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The African-American Religious Experience

Learn about the role religion plays in the African-American community.
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Updated: June 9, 2019
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On the March

Revels's dual career as a minister and a politician is, today, a little-known episode in American history. It is, however, one of the most important breakthroughs in American social and political history. Revels provided the career template for a wave of later African-American preacher/politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., William Gray, and John Lewis—to say nothing of the 1984 and 1988 campaigns for the presidency led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Revels is also a reminder that, although African-Americans were systematically deprived of civil rights in the South following the 1877 back-room deal that concluded the Reconstruction period, they continued to vote in their own churches. They elected men and women committed to fulfilling the spiritual, social, and educational aspirations of their parishioners.

Hiram Revels

Neither Richard Allen nor Peter Williams Sr. ever ran for or won an election for public office. Hiram Revels, on the other hand, was the pioneer of the preacher/politician tradition that emerged in the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). Revels, a minister with a gift for oratory and organization, recruited for the Union during the Civil War and served as a chaplain for an African-American Mississippi regiment. After the war, Revels relocated to Mississippi and founded new congregations there. He also took the newly amended Constitution at its word and turned African-American believers into voters.

The Mississippi preacher became, in succession, alderman of Natchez, Mississippi, then a state senator, and then the first African-American senator. In an irony that did not escape notice at the time, the charismatic Mississippi preacher was elected to complete the vacated term of former senator (and disgraced Confederate president) Jefferson Davis. Revels served out the balance of Davis's term, a little more than a year, then took up the presidency of Alcorn College, Mississippi's first institution of higher learning for African-Americans. He continued his duties as a minister until he died in 1901.

William J. Seymour

In 1906, William J. Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles—and helped bring about an explosion of interest from people of all races in a form of ecstatic worship that eventually developed into Pentecostalism—a powerful, ecstatic strain of Christianity that had people (according to the Los Angeles Times) “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.”

At the time of Seymour's landmark California event, there were under a thousand practitioners. Today, the movement boasts over seven million members. That makes the sect Seymour helped to develop the fastest-growing strain of Christianity of the past century.

What's the Word?

Pentecostalism is a global twentieth-century Christian movement that highlights the importance of direct experience of the Holy Spirit. This often takes the form of speaking in tongues, which is often regarded as tangible evidence of a believer's baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, early Christians are reported as receiving the “gift of tongues” on the Pentecost, or Feast of Weeks, which takes place on the fiftieth day following Passover. Pentecostalism emerged from the Holiness Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Seymour made much of the fact that his exuberant form of worship—which sought direct connection to the Holy Spirit through sustained, unscripted vocalization, prolonged swaying, and the “gift of tongues”—was a global phenomenon that transcended race. “People of all nations came and got their cup full,” he said of his gatherings at Azusa Street. “Some came from Africa, some came from India, China, Japan, and England.”

The mode of worship that Seymour made popular was quickly taken up by one of the participants at the Azusa Street sessions, Charles Harrison Mason, an African-American preacher from Tennessee who brought his followers into the Pentecostal movement.

As it happened, Mason initiated the largest African-American denomination of the sect, the Church of God in Christ. Today, it boasts more than five million members.

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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