That because we are a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles, we are all created equal.
So, the notion that the people are fundamentally good, and if they're doing wrong, uh, the corrective of that is to show them they're wrong.
GATES: Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, both fugitive slaves from Maryland, led opposing camps on the question of whether violent slave uprisings were necessary in advancing the abolitionist cause.
HARVEY: Douglass takes the position that you have to fight it within the American Constitutional system.
Garnet holds the view that you must strike a blow.
Violence must be used.
GATES: Garnet, a Presbyterian minister, delivered what was later known as the "Call to Rebellion".
GARNET: It is your solemn and imperative duty to use every means, both moral, intellectual, and physical that promise success.
The pharaohs are on both sides of the blood-red waters!
Brethren, arise, arise!
Strike for your lives and liberties.
Rather die free men than live to be slaves.
GLAUDE: Henry Highland Garnett challenges the use of the story, 'cause Exodus offers, right, hope.
Pharaoh drowns in the Red Sea, there's a wandering in the wilderness but one enters the Promised Land.
What Garnet says, is "Pharaoh is on both sides of the blood red waters."
And that's an attempt to interrupt an interpretation of the story that is awaiting God's intervention.
We can't wait to get on the other side for freedom 'cause there's no other side.
GATES: Douglass, with a mix of conviction and political pragmatism that would make him the most influential black leader of the century, surmised that Garnet's suggestions would antagonize northern black allies, ultimately bringing harm to the abolition movement.
When the convention finally voted on whether to publish Garnet's address, Garnet lost, but only by one vote.
Soon congress would appease the south by passing the fugitive slave act in 1850, which strengthened the provision in the constitution that escaped slaves must be returned to their owners.
The civil war loomed on the horizon.
Douglass became reconciled to the fact that slavery must end violently.
Not criticism is the plain duty of this hour.
I now, for the first time during this war, feel at liberty to call and counsel you to arms.
GATES: On April 12th 1861, defenders of slavery in South Carolina cheered as confederate guns opened fire on federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter.
The civil war had begun.
HARVEY: The African-American experience had always been one that they were looking to prophecies for freedom.
And of course, the Civil War was the fulfillment of that prophecy.
GATES: There was no longer a question of if but when violence would erupt and bring an end to black enslavement after so many generations of unrelenting suffering.
The apocalypse at hand, black Christians believed that the fall of pharaoh and their exodus from Egypt finally was at hand.
♪ ♪ PREACHER: Heavenly Father we're here to gather at another time to bow our head and pray, to give you thanks, for another day we've never seen before.
Give you thanks when we wake up this morning being in the right mind, we blessing your son in Jesus name Amen.
GATES: The black church came of age in praise houses like this.
I wanted to learn how these simple wooden structures offered worshippers a measure of freedom within the brutal experience of slavery.
♪ SHORTY: Well I want Jesus, walk with me.
♪♪ MCKENZIE: I think we are a testament to the goodness and the grace of God.
That everything in the world has tried to kill us and we're still here.
The middle passage tried to kill us, but yet we survived.
The plantation life tried to kill us, but we're still alive.
GATES: During slavery, these praise houses operated in the shadows, becoming an incubator of culture and sites of resistance to white supremacy.
WALTON: The church provides a space where we're able to imagine something different.
We are not what society says that we are, we belong to God.
And so that's a liberating message for people who are dealing with the logics of racial apartheid.
GATES: But as the civil war raged in the coastal waters several miles away from this praise house, the African American people and the institution that had kept them in chains for centuries were at a crucial turning point.
Freedom, at last, could be glimpsed on the horizon.
BUTTS: We've come this far by faith.
Leaning on the Lord, trusting in God's holy name.
And God has never failed us yet.
When we've been true to God, we've always been successful.
GATES: By the end of the nineteenth century, this small praise house and the faith nurtured here would be transformed by emancipation, by the explosion of black church membership throughout the former confederacy, by the promise of reconstruction, and by its violent overthrow.
These houses of worship would shelter a nation within a nation, gradually becoming the political and spiritual center of the black community, which we now call the Black Church.
♪ CHOIR: In my hands, in my hands, in my heart.
♪ ♪ ♪ WOMAN: Ain't gonna let nobody ♪ ♪ CHOIR: Turn me around.
Turn me around.
♪ GATES: Under slavery, the message and music of black churches had centered around dreams of freedom, and by the summer of 1862, the distant cannons of the civil war signaled that the freedom train might finally be leaving the station.
MURPHY: There had always been in black Christianity the notion that God is a delivering God.
So, it was out of that kind of biblical, scriptural context that black clergy interpreted what was happening in this cataclysmic event, which had erupted in the nation.
There is this narrative of a person who upon hearing the cannon fire in the distance exclaims, "He is coming, my deliverer he is coming."
