An Historical Perspective of the Negro Church

An Historical Perspective of the Negro Church
By W.E.B. Du Bois

Among most people the primitive sociological group was the family or at least the clan. Not so among American Negroes; such vestiges of primitive organization among the Negro slaves were destroyed by the slaveship. In this country the first distinct voluntary organization of Negroes was the Negro church. The Negro church came before the Negro home; it ante-dates their social life, and in every respect is stands to-day as the fullest, broadest expression of organized Negro life. … We are so familiar with churches, and church work is so near to us, that we have scarce time to view it in perspective and to realize that in origin and functions the Negro church is a broader, deeper and more comprehensive social organism that the churches of white Americans. The Negro church is not simply an organism of the propagation of religion; it is the centre of social, intellectual and religious life of an organized group of individuals. It provides social intercourse, it provides amusements of various kinds, it serves as a newspaper and intelligence bureau, it supplants the theatre, it directs the picnic and excursion, it furnishes the music, it introduces the stranger to the community, it serves as a lyceum, library and lecture bureau; it is, in fine, the central organ of the organized life of the American Negro, for amusement, relaxation, instruction and religion. To maintain its pre-eminence the Negro church has been forced to compete with the dance-hall, the theatre and the home as an amusement-giving agency. Aided by color proscription in public amusements, aided by the fact mentioned before—that the church among us is older than the home—the church has been peculiarly successful, so that of the 10,000 Philadelphia Negroes whom I asked, “Where do you get your amusements?” fully three-quarters could only answer, “From the Churches.”

The above was taken from the “Special Report on Negro Domestic Service in the Seventh Ward Philadelphia” by Isabel Eaton, M.A. It was published as an addendum in The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study by W.E.B Du Bois [Schocken Books, New York, 1967 (first published in 1899)], pp 469-470. Eaton quoted it from the “College Settlement News,” Philadelphia, July 1897.