As a cultural form of sacred discourse, African American preaching in North America, historically and contemporarily, has been esteemed for its aesthetic richness, persistent calls for justice, ecclesiastical reform, moral and ethical responsibility, spiritual redemption, and transformation. Identifying its rhetorical features and sociofunctional dynamics, exploring issues and challenges that have had an effect on its development and advancement, describing the role its practitioners and theorists have played in defining its traditions and examining its theological underpinnings, communal influence, and social relevance (both within Black religious life and beyond its perceived borders) are fundamental commitments that have been central to establishing its nomenclature as a specific genre of Christian preaching. Readers will note that instead of the exclusive usage of the term African American preaching, to avoid oversimplification and with respect for differences in modal expressions and theological orientations, Black scholars have begun to use the terminology ‘African American preaching traditions’ or ‘Black preaching traditions’, as is used in this article.
Before exploring the particular influence of African enslavement on the development of African American preaching in colonial North America, it is critical to recognize first that the historical origins of African American cultural communication are rooted in Africa, specifically in the cultural rituals and religious practices indigenous to West Africa.
1.2 West African religious traditions and ontological systems
The religious sensibilities and deep resonance with the primal, clan-oriented, monotheistic (if operationally polytheistic) religions of Africa were not vanquished but transformed, taking on new forms, in continental America. Black people did not use Christianity, as white people first introduced it to them, without making certain substantive changes that took into consideration their oppressive condition and other contextual factors. According to Gayraud Wilmore, the religion of the enslaved African was a ‘tertium quid’, a collision of worlds, ‘something less and something more than what is generally regarded as Christianity’ (Wilmore 1998: 24–25, 36). Whether manifested in singing, dancing, speaking in tongues, or in preaching in rural, urban, or suburban African American congregations or storefronts, descendants of enslaved Africans carved out a liberating space for creative expression in Christian worship practices. A seeming lack of concern for doctrinal fidelity to accepted standards normed by Eurocentric Christian worship practices during slavery was not due to a void of theological and moral content in their own West African religious traditions and ontological systems. Rather, their perceived duality revealed that the African’s sacred cosmology – belief in a supreme creator who presides over a pantheon of deities, governs connections between the living and deceased, and orders the spirit world – required no explicit translation in the West. The belief systems of African traditional religious doctrines were not subsumed into the selective canon that white enslavers taught Africans. But closely related to and merged with the orthodox Christian faith were beliefs that did not have to be learned, such as the omnipotence, omniscience, justice, and providence of the Supreme God. The Yoruba peoples’ deity ‘Oludumare’, for example, meant ‘God, the Omnipotent’. A ‘bureaucratic monotheism’, not polytheism, as assumed, more aptly describes African traditional religion (Imasogie 1973: 289). Like the cosmological picture of emissaries working in concert and under the aegis of the Supreme God in a divine council as depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, the African’s one distant High God held superintendency of many deputy or intermediary deities who performed varied assignments on earth (Imasogie 1973: 289).
In contrast to Western culture’s theological formations, logics of empire, and the erected boundaries of the sacred as ideologically advanced, curated, and codified by Europeans and Anglo-Americans, in slave society the Africans’ Black bodies – not parchment – became sacred texts. The mutilation of the Black body by the white enslavers’ violent practices of flagellation and ritual lynchings correlated with the torture of the crucified Jesus. In viewing the body as a sacred text, the revelation of God to Africans took on a radically different meaning in contrast to the African’s white counterparts. Unlike the brand of Christianity packaged to further a white settler colonial agenda, cosmologically speaking African traditional religions had no missionaries or preachers proselytizing a culture. In actuality, traditional religions are not universal but tribal and national, bound and limited to whom they have evolved. (Olupona 2001) In terms of Christian orthodoxy, theologically and conceptually, Jesus, hell, and the Bible were the only major aspects new to Africans. African American Christians, Henry Mitchell writes, embraced a positive picture of Jesus as the Son of God, a sharer in their oppression, and the ideal path to reconciliation with the High God who was believed remote in Africa. Moreover, the distance between a supreme deity and humanity was not believed to be caused by original sin but was tied to beliefs about divine transcendence or ineffability (Mitchell 2004: 19). Three intermediary entities bridged the divine and human relationship: living dead ancestors; the divinely ordained bureaucracy of sub-deities (for whom memorials were occasionally erected); and supportive social structures tied to the nuclear family, recognized elders, and village chiefs, all of whom were answerable to the High God. The Akans’ view of Asantehene, the name of the supreme deity in this tradition, is accorded such status in their social world (Opoku 1976: 33). Arguably, enslavement in the colonies nearly obliterated this social infrastructure.
