Dim face of Beauty haunting all the world,
Fair face of Beauty all too fair to see,
Where the lost stars adown the heavens are hurled, --
There, there alone for thee
May white peace be.
Beauty, sad face of Beauty, Mystery, Wonder,
What are these dreams to foolish babbling men
Who cry with little noises 'neath the thunder
Of Ages ground to sand,
To a little sand.
[On the meaning of the bar of music]
It was out in the country, far from home, far from myfoster home, on a dark Sunday night. The road wandered from our ramblinglog-house up the stony bed of a creek, past wheat and corn, until we could heardimly across the fields a rhythmic cadence of song, -- soft, thrilling,powerful, that swelled and died sorrowfully in our ears. I was a countryschoolteacher then, fresh from the East, and had never seen a Southern Negrorevival. To be sure, we in Berkshire were not perhaps as stiff and formal asthey in Suffolk of olden time; yet we were very quiet and subdued, and I knownot what would have happened those clear Sabbath mornings had some
one punctuated the sermon with a wild scream, or interrupted the long prayerwith a loud Amen! And so most striking to me, as I approached the village andthe little plain church perched aloft, was the air of intense excitement thatpossessed that mass of black folk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the airand seemed to seize us, -- a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lentterrible reality to song and word. The black and massive form of the preacherswayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singulareloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brownwoman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lostsoul, while round about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of humanpassion such as I had never conceived before.
Those who have not thus witnessed the frenzy of a Negrorevival in the untouched backwoods of the South can but dimly realize thereligious feeling of the slave; as described, such scenes appear grotesque andfunny, but as seen they are awful. Three things characterized this religion ofthe slave, -- the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy. The Preacher is the mostunique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, apolitician, an orator, a "boss," an intriguer, an idealist, -- allthese he is, and ever, too, the centre of a group of men, now twenty, now athousand in number. The combination of a certain adroitness with deepseatedearnestness, of tact with consummate ability, gave him his preeminence, andhelps him maintain it. The type, of course, varies according to time and place,from the West Indies in the sixteenth century to New England in the nineteenth,and from the Mississippi bottoms to cities like New Orleans or New York.
The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmicmelody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature anddefilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of humanlife and longing yet born on American soil. Sprung from the African forests,where its counterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed, andintensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress oflaw and whip, it became the one true expression of a people's sorrow, despair,and hope.
Finally the Frenzy of "Shouting," when theSpirit of the Lord passed by, and, seizing the devotee, made him mad withsupernatural joy, was the last essential of Negro religion and the one moredevoutly believed in than all the rest. It varied in expression from the silentrapt countenance or the low murmur and moan to the mad abandon of physicalfervor, -- the stamping, shrieking, and shouting, the rushing to and fro andwild waving of arms, the weeping and laughing, the vision and the trance. Allthis is nothing new in the world, but old as religion, as Delphi and Endor. Andso firm a hold did it have on the Negro, that many generations firmly believedthat without this visible manifestation of the God there could be no truecommunion with the Invisible.
These were the characteristics of Negro religious life asdeveloped up to the time of Emancipation. Since under the peculiarcircumstances of the black man's environment they were the one expression ofhis higher life, they are of deep interest to the student of his development,both socially and psychologically. Numerous are the attractive lines of inquirythat here group themselves. What did slavery mean to the African savage? Whatwas his attitude toward the World and Life? What seemed to him good and evil,-- God and Devil? Whither went his longings and strivings, and wherefore werehis heart-burnings and disappointments? Answers to such questions can come onlyfrom a study of Negro religion as a development, through its gradual changesfrom the heathenism of the Gold Coast to the institutional Negro church ofChicago.
Moreover, the religious growth of millions of men, eventhough they be slaves, cannot be without potent influence upon theircontemporaries. The Methodists and Baptists of America owe much of theircondition to the silent but potent influence of their millions of Negroconverts. Especially is this noticeable in the South, where theology andreligious philosophy are on this account a long way behind the North, and wherethe religion of the poor whites is a plain copy of Negro thought and methods.The mass of "gospel" hymns which has swept through American churchesand well-nigh ruined our sense of song consists largely of debased imitationsof Negro melodies made by ears that caught the jingle
but not the music, the body but not the soul, of the Jubilee songs. It is thusclear that the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the historyof the Negro in America, but no uninteresting part of American history.
