The State of Black Preaching

One does not wish to romanticize the state of black preaching. When it is good it is very, very good. And when it is bad … well, that too is true.

An important aspect of equality is to remember that our black sisters and brothers are equal, and sometimes more equal than others, in manifesting the sins to which we are all heir. But the best of black preaching today puts together self and language in a way that can be instructive for all of us. Obviously it should not be imitated, but key aspects of it might well be emulated. Black preaching was born in and is carried by a particular cultural experience. But the principles that make it great, when it is great, are not that different from those specified by St. Augustine more than fifteen hundred years ago and observed by the worthier practitioners of the art ever since.

John Neuhaus argues that Augustine’s advice about rhetoric’s need to engage the audience is demonstrated in the black church. Although some may argue that Augustine’s connection to Africa and the origins of black preaching today accounts for the similarity in styles, it is clear that Augustine considered his principles universally applicable. So too, I propose, are the principles that can be garnered from the following analysis that examines the historical context of African American preaching and selected uses of rhetoric within that context. Whenever appropriate, I have limited the study to my own discourse community, namely, churches of Christ.  The analysis concludes by reviewing the respective research on the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Historical Context of African American Preaching

The point of entry into the story of African American preaching might begin by noticing the slaves’ pews in the gallery that encircles the sanctuary of many colonial churches. Many good slave-holding Christian folk brought their chattels to hear “the gospel” and learn the lessons of obedience in the manner of Onesimus. George Whitefield rationalized the owning of slaves in 1751 when he wrote John Wesley:

…though liberty is a sweet thing to those who are born free, yet to those who may never know the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome … I should think myself highly favored if I could purchase a good number of them, in order to make their lives comfortable, and lay a foundation for breeding up their posterity in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Although some preachers urged slaves not to believe that slave ownership was for their own spiritual good, Whitefield justified his practice on economic and evangelistic grounds. Many preachers believed the evangelization of the slaves would not only bring salvation but also a better social condition. Slave masters would respect peaceful and hard working Christian slaves as they entered into fellowship. Nevertheless, many abolitionists and missionaries to slaves believed that preaching to slaves to obey their masters would drive slaves from the church. They were convinced such preaching was a mere sham in order to soften the wills of blacks while salving the conscience of the whites. Furthermore, they advocated that it was wrong to provide a theological justification for the legitimacy of the institution of slavery. Throughout this heated religious debate, blacks, nevertheless, heard and responded to the gospel.

The history of preaching in the African-American community is connected to two contexts: the religious tradition of West Africa and the institution of slavery.  As slaves were converted to Christianity, a blending of cultures occurred.  Syncretism of Christianity and the slave experience gave birth to a rich new heritage of preaching. Often legally prohibited from learning to read and write, illiterate slaves developed robust oral traditions, passing down spirituals, sermons, and folk tales from generation to generation. Without such a rhetorical process, African Americans may not have survived as a people.

C. F. Stewart identifies the black church as the center of freedom that most influenced the praxis of African American spirituality. It became a safe place where blacks gathered to embrace their collective concerns as a community of faith. Stewart states, “It has been the only institution in the African American experience that has maintained relative autonomy from the domesticating influence of white oppressors and overlords.” It is such a context that allows Calvin Bowers to argue that some black churches may be the last place to see integration due to the desire to maintain a power base not available to them elsewhere. After reviewing several aspects of worship as the context for spiritual and cultural freedom, Stewart notes that black preaching in and out of the black church is “one of the most powerful idioms of freedom for black people in America.”

Bowers reviews the development of the black church in American history.[viii] The black response to segregation manifested itself in two distinct ways.  First, there was an acceptance of Jim Crow as seen in the writings of Booker T. Washington and other “Sustainers.”  Speaking to white northerners about abolition, many like Frederick Douglass, used Standard English style and delivery in order to secure a hearing.  Equality was being demonstrated to white audiences who needed to see that blacks were able to use the language.  Douglass, on the one hand, reluctantly chose to be a showcase of the intellectual ability of a black man for the white establishment.  On the other hand, Douglass used the rhetorical techniques of the establishment to defend and advance his cause.