GATES: Finally, slavery was starting to unravel in the confederacy.
And in the north, black and white abolitionists, liberal congressman, and black congregations kept pressure on president Lincoln to transform the civil war into a fight for freedom.
But the man who would become the great emancipator wasn't initially convinced that black people and white people could live together peacefully, as equals.
JONES: Lincoln is of the view that slavery may end, slavery will end, but people of color, people of African descent will never be full citizens.
That instead the vision is one that would have former slaves removed or deported from the United States in the wake of their emancipation.
GATES: To persuade the black community to go along with his plans, president Lincoln believed that he had to convince their spiritual leaders.
In August 1862, he invited a delegation of five free black clergymen to the White House to discuss emancipation.
But black congregations strenuously rejected Lincoln's proposal.
America the land of their birth, the country they had done so much to build.
America was their home.
Their future was here.
JONES: Their agency is turning Lincoln's political sensibilities.
GATES: On New Year's Eve 1862, northern black congregations held watch night services, desperately praying, singing, anxiously awaiting the hour of freedom.
♪ GREEN: I'm so tired, been so long, ♪ ♪ struggling, hopelessly ♪ ♪ Seven and forty days, hey.
♪ ♪ Oh, I sacrifice every breath I breathe ♪ ♪ To make you believe, I'd give my life away.
♪ GATES: With Lincoln's signature on New Year's Day, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that "All persons held as slaves in the rebel states shall be henceforward and forever free."
HILDEBRAND: This is a confirmation that their prayers have been answered, that God has heard.
The story of the deliverance of the Israelites is being played out again.
"The magnificent trumpet tones of Hebrew scripture, transmuted and oddly changed, became a strange new gospel.
All that was beauty.
All that was love.
All that was truth.
Free, free, free."
WEB Du Bois.
♪ CHOIR: We are coming, we are coming ♪ ♪ Our union to restore.
♪ ♪ We are coming... ♪♪ GATES: Lincoln's proclamation also made it possible for nearly 200,000 black men to join the military.
While the Union Army was liberating bodies, the Black Church was eager to liberate souls.
JONES: Black ministers, will organize to recruit young men who will serve during the war.
Black women in their church communities are going to do the work of war relief.
MAN: Let me hear about it in the building, say "Amen."
MAN: I wonder would you say it again?
MAN: Let me hear you put your hands together.
(rhythmic clapping and music starts) ♪ MAN: I'm a soldier.
♪♪ GATES: Henry McNeal Turner, an outspoken pastor in Washington DC, joined the Union Army.
He was one of more than a dozen African American chaplains who provided spiritual guidance to black soldiers fighting and dying for their country.
TURNER: There is quite a religious element in our regiment.
Last Sabbath we had church three times, and our membership is rapidly increasing.
Some of my brave soldiers wish baptism by immersion.
Their wish shall be granted.
GATES: Throughout the civil war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the north and from the south converted to Christ in mass river baptisms and religious revivals.
WOMAN: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
HARVEY: Interestingly, both sides saw it as a kind of trial that God had given them because of the death and destruction of the Civil War.
And of course, God's people have to be tried.
♪ HALL: Oh, death, have mercy ♪ ♪ Ooh, death, have mercy ♪ ♪ Ooh, death, just spare me... ♪♪ GATES: But as the war became increasingly deadly and prolonged, the Christian religion and its sacred music provided a release from fear and terror.
Around campfires in the sea islands of South Carolina, black soldiers found solace in the sorrow songs of slavery.
♪ HALL: Ooh, death, be easy.
♪ ♪ Ooh, death, just spare me... ♪ ♪ GATES: Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson was also sitting around those campfires.
The commander of a black regiment in South Carolina, Higginson often scribbled in his diary about 'Watching dusky figures move in a rhythmic barbaric dance."
Higginson captured this sublime music for posterity.
HIGGINSON: These quaint religious songs were to the men more than a source of relaxation; they were a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven.
HARVEY: He's talking about, the experience that he has of hearing black soldiers sing spirituals.
And really what you see in the Civil War is northern whites awakening to the fact that there's this deep religious culture and they understand that this has to do with the freedom movement of African Americans.
DARDEN: They were conjuring out of nothing the manhood that had been stripped away from them for 400 years.
They used the spirituals as that catalyst.
There's a great quote by W.C.
He says, "The spirituals did more to help free my people than all the guns of the Union."
♪ CHOIR: John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave ♪♪ DARDEN: It's hard to hate somebody if you can hum their music, and you can feel it.
♪ GADSON: Oh, Eve.
♪♪ GATES: Today, in South Carolina's Sea Islands, these songs are being preserved by an older generation.
♪ GROUP: Adam in the garden pinning up leaves.