The Negro church of to-day is the social centre of Negrolife in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of Africancharacter. Take a typical church in a small Virginia town: it is the"First Baptist" -- a roomy brick edifice seating five hundred or morepersons, tastefully finished in Georgia pine, with a carpet, a small organ, andstained- glass windows. Underneath is a large assembly room with benches. Thisbuilding is the central club-house of a community of a thousand or moreNegroes. Various organizations meet here, -- the church proper, theSunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women's societies, secretsocieties, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, andlectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services.Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is foundfor the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charitydistributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre isa religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell,and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by; and fewindeed of the community have the hardihood to withstand conversion. Back ofthis more formal religion, the Church often stands as a real conserver ofmorals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Goodand Right.
Thus one can see in the Negro church to-day, reproducedin microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off bycolor-prejudice and social condition. In the great city churches the sametendency is noticeable and in many respects emphasized. A great church like theBethel of Philadelphia has over eleven hundred members, an edifice seatingfifteen hundred persons and valued at one hundred thousand dollars, an annualbudget of five thousand dollars, and a government consisting of a pastor withseveral assisting local preachers, an executive and legislative board,financial boards and tax collectors; general church meetings for making laws;sub-divided groups led by class leaders, a company of militia,
and twenty-four auxiliary societies. The activity of a church like this isimmense and far-reaching, and the bishops who preside over these organizationsthroughout the land are among the most powerful Negro rulers in the world.
Such churches are really governments of men, andconsequently a little investigation reveals the curious fact that, in theSouth, at least, practically every American Negro is a church member. Some, tobe sure, are not regularly enrolled, and a few do not habitually attendservices; but, practically, a proscribed people must have a social centre, andthat centre for this people is the Negro church. The census of 1890 showednearly twenty-four thousand Negro churches in the country, with a totalenrolled membership of over two and a half millions, or ten actual churchmembers to every twenty- eight persons, and in some Southern States one inevery two persons. Besides these there is the large number who, while notenrolled as members, attend and take part in many of the activities of thechurch. There is an organized Negro church for every sixty black families inthe nation, and in some States for every forty families, owning, on an average,a thousand dollars' worth of property each, or nearly twenty-six milliondollars in all.
Such, then, is the large development of the Negro churchsince Emancipation. The question now is, What have been the successive steps ofthis social history and what are the present tendencies? First, we must realizethat no such institution as the Negro church could rear itself without definitehistorical foundations. These foundations we can find if we remember that thesocial history of the Negro did not start in America. He was brought from adefinite social environment, -- the polygamous clan life under the headship ofthe chief and the potent influence of the priest. His religion wasnature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, goodand bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice. The first rudechange in this life was the slave ship and the West Indian sugar-fields. Theplantation organization replaced the clan and tribe, and the white masterreplaced the chief with far greater and more despotic powers. Forced andlong-continued toil became the rule of life, the old ties of blood relationshipand kinship disappeared, and
instead of the family appeared a new polygamy and polyandry, which, in somecases, almost reached promiscuity. It was a terrific social revolution, and yetsome traces were retained of the former group life, and the chief remaininginstitution was the Priest or Medicine-man. He early appeared on the plantationand found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of theUnknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, andthe one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, andresentment of a stolen and oppressed people. Thus, as bard, physician, judge,and priest, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose theNegro preacher, and under him the first church was not at first by any meansChristian nor definitely organized; rather it was an adaptation and mingling ofheathen rites among the members of each plantation, and roughly designated asVoodooism. Association with the masters, missionary effort and motives ofexpediency gave these rites an early veneer of Christianity, and after thelapse of many generations the Negro church became Christian.