In terms of Christian doctrine, for Africans, the belief in the afterlife and the ‘living dead’ is prefigured into their spiritual imaginations. The emphasis on the good news of the gospel is not placed on resurrection but on incarnation-God being with us in the person of Jesus. The doctrine of hell was another new aspect found in Christianity. Eternal hell did not figure into the African’s traditional belief system. Rather, tribal punishment in earthly life was permanent banishment, and if the sin was egregious enough, beyond cessation of community membership the perpetrator’s human-beingness was, in effect, culturally nullified. Relatedly, when enslaved Africans saw that their slave owners seemed to die peaceful deaths despite their cruelty, they did believe that they would receive the full measure of divine justice in the afterlife. Another new element was the affirmation of the Bible as the Word of God. Proverbs, tales, and songs informed their sacred wisdom which was passed on through oral tradition. Because original tribes were divided and dispersed, provoking family separations in the colonies, and the imposition of English into the enslaved Africans’ language structures, much of what was orally preserved in African traditional belief systems dissolved. From the Bible, what occupied the religious imaginations of African American Christians were Moses and Jesus, liberation exemplars who, in the development of Christian faith identity, represented a counterpoise to white Christianity’s use of the Christian Bible as a tool that endorsed their slave status. Because literacy was forbidden and memory was the principal access point to the Holy Scriptures, in some Black churches reciting and interpreting large passages of scripture – which many illiterate enslaved persons had done – is still an encouraged practice. Current controversies concerning biblical inerrancy are a Eurocentric cultural import not indigenous to African American traditions (Mitchell 2004: 20–21). Historically, without the defenders of biblical fundamentalism who have promoted rigid notions of authority and truth tied to literal print, the Bible’s authority and the way truth was handed on came through storied cultural modes deploying biblical language. Powerful truths from the authority of scripture were prefixed and commonly shared in this manner: ‘My grandmother used to say that God is love and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4:7–8).
1.4 The Muntu and cultural signatures
In various parts of Africa, the poet is called a muntu, which among other designations means ‘prophet’. Words were spoken by the muntu to transform things into ‘forces of meaning, symbols, and images’. The muntu’s evocative and creative expression of African rhetoric is defined as nommo – the sacred power of the spoken word to call the world into being and to create and generate reality. Through the African poet, it was believed that God spoke and that what was spoken established the cosmic order. Everything comes into being through the voice, and according to Molefi Kete Asante, ‘the contemporary African preacher in the African American church is probably the best example of the power of nommo’ (Asante 1998: 30). The Christian preacher’s deference to the authority of the Bible as the revealed Word of God is distinct, however, since, from the beginning, the word is with the muntu (Alkebulan 2003: 29).
Numerous cultural signatures – rhythmic cadence, intoning, whooping (pronounced hooping), measured speech, use of metaphor, word picture, playfulness, and gravity – have been retained in certain quarters of Black religious practice. The earliest Black preachers were former African priests and religious specialists (medicine men and conjurers) who operated as diviners and seers, interpreting significant events; as exhorters and pastors rallying the community to unite around common causes; and as charismatic, messianic figures, provoking Black resentment against the oppressive conditions to which they were subjected (Genovese 1976: 255). In assuming these specific roles and responsibilities, the earliest Black preachers emerged as framers and innovators of an indigenous Christianity formed as a result of its diversity of influences – specifically, and foremost, the combination of primordial African culture with the social and religious dynamics of Anglocentric evangelical Christianity.