♪ ♪ GADSON: Went in the valley one day to pray ♪ ♪ GROUP: Adam in the garden pinning up leaves.
♪ ♪ GADSON: So darn happy I stayed all day.
♪ ♪ GROUP: Adam in the garden pinning up leaves.
♪ ♪ GADSON: Said, whoa Eve... ♪ ♪ GROUP: Where's Adam?
♪ ♪ Oh, Eve, oh.
♪ ♪ Adam in the garden pinning up leaves.
♪ ♪ GATES: Oh, beautiful.
This is great.
You know what Adam was doing.
Of all the things that you'd think a subjected people would create... CRAWFORD: Right.
GATES: Um, would you have predicted it would be these amazingly beautiful, sublime, sacred songs?
CRAWFORD: They were born from frustration and from tragedy and from a, a terrible life.
CRAWFORD: I mean so all, all these songs speak of a better day.
GADSON: A lot of people might have a burden or going through something.
And when they come, you know, when they come to the church and then you sing that song, said, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," said, "since I laid my burden down.
I feel better, so much better, since I lay my burden down."
GATES: Can you sing, "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" for me one more time?
Before I, before I take the weary road?
♪ GROUP: Glory, glory, hallelujah.
♪ ♪ Oh, since I lay my burden down.
♪ ♪ Glory, glory, hallelujah.
♪ ♪ Oh, since I lay my burden down.
♪ ♪ GADSON: Burden down, Lord.
♪ ♪ GATES: By the Fall of 1864, the south was in shambles.
After conquering Atlanta, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman began his famous march to the sea, trailed by thousands of the formerly enslaved.
And, with the end of the war quickly approaching, General Sherman desperately needed a plan for the tens of thousands of black refugees grappling with their new found freedom.
So, on January 12, 1865, on the second floor of this house in Savannah, Georgia, just as Lincoln had done three years before, General Sherman and the US Secretary of War met with another group of trusted leaders of the black community, twenty Baptist and Methodist ministers.
ELMORE: General Sherman he said, "Well, let's call the ministers.
They're the leaders."
ELMORE: Going back to the leaders of the black community.
♪ MAN: Oh, watch that star (inaudible) ♪ ♪ watch that star (inaudible) ♪♪ GATES: More than half these ministers had been born into slavery and all were leaders of prominent congregations.
Without hesitation, they chose the mighty Garrison Frazier to be their spokesperson.
ELMORE: Garrison Frazier is articulate, he's imposing, and he said, we want to own land.
Why do you think land was so important?
Why was land the thing?
ELMORE: I think black people were so deprived of rights, and the land wasn't yours.
And having your own land meant that you don't have to be under the yoke of the white oppressor.
GATES: Persuaded by Frazier's eloquence, General Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, declaring that all abandoned rebel lands from Charleston, South Carolina to the saint John's River in Florida, some 400,000 acres in all, would be distributed to the formerly enslaved in parcels of 40 acres.
GATES: So, it's not too much to say that, the black church gave birth to 40 acres and a mule?
ELMORE: I would think so.
The preachers went in and demanded it.
HARVEY: So this idea of 40 acres and a mule, it's understood by the freed people as a promise that they will have this land because they had been the ones working it all along, after all.
♪ WOMAN: There's a bright side somewhere.
♪ ♪ There's a bright... ♪ ♪ GATES: In the chaos that followed Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, president Andrew Johnson pardoned thousands of white planters and reversed General Sherman's Field Order.
And, just like that the promised land was restored to those who had declared war against the United States of America.
♪ WOMAN: There's a bright... ♪♪ GATES: Although ownership of land would prove elusive, one part of Garrison Frazier's request would come to pass.
With their newfound freedom, African Americans, living in the south, started to exert control over the one thing within their power, their faith.
SAVAGE: One of the first things that free black people do, in addition to being able to marry and to go in search of relatives, is that they want to build, and they do build, their own churches.
GATES: Before the war, a number of black led churches had been suppressed or violently destroyed.
But by the late 1860s, no longer forced to worship underground or under white control, thousands abandoned segregated slave pews.
GATES: Deacon, tell me the history of Brick Baptist Church?
MCDOMICK: Brick Baptist Church was built by the slaves for their slave masters.
The masters that were over here needed a place to worship.
So, they took the slaves who made the bricks and came and built a church for them so they could worship there.
So, what the slave master would do is to bring the house slaves here with him to the church and put them up in the balcony.
The church was finally turned over to blacks, you know, after the Civil War.
♪ MAN: Whoa, Babylon falling down.
♪♪ GATES: One Sunday, Brick Baptist was white.
The following Sunday, Brick Baptist was black.
With the end of slavery, 11:00 on Sunday morning, as Dr. King famously said, would become the most segregated hour in America.
