African-American churches and their vision of faith and freedom

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: Ahead of the presidential November election, Bread Blog is exploring faith and elections through the lens of different faith perspectives. The blog posts will be written by members of Bread’s church relations staff and friends of Bread for the World.

By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith

“Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me. And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord and be free.”

This post-Civil War African-American freedom song, often associated with the 20th century Civil Rights Movement in the United States, provides a helpful historical lens for understanding why elections have been important to African-American churches. For these churches, voting and other methods of engaging their public voices have been important in their quest in obtaining freedom from social and legal racism in the U.S. while relying on the biblical promise of a transcendent freedom in the afterlife.

Dr. Albert Raboteau at Princeton University points out the following concerning religious formation of African-American churches: “These Christians appropriated Christianity on their own terms despite what they were told or not told by their slave holders and U.S. law. African slaves experienced dissonance between their dignified African identities and the disempowering and undignified messaging of White colonizers and missionaries.”

This kind of social marginalization and oppression of people of African descent, and the acceptance of the biblical narrative of struggle, deliverance, hope, and faith have provoked and encouraged the faith of people of African descent. Such faith has informed their vision and mission to fight for a dignified and equitable quality of life as evidence of earthly freedom.

Historically, African-Americans were prevented from establishing independent institutional churches in the U.S.  Dr. Milton C. Sernett of Syracuse University points out that from the early 1600s until the early 1800s, the so-called “black codes” prevented people of African descent from organizing places of worship.  It was not until 1816 that the first independent Protestant denomination founded by people of African descent was organized worldwide – the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) – which celebrates its bicentennial this year. The AME church and successive independent Protestant denominations founded by people of African descent have had the mission of ministering to the social, spiritual, physical development of people of African descent and all people.

This mission of ministering has led to the historic embrace of voting as a means for moving toward freedom. Yet U.S. laws have consistently prevented and hindered voting by people of African descent.  

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made it legal for African-Americans to vote. However, Jim Crow laws, put in place in many Southern states, like literacy tests and poll taxes, made it difficult for them to fully exercise their right to vote. And even today, African-Americans still face obstacles. Three years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, of the requirement that they seek federal approval before changing their election laws.

As a result, numerous states have imposed strict voter ID laws that civil rights groups say unfairly target African-Americans and other minorities. African-American churches have always been a beacon of hope, activism, and support.  

And in this election cycle, their involvement will be vital more than ever, once again fulfilling their larger vision of faith and freedom through the witnessing of voting.

Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is the national senior associate for pan-African church engagement at Bread for the World.

Related Resources