1.5 Developmental phases in the United States (seven phases)
In tracing the origins of African American preaching, its developmental phases, and the advancement of the African American preacher, what follows is a brief outline of six historical phases – Colonial North America, Revival Period, Reconstruction, Great Migration, Civil Rights, and Post-Civil Rights. It is historically incontrovertible that exponential changes in Black preaching occurred from slavery to Reconstruction (i.e. such advancements relating to literacy, licensing, abolition, and the rise of independent churches), although less research has been done on subsequent phases, which are in some ways less dramatic but are given greater attention.
1.5.1 Colonial North America period (1700–1740)
The majority of enslaved Africans in the English colonies wanted to hear from their own Black preachers, despite their alleged inferiority. But, under the constant threat of death, the survival ethic of enslaved preachers diminished any attempt to challenge the status quo prophetically or publicly in any sustained manner. So, outside the formal structures of the institutional church, unofficial prayer meetings and illicit worship services, held in the brush out of the public view, became the critical forum that expanded the influence of the enslaved preacher. As early as the nineteenth-century Black sermons exhibited a definite power and distinctiveness because, in homiletic practice, they were fashioned to speak fittingly to the social, psychological, and spiritual needs of Black people.
1.5.2 Revival period (1744–1822)
The religious revivalism of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century brought to America a Bible-centred brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early nineteenth century. Evangelicals emphasized a ‘personal relationship’ with God through Jesus Christ. This new movement made Christianity more accessible, and livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals, and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, Black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status. Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease. The itinerant preacher and traveling companion of Bishop Asbury, Reverend Harry Hoosier, also known as Black Harry, was among the earliest and most widely known Black preachers. Hoosier preached from 1784 until his death in 1810 (Mitchell 1990: 25–26). Black Methodist denominational founders such as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones scored legal victories in the period over a series of racial discrimination occurrences, which resulted in Allen becoming the first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1791, Reverend Absalom Jones founded the African Episcopal Church (AME) in Philadelphia, and later became the first African American to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. A Methodist woman simply known as Elizabeth was the earliest Black female preacher (see section 4). Another prominent Black female cleric in the period was Rev. Jarena Lee who is known to be the first AME woman preacher (1783).
1.5.3 Reconstruction period (1865–1900)
Despite the development of Black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of Black people during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders, who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans. As independent Black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, Black ministers preached to their own. Some became bi-vocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as school teachers and administrators during the workweek. Whether the Black minister was anchored in southern folk preaching traditions, holding Black plantation dwellers under their sway with magnetizing oral formulas – like the unlettered Black Baptist cleric John Jasper – or lived in the North as did Alexander Crummell and Francis Grimke, Black clerics serving predominately white denominations had in their sermons (according to LaRue 2000: 30–31) a distinctive central component – the perception of a God who acts mightily on the behalf of Black people.
Others held important political positions. Altogether, sixteen African Americans served in the US Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private Black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches. Others, such as former bondsperson and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels, or Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African American senator. Turner was appointed as a chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln. To address the myriad problems and concerns of Black people in this era, Black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.
1.5.4 Great Migration period (1916–1940)
Such tide-swelling events, with a multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great ‘Black’ Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of five hundred southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to northern communities between 1916 and 1940. A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. The infrastructure of Northern Black churches was unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed pre-existing operations.
The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration, and the racial hatred they had escaped, drove many Black clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible. However, Black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centres for Black self-improvement (e.g. job training, home economics classes, and libraries), nearly all southern Black preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons that exalted the virtues of humility, goodwill, and patience, as they had in the South.
Three clergy outliers – one a woman – are representative of a few Black northern clergy who initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task. Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Reverdy C. Ransom spoke to human tragedy, both in and out of the Black church. They brought a distinctive form of prophetic preaching that united spiritual transformation with social reform and confronted Black dehumanization. Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s ‘silk-stocking church’, Bethel AME – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.
Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as a preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist, and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious, and social needs of those who migrated north. The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have a profound impact on Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s moral and ethical vision.
