Call and Response on the State of the Black Church (New York Times)

Call and Response on the State of the Black Churchby Samuel Freedman New York Times (April 17, 2010)

In the first decade of the American nation, a former slave turned itinerant minister by the name of Richard Allen found himself preaching to a growing number of blacks in Philadelphia. He came to both a religious and organizational revelation. “I saw the necessity,” he later wrote, “of erecting a place of worship for the colored people.”

Allen’s inspiration ultimately took the forms of Bethel African Church, founded in 1794, and the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, established in 1799. As much as it can be dated to anything, the emergence of a formal African-American Christianity can be dated to Allen’s twin creations.

Over more than two centuries since then, the Black Church has become a proper noun, a fixture, a seeming monolith in American society. Its presence is as prevalent as film clips of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech and contestants on “American Idol” indulging in the gospel style of melisma.

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