Newman on Boles, 'Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (Early American Places, 17)'

Author: 
Richard Boles
Reviewer: 
Richard Newman

Richard Boles. Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (Early American Places, 17). New York: New York University Press, 2020. 341 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-0318-7

Reviewed by Richard Newman (Rochester Institute of Technology) Published on H-Atlantic (June, 2022) Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall (Cameron University of Oklahoma)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57004

Segregating the Northern Protestant Church, 1730-1850

In one of the many striking moments in his important new book Dividing the Faith, Richard Boles highlights a brief but potent antislavery sermon delivered in 1740 by an enslaved man humoring dinner guests at his master’s house in Boston. As Boles describes the scene, the Black man was told by his master “to entertain the whites” by imitating the Reverend George Whitfield, whose camp meetings had recently launched the Great Awakening (p. 54). But the African American man did more than that—he preached that “a Man cannot serve two Masters. Therefore I claim Jesus Christ to be my right Master” (p. 54). Embellishing his extempore sermon with critiques of his earthly master’s drunkenness and sinful behavior, the enslaved man also predicted that he would get to heaven before the white man. As Boles astutely notes, the enslaved man probably attended interracial church gatherings and thus had familiarity with many of the texts and sermons white preachers favored. Yet while masters hoped that religious instruction would create obedient servants, the enslaved man showed that African Americans derived “conflicting understandings of God’s will” from biblical texts and lessons (p. 55). The creation of the first independent Black churches was half a century away, but already this enslaved man knew that he could use Christian “theology [itself] ... to criticize his master” (p. 55).

For Boles, this brief encounter was no outlier. Rather, it proved that people of color—including Native Americans as well as African Americans—were an essential part of the northern religious landscape. As his book shows in impressive detail, the American saga of segregated Sabbaths occurred much later than scholars have generally realized. Indeed, throughout much of the eighteenth century, there was a vibrant tradition of interracial church membership above the Mason Dixon line. Surveying church records from over four hundred congregations in New England and the mid-Atlantic region, Boles offers critical new insights on the evolution and meaning of Black and Native American church membership in majority-white religious institutions. He also details the rise of independent African American and Indigenous churches during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The arc of Boles's historical survey is long, but it does not always bend toward racial justice. By the Civil War era, segregated Sabbaths defined Black and Indigenous church life throughout the North and many white congregants across denominational lines shared discomforting ideas about scientific racism and white supremacy (even as they opposed southern slavery). Yet even in tracing this more familiar era of segregated worship, Boles shows that African Americans and Native Americans remained dynamic actors in the American religious landscape, with some people of color stubbornly insisting on the importance of integrated churches. For these reasons and more, Dividing the Faith is a vital book not just for scholars of religion, but for anyone seeking to understand racial bridges and divides in American society during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Comprised of six well-researched but highly readable chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion framing his study, Boles examines the relationship between race and church life in northern society between the 1730s and 1850s. The first three chapters look at the multiracial composition of Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other churches in New England and the mid-Atlantic states up to the American Revolutionary era; the last three chapters continue the story into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and focus on the establishment and maintenance of African American and Native American churches against the backdrop of rising racism in many mainstream northern denominations.

Throughout, Boles is concerned not with a few telling examples of interracial church membership (that is, case studies) or church leadership (via collective biography), but with the big picture: what the bulk of northern churches did to foster or inhibit diverse church membership. In fact, the great strength of Boles’s book is its vast and impressive research foundation. Using church records from across the North, he authoritatively examines the composition of religious institutions stretching from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. With this research base as a guide, Boles can pinpoint with great accuracy the rise and fall of Black and Native church membership and baptisms through time, space, region, and denomination. This in turn allows him to recast the generally accepted historical narrative of Black and Native exclusion from American churches as the original sin of religious life in colonial society. As he asserts, the march toward segregated Sabbaths was much more complex than we ever knew.

Right off the bat, Boles challenges scholars to reimagine the diverse dimensions of the early northern religious landscape by arguing that a plurality—and in some regional instances a majority—of white churches included Black and Native American worshippers. For instance, between 1730 and 1749 Black baptisms in Boston’s Anglican and Congregational churches totaled between 1 percent and 5.5 percent of the overall number (roughly 250 Black baptisms in all). In New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, the total number of Black baptisms in Anglican churches alone between 1750 and 1763 soared to nearly 800 African Americans. Indigenous membership in Congregational churches was similarly noteworthy. In Connecticut, Native Americans “were active in the Congregational Churches of Groton, Stonington, New London, Lebanon, Old Lyme, Hebron, and Norwich” and no less than “forty-five Congregational churches baptized one or more Indians during the 1730s and 1740s” (pp. 40-41). To be a white worshipper in many colonial northern churches meant seeing, and interacting with, congregants of color.

But why would African Americans and Indigenous people even seek membership in majority-white churches? On that key question, Boles points to both theological appeals and practical benefits in early church affiliation. Neither Black nor Native congregants needed to believe “the same things as European Christians” (i.e., all theological principles) for their membership to be meaningful (p. 10). In fact, for African Americans, northern church membership offered much more than spiritual succor—it provided access to Bible study and thus literacy skills. It also offered entry into an interracial community whose networks of economic power and cultural influence might be useful to Black congregants. For this reason, as he notes, neither Black nor Indigenous membership in colonial churches was exclusively tied to the Great Awakening. According to Boles, scholars have “generally overemphasized” the appeal of evangelical congregations (especially Baptists and Methodists) to colonial African Americans, while slighting Black affiliation with other churches (notably the Anglican Church) (p. 7). Yet it is clear that certain churches appealed more to Black and Native congregants precisely because of their interest in, and outreach to, people of color. Not every northern religious body did so before 1776. “Very few Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, or Presbyterian churches in the northern Mid-Atlantic colonies baptized or admitted to membership blacks or Indians,” he adds (p. 237).

