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The Book on Black Church Leaders

History: An ambitious new work examines the religious struggles and contributions of African Americans.

July 27, 2002|DAVID BRIGGS | RELIGION NEWS SERVICE

CLEVELAND — There were slaves who led bloody uprisings and former slaves who endured whippings to preach the gospel. There were nationalists who argued that blacks could be free only in a nation of their own and those who suffered in nonviolent protest to change America.

Like their biblical ancestors, black Christian leaders in America have struggled to keep their faith amid an often-hostile culture.

In a new book exploring key figures in the black church's history, the Rev. Marvin McMickle celebrates the diversity of a community of faith born in slavery and passionately engaged for the rest of its history in a modern-day Exodus.

The book reveals the hope--shared across three centuries--that the black church can dramatically change American life.

"I just don't think any other community tends to value its religious institutions like the African American community does," says McMickle, pastor of Cleveland's Antioch Baptist Church.

His "An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage," published by Valley Forge, Pa.-based Judson Press, examines the lives of the preachers, prophets, politicians, nationalists, singers and scholars who have shaped black Christian life.

Contemporary figures in the encyclopedia include T.D. Jakes, an electrifying, best-selling preacher; Kirk Franklin, a Grammy-winning contemporary gospel singer; James Cone, one of a number of scholars developing a black theology relevant to the African American experience; the Rev. Vashti McKenzie, elected in 2000 as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

But these modern-day figures build upon a legacy left by leaders who shared the struggle of living as a black Christian in America.

During the time of slavery, leaders such as Nat Turner gave their lives in violent protest, while black preachers such as Andrew Bryan endured public whippings in a nonviolent response to whites who feared slaves organized for worship could later organize for rebellion.

It was a tension between working through the system and civil disobedience that can be found throughout black religious history, McMickle argues.

For example, Turner started the bloodiest slave uprising in American history, acting on what he believed was a sign from God to lead nearly 70 slaves in the killing of 53 white people in August 1831.

With the permission of his owner, George Liele organized the first black Baptist church in the United States in the 1770s on the plantation where he was a slave. Later, Alexander Crummell and Marcus Garvey despaired in the 19th and 20th centuries that black Americans would never be equal citizens and advocated leaving to build nations of their own.

Meanwhile, Charles Harrison Mason founded the Church of God in Christ, an interracial Pentecostal denomination with more than 300 white ministers before social pressures in the early 20th century forced it to split into black and white groups.

More recently, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the status quo with a nonviolent protest movement that fundamentally changed a nation.

McMickle says one of the greatest contributions by the black church to the Christian world is a tradition of powerful preaching. That tradition, he says, continues today with such people as Jakes and Cleveland's Rev. Otis Moss Jr. In an earlier day, God brought forth Billy Graham to be a national voice for evangelical Christianity, said Bishop J. Delano Ellis II, president of the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ.

Now, Ellis says, God is lifting up people such as Jakes and other black preachers who are reaching the nation in their television ministries and books.

"There is a new way and a new movement," Ellis said. "I believe it will be the black bishop, the black preacher, the black clergy, that's going to set the Christian church back in order."

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