The Historiography of the Holy Spirit in Black Church Culture

By: Cheryl J. Sanders

April 8, 2021

The Black Church in American Public Life

We are indebted to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for bringing many varied facets of the Black Church to light in his 2021 public television series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. There is a refreshing element of discovery in the documentary series and in the companion volume, wherein Gates positions himself as a learner with a keen awareness of the limitations of his expertise on the subject of Black religion, notwithstanding the wonder of his own experiences of it. A significant subplot of Gates’ story of the Black Church is the folksy ecumenism of his own spiritual autobiography, beginning with the Methodist church he attended while growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia and his gravitation to the Episcopal Church as an older adolescent. His current interest in telling the story of the Black Church stems from his fascination with the Black preachers he has heard at Union Chapel on Martha’s Vineyard while on summer vacation, and at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard during the school year.

Gates narrates his own experience of supernatural intervention at age 12, when his mother was hospitalized with a terminal illness. He responded by offering a desperate prayer for her recovery, and promised to join the church if God would heal her. When she returned home from the hospital, he felt obligated to fulfill the vow he had made by joining the Methodist Church. Gates makes a transparent confession of why he stayed away from the Holiness Church, namely, his fear of the Holy Spirit and the worship of Black churches whose focus upon summoning and responding to the Holy Spirit results in speaking in tongues and other intense manifestations of supernatural influence. 

The high expectation of call and response to the Spirit inadvertently, and sometimes ironically, forced the issue of equality and inclusion across the barriers of race, sex and age.

Although many of these churches and denominations adopted the same prohibitive practices as other Black Protestant denominations with respect to women’s ordination and pastoral leadership, the high expectation of call and response to the Spirit inadvertently, and sometimes ironically, forced the issue of equality and inclusion across the barriers of race, sex and age. In these churches, it is unthinkable that the Holy Spirit would exclusively move men to preach, sing and shout, while forcing all the women to sit in silence. On the contrary, everyone is equally eligible to be moved by the Holy Spirit. For this very reason, Gates feared what might happen to him if he stepped inside the Holiness Church in his hometown, given the stories he had heard and behaviors he had observed as people acted under the influence of the Spirit. Always the academician, he is able to draw illuminating parallels between his misgivings about the excesses of Black religious worship and the “Frenzy,” a term used by W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago to describe the exuberance of Black southern folk religion. By bringing Holiness and Pentecostal church women to prominence in his documentary and in his book, Gates challenges the Black churches as a whole to reconsider the role of the Holy Spirit as an equalizing factor in our modalities of worship and our mission to the world. 

Give my own interest in the importance of Holiness and Pentecostal women in the Black Church, there are three topics in particular from my reflections on The Black Church documentary and book that I would offer for further exploration and conversation: (1) the significance of African retentions in Black worship; (2) intergenerational spiritual autobiography as a methodology for scholarly inquiry; and (3) the future relevance of the Black Church for the increasing population of “nones,” that is, persons with no religious affiliation.

The emphasis upon practices of spiritual empowerment is one factor that has kept Pentecostalism on the growing edge of global Christianity.

Gates’ assessment of the historical significance and cultural impact of Holiness and Pentecostal movements leads him to conclude that the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is an African retention. In my opinion, spirit possession should not be regarded as an exclusive or essential trait of African religion, but instead as a phenomenon that produces culturally distinctive manifestations among the many religions and peoples of the world. The emphasis upon practices of spiritual empowerment is one factor that has kept Pentecostalism on the growing edge of global Christianity since its inception among small gathering of Black Holiness men and women under the leadership of William J. Seymour in Los Angeles in 1906.

Gates has incorporated the stories of his parents, grandparents, siblings and others into his spiritual autobiography, which is in turn interwoven into his broader narrative of the historical evolution and variations of Black spirituality. Dr. Yolanda Pierce employs a similar methodology of intergenerational spiritual autobiography as a way of doing womanist theology in her text In My Grandmother’s House. Viewed from another vantage point, this methodology has subversive potential to challenge devotees of religious patriarchy and sexism to acknowledge the formative spiritual influence of their godly mothers and grandmothers, and to reconsider their opposition to women’s leadership in that light.

The present impact and future survivability of the Black Church may depend upon its capacity to summon and nurture people of all ages to participate in transformative and sustainable practices of social justice.

Recent survey data from the Pew Forum show that Black Christians who are trending away from religious affiliation tend to retain significant interest in personal practices of spirituality, such as prayer. The Black Church can respond by offering revitalized opportunities for spiritual engagement that are designed to challenge the “nones” to rethink their opposition to organized religion. Gates has portrayed the Black Church as a base for Black social, political and economic advancement in opposition to slavery, segregation, and other historical manifestations of anti-Blackness. The present impact and future survivability of the Black Church may depend upon its capacity to summon and nurture people of all ages to participate in transformative and sustainable practices of social justice, a purpose that personal spirituality alone cannot accomplish.

This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University. ​

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