Unfortunately, a reality that remains true today.
One of the first blossoms of reconstruction was the flowering of independent black churches all over the south, where black congregants answered to nobody but God.
MCKENZIE: They didn't believe that we could do it.
When you think a person is less than a man, less human, three fifths as it says in the constitution, then the opinion is you can't think, you can't talk, you can't write, you can't read, you can't do.
But yet the church grew, and the people prospered.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ SHARPTON: I think the black church was the thing we were totally in charge of.
We didn't have any external forces that had to give us permission.
Whatever we wanted to do; it was up to us.
It was ours.
GATES: In the first decade after the civil war, thousands of black churches sprouted throughout the south, to unify and uplift a community that had been divided and degraded in bondage.
HARVEY: Here are people who need freedom, need education, and they need the tools of citizenship.
And the idea is to Christianize and to civilize people who had not been given true Christianity.
GATES: Northern missionaries flooded the south seeking to save the souls of black folks.
Black denominations such as the AME, and AME Zion proudly took the lead seeking converts and building national organizations.
Across Georgia, Henry McNeal Turner, the veteran military chaplain who had been born free, was planting churches, recruiting ministers and leading revivals with support from the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
HILDEBRAND: No one had entered the South with greater optimism, greater energy then Henry McNeal Turner.
TURNER: Every man of us now who has a speck of grace or a bit of sympathy for the race is called upon to extend a hand of mercy to bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.
PINN: The Civil War gives the black denominations an opportunity to traverse the Southern landscape and radically increase numbers.
Why not worship with people who look like you?
Why not be involved in denominations that are run by people who look like you?
GATES: But, before long, differences of class and culture threatened to fracture the community.
the four million who emerged from the shadows of slavery carried their cultures and customs into freedom.
The traditional slave religion would sometimes encounter stiff resistance from the formal church brought down by northern white and black missionaries.
HARVEY: They want to bring true Christianity and what they meant by that was not the Christianity that the slaves actually had.
They meant a much more kind of 19th century proper, Victorian idea of respectable, spiritual expression.
♪ MAN: Oh, I want to go... ♪♪ GATES: Still, one black pastor in Brooklyn was eager to get into the action.
HILDEBRAND: Richard Harvey Cain was pastor of a prominent African Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York.
He just doesn't want this historical moment to pass without him putting his mark on it.
The first chance he gets to go south in 1865 he heads to Charleston.
GATES: In Charleston, once the heart of the slave trade to the United States, racial tensions ran deep.
But Richard Harvey Cain believed that Charleston was fertile ground for the growth of this independent black denomination.
MCKENZIE: This is the place.
You don't go away from danger.
You don't go away from the center of oppression to try to turn the tables of oppression.
You go into the vortex, you go into the center of things, and the deep south was the center of things.
GATES: In 1822, fearful of a slave revolt, white people executed Denmark Vesey and destroyed Charleston's main black church.
More than 40 years later, reverend Cain started rebuilding the church, and it became the flagship of the AME denomination in South Carolina.
It was located on a street named for John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery.
It would be christened, Emanuel, a Hebrew name that means god is with us.
HILDEBRAND: Richard Harvey Cain hired the son of Denmark Vesey as the architect for that church, symbolically making a statement.
He took great pride in saying that every nail hammered in Emmanuel was driven in by a black hand.
And at a time when money was very scarce, people contributed to the building of Emmanuel Church as a symbol of their freedom.
GATES: On September 25th, 1865, a crowd, estimated at 3,000 people, gathered to witness the cornerstone being laid.
Reverend Cain became the church's first pastor.
CAIN: The new era has dawned; the sun has lit up the horizon, the time has come for the black man to take his place as a free man.
GATES: With nearly 95% of freed people unable to read, education became a critical means of uplifting the black community in the years following the civil war.
HIGGINBOTHAM: Remember, during slavery, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write.
And so that denial, the illegality of it made it even more desirous to want to read and write because they understood that education was power.
GATES: Most of these early schools found spaces in black churches.
And the newly freed, holding deeply felt religious convictions, were especially eager to learn how to read the word of god.
BUTLER: In the Reconstruction period, acquiring a Bible was one of the first things people would do in a home because it showed that you were being settled, that you had a place to live, you had a little bit of money, and then also that you could study that Bible.
You would know scriptures just as well as your pastor did.
GATES: In rural areas of the deep south where schools were rare, northern missionaries used the bible to encourage literacy among black church women.
BUTLER: Bible bands worked this way; there would be a reading for the day, and if somebody didn't know how to read you would teach them the words that were in that scripture for the day, and you'd ask them to also memorize it.
GATES: As bible bands expanded across the deep south, women like Virginia Broughton, a Baptist missionary educated at Fisk University, became community leaders by organizing bible study groups.
