The Hoodoo History of Gospel Music (Part 1)
It’s the second annual Hoodoo Heritage Month and we are in great spirits here at Hoodoo & Good Juju. It’s a blessing and an honor to celebrate our African-American cultural legacy and religious/spiritual tradition.
This week, for Hoodoo Heritage Month, we are going to talk about Gospel Music in the Hoodoo Tradition. In order to truly understand how African-American Gospel Music evolved into the genre we know and love today, we must first understand how African-American Christianity & The African-American Church evolved into its current form. It’s important to know that these two evolutions happened simultaneously and are intricately interconnected.
In Part 1 of the Hoodoo Gospel Series, we will discuss the origins of African-American Gospel music, tracing it back to our homelands in Africa and across the Atlantic to our homeland in America. We will then dive into the History of Christian Conversion of Enslaved Africans in America. Finally, we will take a look at the development of the first African-American Churches and Denominations.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
The Origins of African-American Gospel Music
African-American Gospel Music has its roots in African-Indigenous oral traditions. Some “scholars” give credit to Gaelic Presbyterian hymn-singing as the origin of the, “Call & Response” singing style that Negro Spirituals, Gospel Music, Jazz, Blues, and so many other African-American musical genres evolved from. However, when it comes to Call & Response singing, chanting, and music making, all roads lead back to African-Indigenous people and customs.
Across Africa, Call & Response singing, chanting, speaking, and music-playing remains a cultural musical & speaking style, regularly used in community settings, including religious rituals, civic gatherings, and hunting & gathering spaces. As an oral people, Africans used this musical style to tell stories, explain phenomena, instill cultural values, communicate with spirits, work communally, and pass on information. It’s by no chance that enslaved African people used this music style for all of these same reasons here in America.
This style of speaking, chanting, and music-playing was carried across the Atlantic, right along with the people from whom this style originated, and it is one of the most prominent of our surviving & thriving African traditions in America.
The Gospel Music that we know and love today first took form in America, within the development of what is now called, “Work Songs,” and “Spirituals.” These songs were most notably Call and Response style songs. They incorporated melodious chanting and singing with rhythms made from the clapping of the hands, the stomping of the feet, the banging of a tool, the mouthing of sounds, and the observance of sounds in the places where enslaved African people worked.
As I write this, my ancestors are reminding me that well before we could speak to each other (considering the language barriers that our earliest enslaved ancestors faced), we would simply hum, moan, yell, and scat in rhythm and/or harmony. As our English language understanding developed, we began to incorporate more and more English words into our work songs. These early work songs and spirituals were repetitive, and inclusive- affording folks who could not read and folks who otherwise could not speak English, the opportunity to participate and learn English through song. The early development of African-American Vernacular English (also known as Ebonics), was also influenced by this style of communicating.
Throughout the 1700s, more and more enslaved Africans gained exposure to Protestant Christianity. Soon enough, our ancestors began combining bible scriptures, hymns, and biblical concepts with their own stories, jokes, prophecies, and pure, raw emotions. This fusion developed into what we now know as, “Spirituals.”
In part two, we will further explore some of the lyrical Work Songs & Spirituals of the 1800s, but first, let’s take a look at how Chrisitian Conversion of enslaved Africans influenced them.
The Christian Conversion of Enslaved Africans
The conversion of enslaved African people to the Christian faith was quite slow. Before, “The Great Awakening,” of the 1740s, about 20% of enslaved Africans practiced the Muslim faith. The others, though unable to actively and openly practice, held onto their own tribal beliefs, especially those beliefs which were shared across the Central-West African region from which our people came. Because of fears held by slave owners, enslaved African people were either banned or restricted from most Traditional Religious practices, including the use of drumming, “fetishes,” and symbols. Yet and still, the religious practices and beliefs that our ancestors could safely incorporate into their daily lives or could keep in secret were held onto- and served as the basis of the majority’s religious faiths.
Just as slave owners did not allow enslaved Africans to practice their own sacred religions, they also banned Africans, both enslaved and free, from access to Christian conversion and “salvation.” Protestant missionaries had a very difficult time convincing slave owners to allow them to convert Africans to the Christian faith. Some missionaries were met with violence and cruelty because of their attempts to do so.