During the Revolutionary era and into the early national period, interracial church membership peaked, particularly among African American worshippers who joined majority-white churches in the North. Nevertheless, Boles argues that whites’ newfound embrace of antislavery theology played only a partial role in increased Black membership among Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, and other congregations. “Other factors besides antislavery politics proved critical for increasing black participation in these predominantly white churches,” he writes, including liberalized Baptism policies, ministers who “were attentive to the spiritual needs of black people in their communities,” and the presence of other Blacks in church and worship settings (p. 161). Here, Boles reemphasizes Black people’s agency in making church choices. In a diverse landscape, African Americans chose many paths.

Of course, when faced with oppressive and avowedly racist policies, Blacks used their agency to leave majority-white churches and form their own congregations. This was the famous path taken by Black Methodists, who formed the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and AME Zion denominations in the early nineteenth century. Others Black churches followed suit. Though this story is more familiar to scholars, Boles adds new insights on the making and meaning of Black church independence by surveying the increasingly restrictive religious landscape of the antebellum North. By the mid-1800s, Boles finds that the interracial churches of even a few generations before “were mostly a memory” (p. 235). A surge in racism impinged upon Northerners’ commitment to interracial worship. As Boles’s rich research base shows, white churches baptized fewer African American and Native American congregants between the 1820s and 1850s. While this “correlated with the increased availability of independent black churches in northern cities and towns,” it also flowed from a marked rise in white “hostility” toward African American worshippers (p. 205). In Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed churches, the post-Revolutionary increase in Black membership and baptisms levelled off or declined. Moreover, many white churches opposed Black equality in the pews. Citing the well-known case of Arthur Tappan, who brought the Black preacher Samuel Cornish to his Presbyterian Church in New York City in the 1830s, Boles notes that interracial harmony in the pews simply disintegrated. “[Tappan’s] action caused such a controversy that some church members threatened to leave the church” (p. 211). For his part, Cornish was shaken but not surprised by the blowback, calling the northern Presbyterian church “corrupt to the very core” (p. 212).

Both Black and white worshippers pushed back in some locales. Viewing “integration as the best option available for combatting antiblack sentiments and actions,” Black writer William Cooper Nell joined Theodore Parker’s Unitarian congregation in Boston (p. 219). Similarly, in New York City, five Black congregants joined the Broadway Tabernacle. But these interracial dissidents were a small minority of the northern church-going population.

Rising northern racism led to perhaps the most important pushback in northern church culture: a radical critique of white Christian hypocrisy. As Boles notes, both Native American and African American preachers vilified white churches as adherents of a false Christianity. Frederick Douglass’s various critiques of American religion aimed not only at southern masters, but also at northern white worshippers who supported segregated pews and refused to support abolition. Even by the Civil War, most northern churches were not accommodating to Black or Native American worshippers, making independent congregations not only necessary but vital in African American and Indigenous communities.

Though it offers a terrific reexamination of Black, white, and Native church membership patterns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Boles’s book raises key questions about the analytical categories scholars employ to study several broader and urgent questions about race and religion in American life. For instance, just what constitutes an interracial congregation? Is it the presence (though not the equality) of nonwhite congregants? Or is it the foregrounding of racial justice concerns in majority-white church settings—or even white participation in Black-majority and/or Indigenous institutions that offer fundamentally different perspectives on race, power, and societal justice? Though Boles shows that a host of northern churches had Black and Indigenous members in the 1700s, their overall numbers remained small. Nevertheless, he argues that even the presence of a few nonwhite congregants changed the dynamic of northern church life, even turning some majority-white churches into contested sites over a variety of matters. Though he does not discount the pervasiveness of racism at any point in his narrative, Boles sees the early interracial experience of northern churches as a powerful (if ultimately unfulfilled) moment in American democratic practice.

Sylvester Johnson’s recent book on African American religions offers an illuminating counter-perspective. While he covers a much longer time frame (1500-2000), Johnson also focuses on the development and meaning of Black Christianity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, he sees the Black Christian experience as thoroughly framed (and even fatally flawed) by colonialism/imperialism in the New World. In many ways, African Americans’ presence in majority-white churches offered little more than access to restricted liberties, not the promise of full-fledged liberation. And it certainly did not allow for fundamental critiques of either racism or settler colonialism (something that other, more radical religious groups did later on in independent churches).[1] It is hard to ignore the power of Johnson’s argument.

Nevertheless, Boles compels scholars to reexamine the promises and perils of interracial church life in early American society. For Black, white, and Native congregants did try to surmount racial divides in ways that might better address looming societal changes. The real question all these years later is whether that very idea of interracial fellowship is still a worthwhile pursuit—or if the much-bemoaned history of segregated Sabbaths is simply too hard (and even too problematic) to overcome.

Note

[1]. Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6-7.

Citation: Richard Newman. Review of Boles, Richard, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (Early American Places, 17). H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57004

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