BROUGHTON: Soon, bible bands were organized throughout the city of Memphis and the women of our churches took on new life.
Every Monday afternoon women could be seen in all sections of the city with bibles in their hands, going to their bible band meetings.
HIGGINBOTHAM: And she is causing quite a stir.
So, her own husband is saying, "You need to stay home."
And she tells her husband, "I've had a talk with God.
God has told me this is my calling.
I have to do this.
So, you and God work this out."
GATES: Over time, schools in church basements would evolve into historically black colleges and universities like Spellman and Morehouse in Atlanta, Fisk in Nashville and Tuskegee in Alabama.
These schools sought to educate leaders, and that education often started in the pulpit.
PIERCE: The vast majorities of HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, were founded to be seminaries and divinity schools, training grounds for ministers and teachers.
These schools understood themselves to be doing the work of God.
GATES: But as the institutional black church was maturing, conflicting visions emerged within different denominations about the nature and role of an educated ministry.
HIGGINBOTHAM: So, the more people that are getting educated, they're losing some of the old style of worship, the old style of speaking.
They're losing a lot of what was initially African American culture.
GATES: In the years since the civil war, charismatic former slave preachers, like John Jasper, had created Baptist churches across the south.
SIMMONS: In his 50s, he starts a church.
He does this sermon titled, "The Sun Do Move, The Earth Am Squared."
JASPER: I take my stan' by de bible and res my case on wat it says.
I take wat de Lord says bout my sins, bout my savior, bout life, bout death, bout de wurl' ter come an' I take wat de lord says bout de sun an' moon an' I cares little wat de haters of mer Gord chooses ter say."
HARVEY: The Baptist church has a lot of appeal because Baptist churches are congregational.
And you don't have to have an educated minister.
If you want to form a Baptist church and you have 10 people you just decide to do it.
GATES: But the AME church made a formal education a requirement for becoming a minister.
HILDEBRAND: If you are going to be ministering effectively you're going to have to symbolize what the new black man and woman is going to be.
And that means you have to model discipline, productivity, education, a respect for learning, all those sorts of things.
This isn't just a cultural debate for them.
This is about the survival and advance and progress of the race.
PINN: Church involvement would give African Americans an opportunity to prove their worth to a larger white society.
And proving this worth meant African Americans reflecting the values and the sensibilities of the larger white world.
GATES: Church music would become a major, cultural battleground.
In 1871, that cultural tension would come to a head at Fisk University in Nashville.
At a time when minstrel shows were dominating the American stage, the school's choral director hit on the idea of a concert tour featuring his colored Christian singers, performing slave songs and spirituals that would appeal to white audiences and raise desperately needed funds.
♪ TURNER: Swing low, sweet chariot.
♪ ♪ Coming for to carry me home.
♪ ♪ Swing low, sweet chariot.
♪ ♪ Coming for to carry me home.
♪ ♪ GATES: Tell Dwight Andrews I'm coming.
♪ ♪ TURNER: That's it.
♪ Coming for to carry me home.
♪♪ ANDREWS: The spirituals were really melodies, without accompaniment and then over generations we adapted them, adopted them, arranged them.
Those arrangements that were occurring, you know, in the 1870s.
GATES: Oh, from Fisk Jubilee Singers.
ANDREWS: From the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Hampton groups.
But they were quite different from the simple folk songs that had a single melody and repeated over and over.
GATES: Yeah, because they had a white audience.
They were trying to clean up the folk tradition, in a way, dress it up in a suit and tie, metaphorically.
DYSON: The respectability of politics was born, in a good way, when black people were trying to adjust to the new situation in order for us to win and curry favor, morally.
But the irony is we're trying to convince white people to see us as human, who enslaved us.
They don't see you as human.
Dressing nicely can't do it.
Speaking the King's English to the Queen's taste is not going to flip a switch.
GATES: Frederick Douglass once said that slavery would not be abolished until the black man has the ballot.
And beginning in 1865, legal and constitutional protections sought to secure the future of the black community, like the fifteenth amendment, which gave black men the right to vote.
But the problem with the 15th Amendment was that it left out half of the black population... Women.
Once ratified in 1870, the amendment opened the door for black men to exercise their political power nationwide.
But black churches became the sites where black men and black women not only could worship, but hold political meetings, debate issues and get out the vote.
BUTTS: In our experience as a people, there is no separation of church and state.
Our political strength, our forward movement in this nation has always been led by people of deep spirituality.
GATES: Over the course of reconstruction, an estimated 2,000 black men held public office on the federal, state and local levels, and many of them were ministers.
♪ WOMAN: Be not dismayed.
♪♪ PINN: So you have ministers who are moving into politics, right, who are being sure enough involved in the political life of the nation.
