Family and Church: Enduring Institutions
I.General Family Life
As a result of myths of white family life, there has been much confusion over the nature ofblack families. One of the myths of the nineteenth century entails the close- knit white family, which was parallel to that of the European family. Also, as a result of these myths, scholars often ignored the differences of American and European life. For example, women in frontier areas had a much stronger voice in family affairs than most scholars realized, simply because of the shortage of women. Therefore, women exercised a large percentage of authority in the family. In the cities where family was of little importance as an economic unit and the father was often at work, the care of the children was primarily the responsibility of the mother. By 1880, the American family became more democratic.
After the second half of the nineteenth century, changes in the nature and functions of the family occurred. For example, changes such as industrialization, improvements in transportation, the weakening of religious bonds, and increased knowledge of birth control, led to more working wives and more premarital sex, downgraded the importance of family. As a result of relaxed divorce laws and a greater emphasis on romantic love, there was an increase in the number of divorces. By the 1970s, one in every three marriages ended in divorce, the failure rate for new marriages was thirty percent, nine million people were divorced or separated, and twelve million single individuals were heading households with children. There were so many divorces that a large number of whites were practicing serial monogamy, meaning one person having only one spouse at time, but more than one in his or her lifetime.
Most often researchers speak of the pathological disorganization of the black family and imply that all black families are matriarchal, meaning the woman is the head of the household. The dangerous part of this myth was popularized by Daniel P. Moyhnihan, who asserted that the pathological weakness of the black family was, capable of perpetuating itself without the assistance from the white world. The weakness of the black family may be seen as a direct result of centuries of white oppression of blacks and not as inherent and immutable.
The black family grew out of a complex combination of African traditions, Christian beliefs, and adjustments made to slavery. In Africa, family was considered a strong institution, stressing the dominance of males, the significance of children, and extended kinship networks. American societies generally forbade extramarital sex yet regarded sexual intercourse as a healthy, natural act unconnected with sin. The enslavement of the African resulted in the evolution of new family practices. Men were forced to share authority with women and parents no longer completely shaped the destiny of their children.
II.White Church Support for the Slave Family
The slave family received its primary institutional support from southern white churches. In some sermons prepared only for slaves, ministers stressed biblical prohibitions against premarital sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication and the separation of mates.
Southern clergymen considered the family second only to the church as a force that insured morality abandoned attempts to abolish slavery in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Clergymen were forced to determine the relationship between bondage, marriage, property, and Christianity.
Due to their concern with morality, the churches began in the 1740s to insist that the slaves be married in Christian ceremonies. Many denominations required ministers to perform slave weddings. The churches frequently investigated charges of adultery and fornication and tried to promote the development of Christian family practices in the quarters. They often excommunicated or publicly criticized slaves for abandoning their mates, premarital pregnancies, and engaging in extramarital sex.
III.Free Negro Families
One of the most important sources of black family tradition was the antebellum free Negro community. Although haunted by poverty, the free black family was nevertheless strong. Black children imbibed important lessons from their parents. As industrious Christians, parents stressed morality, the value of labor, and education, and racial uplift. The family held devotional services and regularly took their children to church. If they were skilled craftsman, they taught their trade to their sons. If not, black boys were frequently apprenticed to black or white artisans. Finally, and most important, black parents exemplified, in their own lives, the character traits they wanted their children to learn. Parents were frequently very strict with children. Black fathers insisted that boys work hard in order for the family to rise from the level of poverty. As a result of their strictness, girls married early and boys often left home around the age of sixteen. Sometime children were put to work early to help pay rent or to keep away hunger.
Free Negro women were strong and important members of the family. The men heavily relied upon the womans sense of industry, economy, and cheerful dispositions. The women worked to add to family funds but also tried to prevent their husbands from squandering the family resources. Black women were strong, industrious, pious, and loved their children. The high morality rate of black men enhanced the position of black women. Black women were particularly submissive to their husbands when their mates had purchased their freedom. Generally, however, the free Negro family was patriarchal.
