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Martin Luther King’s Line in Context

After giving a speech at Western Michigan University in 1963, Dr. MLK, Jr. fielded questions from WMU’s president, Dr. James Miller. Miller asked, “Don’t you feel integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means?” In response, King uttered these words:

As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing, and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems we have. The first way the church can repent, the first way it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. The church, itself, will stand under the judgment of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, I think the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community, the institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body.[1]

These words still hold true. For the most part, people worship within the same racial/ethnic group. According to an ABC news report, only 7 percent of the nation’s churches are multi-racial.[2] Churches must address reasons for this, especially after the legal destruction of Jim Crow segregation.

During the colonial period and through the Age of Revolution, Christians of African descent worshipped with Europeans. There is no evidence of segregation. With the migration of free Africans from the South, churches began to react negatively and segregate African American congregants, especially when free Africans in the North began to challenge slavery. Independent churches led by Northern African Americans developed as a response. They believed separate churches under their own leadership would serve their needs better. In the South, independent African Baptist churches appeared with the help of whites, not owing to segregation. These churches emerged from plantation missions with African leadership. Independent churches remained few in number in the South, owing to the reality that without white sanction, these churches could have never existed. Once whites refused, very few churches came into existence. Further, with the vast majority of the African American population enslaved, most Christians worshiped in the same church with their masters. In the North, there were visible African American Christian communities into the 19th century.

Bi-racial Churches under Colonial Slavery

Two phenomena occurred that increased the numbers of Africans in Christian churches. First, the Church of England founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1701 (its goal was to evangelize American Indians and Africans in America), and second, the revivals of the Great Awakening occurred.

SPG engaged in mission work in Virginia, New York state, and Maryland, along with urban areas such as Boston and Philadelphia. Rev. Samuel Thomas’ work in South Carolina could be deemed successful; in 1705, there were 20 African members in his mission. He also reported 1,000 slaves were under instruction and could read the Scriptures. According to Carter G. Woodson, some resisted this work because they objected to Africans coming to the Lord’s Table.[3] As work in that part of South Carolina continued, Africans in some churches would make up half of the congregation.[4] A few catechism schools began to teach Africans reading and writing. SPG had modest success, but the main point here is that Africans who became members of the Church of England worshiped in bi-racial congregations.

The First Great Awakening brought more Africans into churches, especially in the South. Albert Raboteau notes: “The Great Awakening represented ‘the dawning of the new day’ in the history of the conversion of slaves to Christianity.”[5] White revivalist preachers came to the South and preached to multi-ethnic audiences. African converts joined both Baptist and Methodist churches.

Formation of Independent African Churches and African Congregations

During the 1770s, the first independent African American churches began to appear. These were Baptist churches that had their foundation as plantation missions in South Carolina and Georgia. Many believe the Silver Bluff Church in Aiken County, SC was the first to appear. A white “New Light” Baptist preacher, Wait Palmer, helped to organize this church with George Liele who was the first ordained African American Baptist minister. Liele was a slave, but manumitted to preach on plantations. One of the members, a slave named David George, became the pastor of the church until 1778 (when the British occupied Savannah). Another church, First African in Savannah (now known as First Bryan), began in 1778. Like Silver Bluff, this church began as a plantation mission, and its first pastor was George Liele until he had to flee the colonies and settle in Jamaica. First African actually disbanded and had to be re-organized in 1788. With the help of white Baptists, Andrew Bryan, a slave, became the pastor.

Formation of independent churches among African American Methodists is a different story. Consider the story of Richard Allen and the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760, moved to Delaware, and returned to Philadelphia in 1786 following his emancipation. As a slave teen, Allen and his brother were converted through the preaching of a Methodist circuit riding preacher. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Allen joined and would become a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Church, which was a bi-racial church.

With African Americans increasingly joining St. George’s (as a result of the preaching of Allen), white church leaders segregated the African American congregants. Tension resulted in Allen and other African Americans leaving the church. In 1792, some white members dragged African American members out of the church. A portion of this outcast group founded the AME Church, while another group joined the Protestant Episcopal Church under the guidance of Absalom Jones (who left St. George’s). Jones would become the first African American Episcopalian priest in America.

Civil War and Reconstruction

After the Civil War, newly freed slaves began to join African Methodist churches in large numbers. The AME Church flooded the South with missionaries who planted churches. At the end of Reconstruction, there were AME-affiliated churches from Florida to Texas. One reason for the growth was the newfound sense of independence among African Americans.

Baptists organized independent churches during the 1860s and 1870s. Forming their own churches was one of the easiest ways to display their freedom. They broke away from the white-controlled churches. New Baptist churches organized district associations and state conventions. Eventually, Baptists organized regional conventions and the National Baptist Convention in 1895.

After years of social, political, and economic oppression, African Americans wanted to control their own ecclesiastical affairs. In the aftermath of the Civil War, African American Christians in the South seized their opportunity to build local churches, regional associations of churches, and denominations under their own control.

“In Christ, There is No East or West”

Christians confess the oneness and catholicity of the Church. In more liturgical churches, both African American and white churches recite, or even sing the Apostle’s Creed in which they confess together (albeit in separate worship spaces), “I believe in the holy catholic church.” The question for us now is how can we live out the holiness and catholicity of the Church? Does this mean the majority of African American churches willingly become cross-cultural? Does this mean predominantly white churches become cross-cultural, or multi-racial? Where does the burden lie to breakdown congregational segregation?

Considering Dr. King’s 1963 lament over the church, the most segregated American institution, it can be implied white churches carry the burden to work to eradicate ecclesiastical segregation. This point can be argued against, of course, but the history is clear. White Methodists and Baptists in the North segregated their African American brothers and sisters. African Americans refused to be disrespected in this manner and founded their own congregations. In the South, Christians slaves had limited roles in their bi-racial church contexts, and even when allowed to “have church” on their own, it was supervised by whites. White Americans erected the racist structures that prompted independent African American churches. The burden, I submit, lies squarely on white churches. Yet African American churches must help white churches bear that burden. History demands white churches repent from their past and present racism, and African American churches walk with them down the road of repentance.

Dr. King cited the hymn “In Christ There is No East or West”. The writer Michael Perry published his version of “In Christ There is No East or West” as a testimony of the glory of Christ, who died for people from all nations and brought them into one in the Church. One special line in the hymn reads: “For God in Christ has made us one from every land and race; he reconciled us through his Son and met us with his grace.” This teaches gospel truth. If all Christians live this out, then our churches could begin to look different, and its place in society would be more counter-cultural as it stands for the gospel. Could we even see predominantly white churches led by African American pastors, or African American churches led by white or Latino pastors? This is a time to shift the historical narrative of church segregation in America. As the Church, we must strive to promote grace over race.


[1]“Questions & Answers,” wmich.edu/library/archives/mlk/q-a.html

[2]Dan Harris and Blair Soden, “Segregated Sundays: Taking on Race and Religion,” ABC News, http://www.abcnews.go.com/print?id=4165468

[3]Carter G. Woodson, History of the Negro Church, 7.

[4]Woodson, 7.

[5]Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion, 128.

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