You have churches that are supporting this, and you have a growth in terms of Christian obligation having social and political impact.
GATES: Richard Harvey Cain, the AME minister from Charleston, used his power base at Mother Emanuel to become the first black clergyman to serve in congress.
On the floor of the capitol, Cain eloquently appealed for civil rights.
CAIN: All that we ask is equal laws, equal legislation, and equal rights throughout the length and breadth of this land.
I appeal to you in the name of god and humanity to give us our rights, for we ask nothing more.
GATES: But, for some people, it was too much, too soon.
♪ WOMAN: Oh, Lord.
♪ ♪ I want you to help me.
♪ ♪ GROUP: Oh, Lord.
I want you to help me.
♪ ♪ GATES: Throughout American history, black progress has often been met with an intense white backlash.
Southern black churches and their preachers increasingly became targets of racially motivated violence.
♪ GROUP: Oh, Lord.
I want you to help me.
♪ ♪ ♪ WOMAN: Oh, Lord.
♪♪ HILDEBRAND: One of the themes running through this is the ever-present danger and reality of violence, of death.
Benjamin Randolph, a black minister in South Carolina, was standing on the platform of the railroad station in Orangeburg, and some men ride up, knowing who he is as a Minster and politician, and shoot him, and ride off, and nothing happens.
GATES: With the effective overthrow of reconstruction in 1877, federal troops were removed from state houses in the former confederacy.
And in pursuit of what they called redemption, emboldened former confederates immediately sought to roll back all the gains that black southerners had achieved following the war.
PINN: Larger white society is suspicious of what's taking place within these independent black churches.
And the key word there is independent.
These churches were symbols of rebellion, symbols of protest, symbols of black folks striking against the status quo.
And white backlash took a variety of forms.
Church burnings, lynching's, etc.
GATES: What's the significance of white supremacists targeting these sacred symbolic spaces, in the history of the black community?
DYSON: Well what these white supremacists understand, what they know, without sophistication, that's the height and depth and breadth of our existence.
The church is our refuge, it's our, it's our sanctuary, literally.
The very nature of the black church is what makes it so powerful, and yet so vulnerable at the same time.
GATES: Richard Harvey Cain, who had reached great heights as the pastor at Mother Emanuel and as a member of congress, died in the midst of a growing racial violence seizing the country.
HILDEBRAND: Cain died in 1887, but he lived long enough to see much of what he worked for become unraveled, and that's the tragedy of this story.
It accentuates just how great and exhilarating the moment was when all things seemed possible, but that also makes it even worse when things fall apart.
♪ WOMAN: Oh, Lord guide my way.
♪ ♪ Oh, Lord guide my way.
♪ ♪ Got my footsteps, Lord, everyday.
♪ ♪ Oh, Lord guide my way.
♪♪ WINFREY: The church was the center of my life growing up.
It was everything.
I lived with my grandmother in rural Mississippi.
It was church on Sunday.
It was church on Wednesday night for choir rehearsal.
It was church on, um, Friday evenings, getting ready for church on Sunday.
The church gave me the faith and the belief and the knowing that no matter what, everything's gonna be all right.
GATES: No matter how dark the night.
WINFREY: Preach, brother!
GATES: After reconstruction, the black community, state by southern state, was stripped of it's voting rights and abandoned by congress and the supreme court.
They were expected to make their own way in a legally segregated world.
And, in their darkest hour, they retreated to the safe haven that had always helped them survive oppression, the church.
PINN: You have black churches becoming responsible for so many dimensions of black life, that they are trying to meet a range of needs.
Educational needs, social needs, economic needs, political needs.
The life of black folks in some very significant ways is being filtered through these organizations.
HIGGINBOTHAM: The church has formed a nation within a nation.
The church was, then at least, the single most important institution in the black community.
GATES: A key part of the black community's survival during Jim Crow was the church's financial independence.
Black congregants made sure that collection plates were full.
BUTTS: It was the first place of social cohesion for people of African descent.
The first place of economics, where we pooled our resources.
HIGGINBOTHAM: Poor people would give virtually, virtually everything they had to their churches to see those churches grow.
GATES: As Jim Crow took root and public spaces became increasingly segregated, a burgeoning black consciousness began percolating within the church.
In Atlanta, in the fall of 1895, bishop Henry McNeal Turner, always at the radical edge of the black church, delivered a blistering sermon at the first gathering of the National Baptist Convention.
Bishop Turner asked for those in the room to see the face of God in a radical new way.
It did not go over well.
TURNER: I worship a Negro God.
I believe God is a Negro.
Negroes should worship a God who is a Negro.
DOUGLAS: Henry McNeal Turner comes along and he says, "Everyone has a God that looks like them."
DOUGLAS: But us.
DOUGLAS: If we are created in the image of God, then God is black.