1.5.5 Civil Rights period (1940–1964)
Martin L. King Jr, a skilled orator, and twenty-six-year Baptist minister and PhD, rose to national attention following the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955–1956. His preaching carried a sense of moral authority infused with a social justice agenda. Challenging the worth of an American democracy that racially and economically disenfranchised its African American citizenry, King, using Christian symbols and discourse in various settings, exposed the nation’s hypocrisy and unwillingness to become a just society for all persons in pursuit of Beloved Community. A Walter Rauschenbusch devotee, inspired by the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, King skilfully merged social activism with Christian ethics. Not all African American clergy supported King’s vision or endorsed his homiletical strategies. A philosophical and theological conflict between King and J. H. Jackson, the celebrated preacher, and president of the National Baptist Convention USA, transpired. Jackson thought his conservative stance concerning racial justice and uplift was more in keeping with the democratic ideals of the US Constitution. For him, King’s protest strategy was too radical and would be counterproductive to African American social advancement.
Also notable is that Muslim leader Malcolm X’s more militant tactics for achieving Black freedom ‘by any means necessary’ countervailed the momentum of King’s Black clergy-led nonviolent passive-resistance method. The increasing politicization of Black preachers was a key development of the period. In New York City alone, other Black Baptist preachers of world renown were U.S. Congressman and pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Sandy F. Ray, Samuel D. Proctor, William Augustus Jones, and Gardner C. Taylor of Brooklyn (who was regarded as one of the greatest preachers in the English-speaking world). Native Floridian and Baptist mystic and theologian Howard Thurman’s pulpit work manifested in contemplative forms of Black preaching. In 1953, Life magazine named Thurman as one of twelve great preachers of the century. Representative Black leaders whose ministries catapulted them to the national stage in the era are Methodist minister James Lawson, a leading tactician of the nonviolent direct-action campaign, actively mentored participants in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Presbyterian minister Elder Hawkins was the first African American male moderator of the United Presbyterian Church USA; and Holiness-Pentecostal minister Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr. Among the more traditional Black Protestant preachers were divergent religious counterparts such as George Baker Jr (Father Divine), founder of the United House of Prayer, Charles ‘Sweet Daddy’ Grace, and New Orleans-native Chicago pastor Mother Leafy Anderson enjoyed a legion of followers from the Great Migration period through the Civil Rights period.
1.5.6 Post-Civil Rights period (1975–1999)
Based on the significant inroads made in the Civil Rights Movement, religious leaders such as Jesse Jackson Sr, Wyatt T. Walker, Otis Moss Jr, C.L. Franklin, Prathia Hall, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and non-clerical leaders like Diane Nash, Ella Baker, and Hosea Williams, emerged to prominence in the post-civil rights era. Preachers such as Baptists Charles Booth, Marvin McMickle, Michael Eric Dyson, Gina Stewart, Ralph D. West Sr, Al Sharpton, Frederick Haynes III, Marcus Cosby, and Cheryl J. Sanders (Church of God), Katie Geneva Cannon (PCUSA), Jeremiah Wright (UCC), and the first female bishop of the AME denomination, Vashti McKenzie, are representative of other distinguished Black clerics in this period.
A more pronounced expectation of political activism and spiritual leadership became the self-identity of the Black preacher. The period drove many Black people to theological schools to wrestle with questions surrounding race and justice. Theologians James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts’ work established nomenclature to discuss theology in terms of Black racial and social identity in light of the gross neglect of justice and foundationalist views of white theology. Coterminously, African American homiletician Henry H. Mitchell emerged as the academic progenitor of Black homiletic theory.
Before the early 1970s, the academic study of African American preaching was minimal. Influence of apprenticeship models for learning, rather than formal homiletics classes, predominated Black church traditions. Few scholars paid serious attention to the complexities of African American preaching modes because of Western intellectual bias and religious stereotyping. Distrust of emotionalism, preoccupation with logics of rationalism, and the notion that the performed African American sermon lacked examinable philosophical traits for a reasoned study, disinclined European American scholars to take seriously the profound contributions African Americans have made to the development of American preaching and the Christian tradition at large.
1.5.7 Postmodern period (2000–present)
A new generation of African American preachers has emerged, making important strides to address the blighting of hope in Black churches and communities. Senator Raphael Warnock, Leslie Callahan, George Parks Jr, Otis Moss III, William Lamar IV, Howard John Wesley, Willie D. Francois III, Danielle Brown, and Raquel Lettsome have served in historic and vibrant congregations. Unharnassed by exacting religio-cultural constrictions present in local churches, homiletics scholar Luke Powery and social ethicist Jonathan Walton, both African Americans, lead predominately White university and seminary chapel congregations, Duke University Chapel and Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel. Homiletician Neichelle Guidry serves as Dean of Chapel at the historic Black women’s college, Spelman.