Two characteristic things must be noticed in regard tothe church. First, it became almost entirely Baptist and Methodist in faith;secondly, as a social institution it antedated by many decades the monogamicNegro home. From the very circumstances of its beginning, the church wasconfined to the plantation, and consisted primarily of a series of disconnectedunits; although, later on, some freedom of movement was allowed, still thisgeographical limitation was always important and was one cause of the spread ofthe decentralized and democratic Baptist faith among the slaves. At the sametime, the visible rite of baptism appealed strongly to their mystictemperament. To-day the Baptist Church is still largest in membership amongNegroes, and has a million and a half communicants. Next in popularity came thechurches organized in connection with the white neighboring churches, chieflyBaptist and Methodist, with a few Episcopalian and others. The Methodists stillform the second greatest denomination, with nearly a million members. The faithof these two leading denominations was more suited to the slave church from theprominence they gave to religious feeling and fervor. The Negro membership inother denominations has always been
small and relatively unimportant, although the Episcopalians and Presbyteriansare gaining among the more intelligent classes to-day, and the Catholic Churchis making headway in certain sections. After Emancipation, and still earlier inthe North, the Negro churches largely severed such affiliations as they had hadwith the white churches, either by choice or by compulsion. The Baptistchurches became independent, but the Methodists were compelled early to unitefor purposes of episcopal government. This gave rise to the great AfricanMethodist Church, the greatest Negro organization in the world, to the ZionChurch and the Colored Methodist, and to the black conferences and churches inthis and other denominations.
The second fact noted, namely, that the Negro churchantedates the Negro home, leads to an explanation of much that is paradoxicalin this communistic institution and in the morals of its members. Butespecially it leads us to regard this institution as peculiarly the expressionof the inner ethical life of a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere. Let usturn, then, from the outer physical development of the church to the moreimportant inner ethical life of the people who compose it. The Negro hasalready been pointed out many times as a religious animal, -- a being of thatdeep emotional nature which turns instinctively toward the supernatural.Endowed with a rich tropical imagination and a keen, delicate appreciation ofNature, the transplanted African lived in a world animate with gods and devils,elves and witches; full of strange influences, -- of Good to be implored, ofEvil to be propitiated. Slavery, then, was to him the dark triumph of Evil overhim. All the hateful powers of the Under-world were striving against him, and aspirit of revolt and revenge filled his heart. He called up all the resourcesof heathenism to aid, -- exorcism and witch-craft, the mysterious Obi worshipwith its barbarious rites, spells, and blood-sacrifice even, now and then, ofhuman victims. Weird midnight orgies and mystic conjurations were invoked, thewitch-woman and the voodoo-priest became the centre of Negro group life, andthat vein of vague superstition which characterizes the unlettered Negro evento-day was deepened and strengthened.
In spite, however, of such success as that of the fierce
Maroons, the Danish blacks, and others, the spirit of revolt gradually diedaway under the untiring energy and superior strength of the slave masters. Bythe middle of the eighteenth century the black slave had sunk, with hushedmurmurs, to his place at the bottom of a new economic system, and wasunconsciously ripe for a new philosophy of life. Nothing suited his conditionthen better than the doctrines of passive submission embodied in the newlylearned Christianity. Slave masters early realized this, and cheerfully aidedreligious propaganda within certain bounds. The long system of repression anddegradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements of his characterwhich made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strengthdegenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of thebeautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering. The Negro, losing thejoy of this world, eagerly seized upon the offered conceptions of the next; theavenging Spirit of the Lord enjoining patience in this world, under sorrow andtribulation until the Great Day when He should lead His dark children home, --this became his comforting dream. His preacher repeated the prophecy, and hisbards sang, --
"Children, we all shall be free
When the Lord shall appear!"
This deep religious fatalism, painted so beautifully in"Uncle Tom," came soon to breed, as all fatalistic faiths will, thesensualist side by side with the martyr. Under the lax moral life of theplantation, where marriage was a farce, laziness a virtue, and property atheft, a religion of resignation and submission degenerated easily, in lessstrenuous minds, into a philosophy of indulgence and crime. Many of the worstcharacteristics of the Negro masses of to-day had their seed in this period ofthe slave's ethical growth. Here it was that the Home was ruined under the veryshadow of the Church, white and black; here habits of shiftlessness took root,and sullen hopelessness replaced hopeful strife.