When, Henry McNeal Turner talks about that, that Jesus is a black man, I'm sure everybody fell out.
Everybody absolutely fell out, "What?"
In the 19th century to say that, absolutely extraordinary.
HARVEY: He's creating what we now call black theologies.
He's literally challenging several generations now of a complete kind of universality of the idea of Jesus as this white, blonde-haired guy.
SIMMONS: He has a line where he says, "Lord have mercy on any race of people who do not believe that they look like God."
And I think that sums up so much of what the black church has fought its way through and has been fighting for.
And that is, to have its people see themselves as important to God, as not less than.
And Henry McNeal Turner, he got that.
♪ WOMAN: Now let us all go back to that old... ♪ ♪ GROUP: Old landmark.
♪♪ GATES: But, the violent end of interracial democracy wasn't just radicalizing ministers such as Bishop Turner.
Black church women, who male leaders had long pushed to the margins, began pushing back on the issues of ordination, preaching licenses and the power of the purse.
GATES: Why is the late 19th century referred to in black history as women's era?
HIGGINBOTHAM: Women are excited.
They have come into gender consciousness.
HIGGINBOTHAM: And they are making the argument, according to the bible, women have the right to preach.
Women have the right to be in their own separate missionary organizations.
Or, women have the right to raise money for their churches and be in control of the money that they raise.
PIERCE: The membership of the African-American church is somewhere between 80 to 90% women.
But the leadership is 80 to 90% male.
GATES: In 1894, Julia Foote, at the ripe old age of 71, became one of the first two women to be ordained as a deacon in the AME Zion church.
As black male influence in the larger world began to shrink, some men became even more intent on holding on to their power within the church.
WALTON: Unfortunately, the black church carries all the anxieties and insecurities born of the dominant society.
And so therefore, the church becomes a space where black man can be that conception of manhood in American society, which is about power.
GATES: In the Baptist church, an outspoken young activist protested that the "sisters were hindered from helping."
Her name was Nannie Helen Burroughs.
SAVAGE: Nannie Helen Burroughs is one of the people who said that black woman within churches were undervalued, and overlooked and invested all of her political and spiritual powers in the women's convention of the National Baptist Convention.
She is inside the black Baptist Church but is a persistent critic of the black Baptist Church.
BURROUGHS: For a number of years there has been a righteous discontent, a burning zeal to go forward in his name among the Baptist women of our churches.
GATES: What did Nannie Burroughs mean by "Righteous Discontent"?
HIGGINBOTHAM: She says, for a number of years now, we have been out here in the fields doing missionary work, trying to get our women educated.
Trying to get our women jobs.
But, the key of the righteous discontent is just this sense that it's our time now.
Church women, like Burroughs, who had been the glue of their denominations started to seize opportunities to expand their activities beyond church walls.
JONES: For some churchwomen, in these debates over power and authority, they raise the specter, even the threat, that perhaps they will leave the church communities if men can't accommodate their ambition.
Some women will leave.
GATES: By 1896, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs was formed in Washington DC.
Their motto, "Lifting as we climb."
♪ WOMAN: Woman.
♪ ♪ GROUP: Woman.
♪ ♪ WOMAN: Woman, woman, woman, woman.
♪ ♪ GROUP: Woman.
♪ ♪ WOMAN: Lookie here woman.
♪ ♪ PIERCE: The lifting as we climb.
What we're trying to do is uplift a group of people who had experienced oppression for so long that there had to be a concerted effort that was rooted and grounded in spiritual practice.
GATES: Black women weren't the only ones lamenting the growing conservatism of the black church.
At the turn of the century, the great black scholar, WEB Du Bois, explored the issue in two of his books "The Philadelphia Negro" and "The Souls of Black Folk."
Du Bois detailed the church's enduring historical significance, and he challenged it to address its political limitations.
SAVAGE: Du Bois is very interested in the black church, and part of his interest comes from the fact that he was not raised in it.
And he especially didn't have experience with Southern black religious expression or Southern black churches.
♪ MAN: Oh, dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: Hey, Lord.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪♪ YOUNG: He saw a real genius and a real gift in rural and African American country folk, what we might think of as kind of the salt-of-the-Earth folk.
♪ MAN: I shout dat religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I talk about religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: I sing about religion.
GROUP: So sweet.
♪ ♪ MAN: It make me happy.
♪ ♪ GATES: Many rural black people felt that the presence of God manifested itself in the Holy Spirit.
WEB Du Bois called this "The Frenzy."
(overlapping chatter) YOUNG: The frenzy goes by many names.
In churches where I grew up, it was called "getting happy" or "getting touched."
It's a moment of deep, expressive behavior that happens in and out of the church, in which one's body becomes connected intimately with the divine.