The “Sustainers” preached to the needs of enslaved and segregated people but never attempted to revolutionize the conditions under which they lived.  Their hope rested in the conviction that the gospel of love would gradually transform the hearts of slave owners and subsequent racists.  The rhetoric of inclusion continually uses “we” and not “you” or  “them.” Some of the gradualistic convictions were rooted in the early evangelism done by white preachers.  Christianity was thought to bring submission to slaves.  A more docile slave would somehow maintain the status quo.  Gradualism was sure to fail due to its misconception of the nature of slavery as an institution and the lack of recognition of the power of the gospel to transform a nation.  In similar fashion, the Civil Rights Movement itself moved rhetorically over time from a gradualistic approach to a “shattered dream” understanding of an America that was never a free America.

W. E. B. DuBois, opposed the stance of the “Sustainers,” and would not give racism even a hint of being acceptable arguing against gradualism.  DuBois and the “Reformers” were willing to risk life for the freedom of the race.  They sought to translate the power base of the black church into political clout.

Churches of Christ advocated both positions. Although many of the white leaders in the Movement taught their slaves the gospel, allowed them to worship in segregated balconies, and eventually freed them, they were slow in doing so. Conversely, most blacks did not accept the doctrine of gradualism.   G. P. Bowser was raised in the AME church, the oldest exclusively African-American denomination in the United States.  The AME church was founded in 1816, a few years after Richard Allen had been expelled from the “white” St. George’s Church in Philadelphia.  Bowser left the AME church in 1897 and became a member of the Jackson St. Church of Christ in Nashville working with Marshall Keeble.  Bowser eventually broke away from the white supported Keeble.  His preaching was a synthesis of a rational discourse and traditional black preaching and is exemplified by his protégé R. N. Hogan. Bowser was instrumental in opening Southwestern Christian College in Terrel Texas.

R. N. Hogan opposed the segregation of such schools as Pepperdine. His sermons were topical, logical, and rational patterns that appealed to the intellect.  Hogan had a high view of education and literacy.  He challenged congregations to read the Bible for themselves and not accept blindly what any pastor said.  He allowed open questions and investigations during his sermons.

Conversely, an example of gradualism is seen in Marshall Keeble (1878-1968), who appealed to blacks and whites. Keeble’s gospel of accommodation stated, “The way out for us is to exaggerate our dependence.” He trusted the white congregations for financial support throughout his long career.  Although Keeble spoke on race relations, he used “double-speak” or “signification” to convey his message.  His preaching style was similar to Hogan’s, yet without the direct judgment against racism and other offensive topics to whites.

The debate between “Sustainers” and “Reformers” continues today. “Sustainers” argue that culture is the reason for the differences seen in people. One prominent African American preacher noted,  “Everybody considers their own culture as superior. Indians think their culture is superior.  That’s natural. It’s not the red man, yellow man, black man.  It’s culture.  I couldn’t go live in Africa. …  Or marry an African.  We are not going to mix. …  She is as black as I am, but it’s the culture.   That’s it, it’s the culture.” This preacher defends gradualism as the most Christian approach but also the most pragmatic approach.

When you take for example Keeble, he was slower than Bowser.  Over time, this proved more successful.  Keeble came up in severe Jim Crowe age and well acquainted with the attitude of the Caucasian and when you look back, he had the best approach.  Maybe not the acceptable approach but the best approach.  Many preachers wouldn’t tell you that. …  I always could understand what the old man was doing.  I couldn’t of done it, not like that, I couldn’t be like Jackie Robinson. …  There are certain men who were ready fit for the position.  A man for the time.  Keeble was man for the time.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was the man for the time.  Jackie Robinson was the man for the time.  You got to admit, his [Keeble] approach was the best approach.

However, another preacher who began his career in the tradition of Keeble reflects on this as though it were the wrong course. He attacks the argument of culture asking about other religious groups that are integrated even in the midst of two or more cultures. His voice mourns and his eyes fall as he retells stories of accommodation as though he and others were weak and fearful.

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Professor of Ministry
Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology

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