With the beginning of the abolition movement and thegradual growth of a class of free Negroes came a change. We often neglect theinfluence of the freedman before the war,
because of the paucity of his numbers and the small weight he had in thehistory of the nation. But we must not forget that his chief influence wasinternal, -- was exerted on the black world; and that there he was the ethicaland social leader. Huddled as he was in a few centres like Philadelphia, NewYork, and New Orleans, the masses of the freedmen sank into poverty andlistlessness; but not all of them. The free Negro leader early arose and hischief characteristic was intense earnestness and deep feeling on the slaveryquestion. Freedom became to him a real thing and not a dream. His religionbecame darker and more intense, and into his ethics crept a note of revenge,into his songs a day of reckoning close at hand. The "Coming of theLord" swept this side of Death, and came to be a thing to be hoped for inthis day. Through fugitive slaves and irrepressible discussion this desire forfreedom seized the black millions still in bondage, and became their one idealof life. The black bards caught new notes, and sometimes even dared to sing, --
"O Freedom, O Freedom, O Freedom over me!
Before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord
And be free."
For fifty years Negro religion thus transformed itself andidentified itself with the dream of Abolition, until that which was a radicalfad in the white North and an anarchistic plot in the white South had become areligion to the black world. Thus, when Emancipation finally came, it seemed tothe freedman a literal Coming of the Lord. His fervid imagination was stirredas never before, by the tramp of armies, the blood and dust of battle, and thewail and whirl of social upheaval. He stood dumb and motionless before thewhirlwind: what had he to do with it? Was it not the Lord's doing, andmarvellous in his eyes? Joyed and bewildered with what came, he stood awaitingnew wonders till the inevitable Age of Reaction swept over the nation andbrought the crisis of to-day.
It is difficult to explain clearly the present criticalstage of
Negro religion. First, we must remember that living as the blacks do in closecontact with a great modern nation, and sharing, although imperfectly, thesoul-life of that nation, they must necessarily be affected more or lessdirectly by all the religious and ethical forces that are to-day moving theUnited States. These questions and movements are, however, overshadowed anddwarfed by the (to them) all-important question of their civil, political, andeconomic status. They must perpetually discuss the "Negro Problem,"-- must live, move, and have their being in it, and interpret all else in itslight or darkness. With this come, too, peculiar problems of their inner life,-- of the status of women, the maintenance of Home, the training of children,the accumulation of wealth, and the prevention of crime. All this must mean atime of intense ethical ferment, of religious heart-searching and intellectualunrest. From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and asan American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet strugglingin the eddies of the fifteenth century, -- from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancywhich is fatal to self-confidence. The worlds within and without the Veil ofColor are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in thesame way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiarsense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts,double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words anddouble ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy orradicalism.
In some such doubtful words and phrases can one perhapsmost clearly picture the peculiar ethical paradox that faces the Negro ofto-day and is tingeing and changing his religious life. Feeling that his rightsand his dearest ideals are being trampled upon, that the public conscience isever more deaf to his righteous appeal, and that all the reactionary forces ofprejudice, greed, and revenge are daily gaining new strength and fresh allies,the Negro faces no enviable dilemma. Conscious of his impotence, andpessimistic, he often becomes bitter and vindictive; and his religion, insteadof a worship, is a complaint and a curse, a wail rather than a hope, a sneer
rather than a faith. On the other hand, another type of mind, shrewder andkeener and more tortuous too, sees in the very strength of the anti-Negromovement its patent weaknesses, and with Jesuitic casuistry is deterred by noethical considerations in the endeavor to turn this weakness to the black man'sstrength. Thus we have two great and hardly reconcilable streams of thought andethical strivings; the danger of the one lies in anarchy, that of the other inhypocrisy. The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die, andthe other is too often found a traitor to right and a coward before force; theone is wedded to ideals remote, whimsical, perhaps impossible of realization;the other forgets that life is more than meat and the body more than raiment.But, after all, is not this simply the writhing of the age translated intoblack, -- the triumph of the Lie which today, with its false culture, faces thehideousness of the anarchist assassin?