♪ FRANKLIN: What do you think about Jesus?
♪ ♪ CHOIR: He's alright!
♪ ♪ GATES: Deep in the Mississippi delta and in parts of the southeast, religious fervor was sweeping church revivals and camp meetings.
And the Holy Ghost didn't stop at the color line both white people and black people were drawn to the supernatural healing and the ecstatic worship in holiness churches.
BUTLER: In the latter part of the 19th century, many African Americans in the South and around the country begin to get involved in this Holiness Movement, which would set the stage for the entrance of what would eventually become the Pentecostal movement.
GATES: Is it fair to say that you grew up steeped in the church?
LEGEND: Oh, steeped is probably an understatement.
I joined the church.
I spoke in tongues.
GATES: You did?
LEGEND: It's just part of, it's a rite of passage in the Pentecostal church.
I was raised in that tradition.
And I wouldn't be an artist today if I hadn't grown up in that tradition, I think.
GATES: Traditional denominations largely ignored the new movement until a Baptist minister from Arkansas, named Charles Harrison Mason, started delivering sermons on sanctification.
Mason was eventually banned from the Baptist church.
So, in 1897, he founded his own denomination, the Church of God in Christ.
♪ MAN: I'm, I'm so glad.
♪♪ PIERCE: The Church of God in Christ is the largest African American Pentecostal denomination in this country.
I think that it has such a resonance for people who love the music of the black experience, who love bodily and ecstatic worship, who believe in the gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues.
♪ MAN: Whoa, now, Lord ♪ ♪ CHOIR: Look at the Lord.
Look at the Lord ♪ ♪ MAN: Yeah, hey Lord, yeah Lord, ♪ ♪ what shall I do?
♪ ♪ CHOIR: What shall I do?
♪ ♪ GATES: Bishop, was ecstatic worship controversial?
Was it something new that we hadn't seen before in church services?
BLAKE: The black church, no matter what its denomination, whether it was Methodist or Baptist, they had shouting and, and praising the Lord audibly with a loud voice.
GATES: Like tongues of fire.
GATES: By 1906, all the disparate threads of the Pentecostal movement would converge on Azusa Street in Los Angeles where a gathering of believers staged a frenetic week-long street revival.
The revival attracted an interracial congregation comprised of blacks and whites and Latinos and, notably, Charles Harrison Mason.
♪ WOMAN: Lord, been preachin' for many a year ♪ ♪ tried to tell 'em truth but... ♪ ♪ PIERCE: Pentecostalism grew from 100 members at Azusa Street to 100 million members within 100 years.
These denominations and churches were not in fact an offshoot of white churches.
Within the Pentecostal denomination, you have completely independent denominations in which there is black leadership and also in which black women are leaders from the very beginning.
♪ CHOIR: Oh, come and go.
♪♪ GATES: The new century would see an explosion of a new black denomination, transcending race, gender and geography marking a new chapter in the history of the black church.
Do you think that we're right to talk about an entity called the black church?
GATES: Well, how is it different than the white church?
BLAKE: Well, it's black.
And, uh, it was involved in the, in the lives of its people in a way that white churches simply were not.
GATES: Fifty years since the end of the civil war, the black community had made a great leap forward from the dark days of slavery to the dawn of a new century guided by a freedom faith.
Would there be an African-American people today had there not been a strong black church?
HIGGINBOTHAM: I don't know.
Because the church is all we had.
There's got to be something that gives you hope just to make it, to persevere.
And what we had, the message we had, was to keep the faith.
♪ LEGEND: God's been so good to me, ♪ ♪ he's been so good to me.
♪ ♪ More than this world could ever be, ♪ ♪ the Lord has been so good to me.
♪ ♪ He dried my tears away.
♪ ♪ He turned my midnights into day.
♪ ♪ So, I say, thank you, Lord.
♪ ♪ I won't complain.
♪♪ GATES: Soon, a mass movement of people would radically change the form and function of the black church.
But this exodus would take place without a Moses at the helm, and in the years to come, a young preacher from Georgia would be propelled to the forefront of a spiritual movement that would change the world, but it would also spark severe violence against the black church.
WEISENFELD: People began to ask themselves, "What is God's plan for us?"
NARRATOR: Next time on, "The Black Church".
HADLEY: You start to see storefront churches dotting the city's of Chicago, Detroit.
NARRATOR: The church extends it's reach.
WALTON: Healthcare, job employment.
NARRATOR: Moving beyond the pulpit.
SHARPTON: What to we want?
PARKER: You have to include what is real.
I think we're disenchanted.
BLACKMON: They abandoned the institution, the didn't necessarily abandon God.
NARRATOR: Next time, on "The Black Church" ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Watch the full film and find additional information at pbs.org/blackchurh and the PBS Video App.
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