Shifting social and cultural dynamics influenced by gentrification, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, social reckonings, and technological advances characterize the environment for preaching in this era.
An unintended result of civil rights era gains was increased individualism and the appeal of commerce and consumption. In this milieu, mega-churches grew in popularity as a religious community model in Black church life, and their pastors were viewed as CEO of the church-as-enterprise. In this model, pastors became senior or lead pastors supported by paid and volunteer staff as executive pastors and pastors for children, women, men, and community engagement or missions. Attention is given to attendee experience and meeting the needs of increasingly non-urban ministry contexts. Sermons grouped in themed series are normalized to encourage consistent attendance and lessen the demands of preaching in multiple services each week. Theologically and spiritually balanced pastoral preaching sees the reaffirmation of the prophetic community witness of the African American church while also promoting personal piety, financial stewardship, and relational wellness.
184.108.40.206 Prosperity and New Thought preaching
Influenced by the teaching of white preachers Essick William Kenyon, and later Kenneth E. Hagin and Oral Roberts, African American prosperity preachers became indoctrinated into the Word of Faith movement, popularizing Roberts’ ‘divine economy’ in African American churches (Cf. Mumford 2012). Postmodern prosperity gospelers and New Thought preachers have adopted similar personae and the Black hermeneutics of forerunners such as Rev. Johnnie Colemon, and Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II (‘Rev. Ike’) but have not sustained the social and communal character of their predecessors. In this preaching milieu, human speech is an act of faith that necessitates God’s affirmative and tangible responses. Proof-texting supports sermonic themes intended to make the believer righteous as a means of becoming healthy and wealthy.
220.127.116.11 Social crisis preaching
A generation removed from Kelly Miller Smith identifying an apprehension about the relationship between social crises and preaching, new instances of mass trauma in America laid the groundwork for renewed conversation. Terrorist attacks, a prolonged war, instances of racialized and gender violence, the collapse of the financial and housing markets, and school shootings refreshed the search for ‘a word from the Lord’. In this context, African American preaching promotes the embrace, healing, and restoration of voiceless and victimized persons and communities. Moreover, in times of social crisis, as Edgar ‘Trey’ Clark III notes, the ‘dialectics of lament and celebration, particularity and universality, and word and deed’ often frame social crisis preaching on the terms of protesters who testify and witness publicly (Clark 2021: 50). Thus, social crisis preaching may or may not occur in a traditional pulpit. No matter the platform, social crisis preaching is prophetic, pastoral, and public-facing in varying degrees.
Mentoring and networking opportunities emerged outside of religious denominational bodies, fostering space for scholars and practitioners to explore emerging homiletical, theological, and social trends impacting African American preaching and lived experiences. Since the dawn of the twentieth century, these conferences include E. K. Bailey International Conference on Expository Preaching (1996), the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. (2003), the Women in Ministry Conference, Inc. (2005), Woman Preach! Inc. (2010), and the Mixed Methods Conference (2019).
18.104.22.168 Technological advances
Emerging technologies created new public squares as churches live-streamed worship and developed sermon repositories on social media outlets. With the advent and progressive improvement of technological platforms came new opportunities to reach and grow audiences, and to form communities around acts of proclamation. This created avenues to image and acknowledge persons and voices previously prohibited in traditional spaces. As Melva Sampson reflects: ‘Digital media coupled with cognitive agency humanizes and authorizes experiences that traditional religious and academic spaces have not fully acknowledged’ (Sampson 2019). Within African American communities, technological advances amplified the voice of women, as well as queer and non-binary persons, while expanding the palate of the Black preaching tradition.
Stylistically, the onset of COVID-19 ushered in new ways to experience Black preaching on platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram. On most platforms, audible feedback was replaced by visual signals, or emojis, as a form of call-and-response and communal agreement. Sermonic celebrations continued to inform shared experiences, even as such celebrations occurred in isolation as individual expressions.