To-day the two groups of Negroes, the one in the North,the other in the South, represent these divergent ethical tendencies, the firsttending toward radicalism, the other toward hypocritical compromise. It is noidle regret with which the white South mourns the loss of the old-time Negro,-- the frank, honest, simple old servant who stood for the earlier religiousage of submission and humility. With all his laziness and lack of many elementsof true manhood, he was at least open-hearted, faithful, and sincere. To-day heis gone, but who is to blame for his going? Is it not those very persons whomourn for him? Is it not the tendency, born of Reconstruction and Reaction, tofound a society on lawlessness and deception, to tamper with the moral fibre ofa naturally honest and straightforward people until the whites threaten tobecome ungovernable tyrants and the blacks criminals and hypocrites? Deceptionis the natural defence of the weak against the strong, and the South used itfor many years against its conquerors; to-day it must be prepared to see itsblack proletariat turn that same two-edged weapon against itself. And hownatural this is! The death of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner proved long since tothe Negro the present hopelessness of physical defence. Political defence isbecoming less and less available, and economic defence is still only partiallyeffective. But there is a patent defence at hand, -- the
defence of deception and flattery, of cajoling and lying. It is the samedefence which peasants of the Middle Age used and which left its stamp on theircharacter for centuries. To-day the young Negro of the South who would succeedcannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he isdaily tempted to be silent and wary, politic and sly; he must flatter and bepleasant, endure petty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong; in toomany cases he sees positive personal advantage in deception and lying. His realthoughts, his real aspirations, must be guarded in whispers; he must notcriticise, he must not complain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must, inthese growing black youth, replace impulse, manliness, and courage. With thissacrifice there is an economic opening, and perhaps peace and some prosperity.With- out this there is riot, migration, or crime. Nor is this situationpeculiar to the Southern United States, is it not rather the only method bywhich undeveloped races have gained the right to share modern culture? Theprice of culture is a Lie.
On the other hand, in the North the tendency is toemphasize the radicalism of the Negro. Driven from his birthright in the Southby a situation at which every fibre of his more outspoken and assertive naturerevolts, he finds himself in a land where he can scarcely earn a decent livingamid the harsh competition and the color discrimination. At the same time,through schools and periodicals, discussions and lectures, he is intellectuallyquickened and awakened. The soul, long pent up and dwarfed, suddenly expands innew-found freedom. What wonder that every tendency is to excess, -- radicalcomplaint, radical remedies, bitter denunciation or angry silence. Some sink,some rise. The criminal and the sensualist leave the church for thegambling-hell and the brothel, and fill the slums of Chicago and Baltimore; thebetter classes segregate themselves from the group-life of both white andblack, and form an aristocracy, cultured but pessimistic, whose bittercriticism stings while it points out no way of escape. They despise thesubmission and sub-serviency of the Southern Negroes, but offer no other meansby which a poor and oppressed minority can exist side by side with its masters.Feeling deeply and keenly the tendencies and opportunities of the age in whichthey live, their souls are
bitter at the fate which drops the Veil between; and the very fact that thisbitterness is natural and justifiable only serves to intensify it and make itmore maddening.
Between the two extreme types of ethical attitude which Ihave thus sought to make clear wavers the mass of the millions of Negroes,North and South; and their religious life and activity partake of this socialconflict within their ranks. Their churches are differentiating, -- now intogroups of cold, fashionable devotees, in no way distinguishable from similarwhite groups save in color of skin; now into large social and businessinstitutions catering to the desire for information and amusement of theirmembers, warily avoiding unpleasant questions both within and without the blackworld, and preaching in effect if not in word: Dum vivimus, vivamus. Butback of this still broods silently the deep religious feeling of the real Negroheart, the stirring, unguided might of powerful human souls who have lost theguiding star of the past and seek in the great night a new religious ideal.Some day the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of ten million soulsshall sweep irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow ofDeath, where all that makes life worth living -- Liberty, Justice, and Right --is marked "For White People Only."