The Great Awakening and African American Religions

“The Awakening fundamentally shaped African American religious practices, eventually making Christianity a primary form of African American religious expression.”

Through the Storm, Through the Night, Chapter 2

The Great Awakening was a movement that affected not only one region or one race, but the larger United States as a whole. Evangelical religion was “countercultural,” Harvey claimed. It challenged the “dominant religious establishment” wherever its “brothers” and “sisters” went to spread the Word of God (Harvey, 29). Harvey discussed the impact of it on African American religious practice within the United States, especially within denominations like the Baptists or Methodists. Independent black denominations, like African Methodist Episcopal or African Methodist Episcopal Zion, appeared largely in the north.

Baptists were more common in the south, building congregations in Georgia and some in South Carolina. They fostered independent spirits and community within the church, and helped inspire countless individuals to find meaning in life, within the Word, the music, and in rituals. This was the beginning of the importance of Christianity within the African American community. Within the confines of a strict hierarchical, slave-and-not slave system, African Americans were still able to express themselves and incorporate their own heritage into religion. I think that’s what makes religion so personal and marketable, is making it not just about doctrine, but about the elements you can add that make it truly a religion for you.

I think this shows that the process of Christianization within the African American community was slow–it didn’t happen immediately when the slaves were taken off the ships and onto various plantations in an abundance of cities. This was almost two hundred years later. Also, that Christianity was not necessarily appealing at various parts in its American history to everyone, despite claims that the United States was settled for solely religious purposes. I remember from an earlier reading that as more generations of African Americans were born in the Americas (with more distance between their African heritage), Christianity was able to reach more. Christianity and its message doesn’t necessarily appeal to groups who don’t see themselves in that Christian “mold” of sin and suffering and disconnection. But when you’re separated from what you know and you’re placed into this horrific practice, anyone would reach for something to make life a little bit better, even if it’s not here on Earth. I would go so far as to argue that without slavery, Christianity wouldn’t have reached the numbers it did within the African American community. The overall message Christianity teaches is one of equality, brotherhood, grace, and salvation, and to a slave, it gives an answer to the hopes and dreams of freedom one day.

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