“Primary sources from missionaries and slave owners show that ‘behind these actions was the fear that since English law forbade the enslavement of Christians, they would have to emancipate their slaves once they got themselves baptized; fear that Christianity would spoil their slaves, make them think too highly of themselves, make them lazy and impudent, perhaps even rebellious; and finally, their fear that Christianizing their slaves would make them seem less foreign and thus more human in their eyes...” (Koranda).
It took Protestant Missionaries several years to convince slave owners that converting enslaved Africans to Christianity would not negatively impact their power, wealth, status, or safety. They relied heavily on the reinforcement of scriptures such as Ephesians 6:5, which reads,
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, in fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
Slave-owning lawmakers also created legislation that would reinforce slave status, even after baptism and conversion. Katherine Gerbner writes in her book entitled, “Christian Slavery,” that slave owners and lawmakers, “introduced a new language of exclusion based on ‘whiteness’ rather than Christian status…. in order to suppress the political rights of black Christians.”
“The slave owners’ efforts were part of a broad effort to replace Protestant Supremacy with White Supremacy.”
Even once missionaries were granted the opportunity to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity, they were faced with new obstacles.
“Not every slave was open to the idea of being converted to this monotheistic religion. Some slaves, particularly those from South Carolina and Georgia, where they were working on isolated rice plantations, did not accept Jesus as their Savior for the simple reason that they did not get enough exposure to the whites and their religion; others outright rejected it.”
This bold rejection was due to what a Protestant missionary referred to as, “the Fondness they have for their own Heathenish Rites.”
For other enslaved Africans, the slow but sure conversion into the Christian faith in the 18th century was most likely based on one or more of the following factors:
- The Protestant Evangelism of the mid-18th century, which asserted the idea that, “all men were created equal in the eyes of God,” and placed emphasis on, “individual freedom,” and “direct communication,” with God. This encouraged enslaved Africans, especially those who were born in America, to begin to see themselves as equal and to become more aware of what equality SHOULD mean for them in society.
- The enslaved African people’s connection to the narratives about Moses, David, Elijah, Jesus, and other biblical figures. Most notably, the Exodus story, was one that the enslaved people could closely relate to and find hope in.
- “Slaves believed that if God had sided against religious and political powers in the Bible, then he could also help them become free,” (Perez).
- The suffering of the Isrealites, the punishment of the Egyptians, and the hope for a Promised Land moved many enslaved Africans to seek spiritual refuge in the Christian faith.
- The hopeful possibility that baptism could lift the social status of their children if not of themselves.
- “In Protestant slave colonies, conversion was the first step toward wielding and exercising political and social authority, (Gerbner).
- There were elements of power and respect that could come of Christian conversion and enslaved Africans recognized and were drawn to this. One example of such power elements was the “privilege” of reading and writing.
- “For many European Protestants, literacy was intimately connected with Protestant conversion. Missionaries reinforced this connection by teaching enslaved people to read and, sometimes, to write,” (Gerbner)..
- The opportunity to participate in something meaningful— something that could be used to facilitate a transformative experience and a temporary escape from the harsh realities of slavery. There was a loophole within the Christian faith, that afforded enslaved Africans the opportunity to transcend their current circumstance long enough to embrace and express their true, inherent spiritual nature.
It was during the mid-to-late 18th century that the first and second, “Great Awakenings” took place. This was a period of time where Christian evangelists led what is known as, “religious revivals.” These revivals, particularly those of Methodist and Baptist missionaries, welcomed working class whites and enslaved African people into the faith. This open invitation was taken advantage of by thousands of enslaved Africans at a time, leading to an emergence of African Christians.
“To convert, then, was not just a matter of belief; it was a claim to power. Enslaved and free black people recognized this. Hundreds and then thousands of black men and women risked violence to join Protestant churches,” (Gerbner).
The Formation of The African Church
For a few decades, most churches that welcomed enslaved Africans to worship, enforced strict segregation barriers, while a few, such as New York’s Trinity Church, had worship services that were unsegregated and all-inclusive.
In 1773, the first enslaved African by the name of George Liele, was ordained and licensed as a preacher in Savannah, Georgia. Although born enslaved, he was set free by his master in 1778. Soon after, he founded the First African Baptist Church, located in Savannah, Georgia. Despite being brutally beaten, harassed, and even imprisoned by white slave owners who opposed Christian Conversion, Liele, along with his proteges, Andrew Bryant and David George, went on to create the first certified African Baptists churches in Georgia and in South Carolina.
In 1797, Reverend Richard Allen successfully sued Pennsylvania’s courts in order to solidify Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church as an independent institution. He went on to successfully create the first African-American church denomination, African Methodist Episcopal (AME).
While men were most often the face of the African Christian Church movement, it was the women who made up the majority of the congregations. The women of the church not only led and organized the various church ministries, they were also largely responsible for the high numbers of conversion during the Great Awakening period and beyond. They often led the evangelism ministries and some went on to exercise their right to preach and minister. The African Church movement would not have had its successes without the support and carriage of the women whom it encompassed.
Take Mrs. Jarena Lee, for example. She was the first African-American woman to become a public preacher AND the first African-American to write and publish an autobiography. Mrs. Lee’s call to ministry began well before the fateful Sunday at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where she rose up out of her seat and addressed the congregation with a timely Word from God. It was that day that she successfully convinced the congregation that she had a Word and that she was fit to preach it!
Unfortunately, even after being authorized to preach by Reverend Richard Allen himself, Mrs. Lee was still met with pushback due to her ”female status.”
"Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior?" she would clapback.
Despite the discrimination she faced, Jarena Lee went on to become a trailblazing pioneer for African-American women to become ministers and to be ordained to preach the Word.
The Formation of The African Church as a Revolutionary Act
As feared by whites, the formation of African-American churches did empower enslaved Africans in ways that would soon allow us to gain liberation.
Bryan Street African Baptist Church in South Carolina, headed by Andrew Bryant, featured 50 enslaved Africans who could read and at least 3 who could write. The First African Baptist church in Georgia is home of the first Sabbath school and the first school for African children in America. The ability to read and write played a major role in our ability to establish ourselves as “equal,” under the Christian God as well as under American Law. Members of The African Church weaponized this ability as a tool for liberation.
Take Benjamin Bannaker, for example. In 1791, Bannaker addressed Thomas Jefferson in a letter, challenging his claims that Africans were intellectually inferior to whites. In this letter, Bannaker writes:
“Sir, if there are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the right of human nature and who profess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burthen or oppression they may unjustly labour under, and this I apprehend a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principle should lead all to.”
This new era of African-American Christian thought, which could now be written, published, and read, was used to hold white masters and law makers accountable for the, “unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism,” that they inflicted upon enslaved African people (Bannaker). The weaponization of literacy was nothing short of genius, and it paved the way for future leaders such as Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X to carry out their great revolutionary acts. Much of the successes and the progression of the various African Liberation Movements that surfaced between the years 1800 and 2000, can be attributed to the strategic Christian conversion of enslaved Africans and formation of the African Church in America.
Tune in for Part 2 of The Hoodoo History of Gospel Music as we explore the rapid development of Gospel Music within The African Church in the 1800s! We will be highlighting a few gospel legends, remembering a few of the revolutionary leaders of the time, and discussing how our Hoodoo Tradition was hidden in plain sight within the African Church Movement. Subscribe to our Member List for direct blog notifications from Hoodoo & Good Juju.
Homework for the Hoodoos!
- Read Benjamin Bannaker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated August 19, 1791. You can find it here:
- Read about how the Holy Spirit moved Mrs. Jarena Lee to preach the word one Sunday morning in this article- narrated according to Mrs. Lee’s autobiography. You can read it here:
- Listen to these Traditional African Call & Response songs:
We want to hear from you! Leave a comment down below! We’ll be leading a discussion about the information in this article on Monday, October 5 on our Twitter and Instagram pages! Follow us @hoodoogoodjuju to join the discussion.
Edited By: Esther Reese