IV.Lower-Class Family Life
The lower-class matriarchal family is an example of the remarkable adaptation black institutions have made to oppressive conditions in America. One of the major functions of the lower-class family was to toughen its members to a world of systematic reutilization by the police, businessmen, and by other facets of white caste restrictions. Lower-class culture helped to minimize the pain involved with this matter.
After slavery, the extended family was prevalent in the black community. Normally, black households had twice as many relatives outside the immediate family as did white ones. Blacks seemed to have greater abhorrence of institutionalizing the aged as whites did. When aged blacks did not live with their children, several other members of the local community took responsibility for them.
Black women who had to head households did not seem as intimidated by the role as white women were. Sometimes several generations of a family lived in a household headed by a grandmother. Control of the children in such households was lax, and new illegitimate children might be added with each generation. In the lower-class community the self- sufficiency of the black woman was stressed from childhood on. Children were taught not to give up completely in the face of verbal and physical aggression from others and learned strategies of survival such as, manipulating or persuading others, using violence, and keeping ones physical needs at a bare minimum. The lower-class family was strong in many respects. Since it was an extended family, it had a closeness of kin missing in among whites. The black women who headed these families were the true heroines of America. Although they received less money than white women did, they tended to provide better care for their children than white women heading families. White children were more likely to be neglected or abused than blacks in these families. For example, in 1960, only eighty-four percent of all children in institutions were black. One study in 1967 showed that while sixty-three percent of white welfare families neglected or abused their children, only forty-three percent of black welfare families did. Although the help of friends was important to lower-class families, the black woman had the responsibility of holding the family together.
V.The Importance of the Development of an Independent Black Church
Much of the strength of the black woman and the afro-American family can be attributed to their roots in the black church. From slavery to emancipation, embattled blacks found comfort in the biblical injunction to, refrain thy voice from weeping, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy (Jeremiah 31:16). What distinguished the black church from its white counterpart was its adherence to the nationalistic theology of liberation, reform, and uplift.
Before blacks could preach deliverance to the captives, they had to establish independent churches. The first independent church had its beginning in 1787 when Philadelphia blacks, led by Richard Allen and Abaslom Jones, formed benevolent organization, the Free African Society.
Throughout the north, free blacks rejected segregated seating arrangements and formed many all-black congregations between 1790 and the 1830s. The blacks retained liturgy of the white denominations and sought to affiliate their churches with the white ones, but in those churches that gave blacks no voice in the state and national associations, blacks began to establish separate and independent denominations. Led by Richard Allen, Daniel Coker, and Stephen Hall, black Methodists met in Philadelphia in 1816 and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church as an independent national association.
The year 1809 saw the building of the First African Baptist Church in Philadelphia, the African Baptist Church of Boston, and the Abyssian Baptist Church in New York City. By 1840, there were more than 300 separate northern black churches, including six Episcopal, three Presbyterian, one Congregational, and one Lutheran. In their calls for moral improvement, Christian virtues, education, temperance, charity, and benevolence, nineteenth century black churches differed little from white ones. Like white churches, black denominations supported home and foreign missions in an effort to spread the gospel. However, blacks did place greater stress on characterizing Africa and the West Indies than did whites. The black clergy felt that Afro Americans had a special duty to regenerate the land of their fathers. The African Methodist Episcopal Church established a mission in Haiti in 1827, for instance, to aid in making the Haitian nationality and government, strong, powerful, and commanding among the civilized nations of the earth.
VI.Literary Praise for the Black Church
Black poets, less critical of black religion than novelists, captured more of the essential spirit of the church than most scholars could. While occasionally complaining about the excessive humility of black Christians, the poets used the rhythm and message of sermons, prayers and services in celebration of Gods love and promise of deliverance. The black minister, portrayed sympathetically, was also a favorite subject of black poets. Like James Weldon Johnson, many of the poets reproduced the cadences and messages of the folk sermon. They portrayed the ministers beautiful word pictures. Among the best of them was Paul Laurence Dunbars 1896 poem, An Antebellum Sermon, which demonstrates the black preachers attempt tocorrelate biblical messages with his flocks hope of early rewards.