If it had not been, for the Lord on my side
Tell me where would I be?
Where would I be?
This was one of the choir anthems of the 1980s in many southern, Black Baptist churches. I remember it well as a young girl growing up in Ebenezer Baptist Church West in Athens, Georgia. The adult choir, in their maroon and white robes, would march down the aisles to lead the congregation into morning praise.
I instantly thought about this childhood memory while I watched the newly released PBS documentary, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.”
“If it had not been for the Lord on my side,” along with many other well-known Negro spirituals, hymns and gospel music, provided a rich, soulful backdrop for this four-hour series on the history of the most significant institution within the African-American community.
The documentary, and the book which bears the same title, comprises the outstanding and vivid storytelling of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An eminent scholar and filmmaker on the Black experience in the U.S., Gates begins his narration of “The Black Church” walking into Waldon United Methodist Church, the house of worship he grew up attending in Piedmont, West Virginia.
From Gates’ recollections of the nurturing he received at an early age in the church, it’s clear that he has a deep, personal connection to the scholarship shared throughout his docuseries.
“The Black Church” is indeed a riveting, historical journey that Gates takes us on as he begins with tracing the beginnings of African-American religious culture through slavery to our present day.
One of the most intriguing parts of this history that I was already familiar with is what scholars often refer to as the “Exodus motif,” the spiritual theme of the children of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt that profoundly resonated with Black slaves. Although Christianity was the religion that their oppressors professed outwardly, slaves who had been exposed to Biblical teachings comprehended a spiritual revelation that their masters, who were blinded by racism and avarice, could not.
Slaves miraculously saw God for who He truly is, a God who is no respecter of persons and who, as Matthew 5:45 states, looks on the just as well as the unjust. This manifestation fueled their faith, which became their solid foundation on the long, laborious road to freedom leading up to the end of the Civil War.
It was a faith rooted in unswerving trust in God while still being ensnared in the merciless yoke of chattel slavery. This tireless faith was the most precious gift Black slaves passed on to the generations who came after them.
The heavy residue of racial prejudice that remained in American society after slavery was abolished has been and still is a point of contention when analyzing the history of Christian Black churches. Gates included an early example of the 1792 split in the Methodist church due to an ugly racial incident.
One Sunday Absalom Jones, a Black minister and member of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, was ordered to go to the “nigger pews.” Jones and fellow minister Richard Allen led Black members out of St. George’s and founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the nation’s oldest Black AME congregation.
White supremacist tenets in the North and the South that led to church segregation are well documented in American Christianity, but Black churches expanded and prospered in the midst of this bitter prejudice with members still believing that our country would someday be better.
I often think about this today, as many are still disturbed and bewildered by the racism we saw on full display with the juxtaposition of nooses and “Jesus is my Savior” signs during the Capitol riots. However, I believe those slaves who fervently prayed and worshiped in secret would encourage us to continue trusting that the God who delivered them from bondage is more than able to deliver us from the remnants of hatred and bigotry.
This is the ongoing story of the Black church, one that offers resilient hope that through God all things are possible.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc