Two-thirds of Black Americans are Protestant, like about four-in-ten Americans overall. The relationship between Black Americans and Protestantism is unusual due to the history of slavery and segregation, which spawned the creation of several Black-led denominations that allowed Black Americans to worship freely. Mostly founded prior to 1900, these historically Black Protestant denominations also supported colleges and helped Black communities in other ways.
At the same time, Protestantism alone does not define the Black religious experience in the United States. Before enslaved people in America began converting to Protestantism in sizable numbers during the 1700s, they commonly followed traditional West African religions or Islam. Catholicism, too, has long had a presence among Black Americans, including in Maryland, Kentucky and Louisiana during the slavery era. And in the early 1900s, Islam began attracting thousands of Black Americans with the message that Christianity, like America writ large, had failed to offer them equality.
What follows is a brief account of Black religious history in the United States, with an emphasis on efforts by religious groups to deal with racism and its effects.
Antebellum slavery and religion
When they were first captured and taken to America, some enslaved Black people were Christian. More were Muslims. But the largest number, by far, were followers of traditional religions common in West Africa at the time. Many of these African belief systems included a supreme, distant god who created the world and a pantheon of lower gods and ancestor spirits who were active in daily life.
This religious heritage also included the use of herbal medicine and charms, applied by specialists known as conjurers, who were believed to be able to heal disease, harm an enemy or make someone fall in love. Historians say access to a conjurer gave enslaved people a sense of empowerment and control over their lives, while allowing for a worldview that distinguished them from slaveholders and connected them to Africa.23
Major historically Black Protestant denominations and when they were founded:
1. African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, 1816
2. African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church, 1821
3. Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, 1870
4. National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., 1880
5. Church of God in Christ (COGIC), 1897
6. National Baptist Convention of America International, Inc., 1915
7. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 1961
8. Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, 1994
Note: Some individual churches associated with these denominations predate the founding of the denominations themselves.
Interactions between enslaved people and Christian missionaries (and other evangelists) led to the spread of Christianity among Black Americans. Many slaveowners initially resisted these evangelistic efforts partially out of concern that if enslaved people became Christians, they would see themselves as their owners’ equals. By 1706, this fear by slaveowners had spurred legislation in at least six colonies declaring that an enslaved person’s baptism did not entail their freedom. In addition, many enslaved people who did become Christians had to deal with restrictions by masters who forbade them from attending church or prayer meetings. To get around these restrictions, and for alternatives to sermons by White clergy asking them to obey their owners, many Christian enslaved people held secret services with distinctive styles of praying, singing and worship. These services were typically held in their cabins or in nearby woods, gullies, ravines and thickets.24
Historians say the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt provided a good deal of inspiration to the enslaved people. This was reflected in coded lyrics to some of their religious songs, or spirituals. In “Go Down, Moses,” for example, the lyrics plead with the Hebrew prophet to “tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” Frederick Douglass wrote that when he was a child, before he had escaped slavery, “a keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north, and the north was our Canaan.”25
Growth of Protestantism and historically Black Protestant denominations
The first Black Protestant denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was founded in the early 1800s by Richard Allen, who had bought his freedom from slavery. Allen had become a Methodist preacher in the 1780s, but in 1787, he and others left the predominantly White church after being pulled from their knees in prayer for being in a section of the church where Black worshippers were not allowed. Three decades later, he and representatives from five other congregations founded the AME denomination. A similar chain of events in New York led to the creation of the AME Zion Church in 1821.
Toward the end of the Civil War, and in the decades immediately afterward, Black Protestant denominations cemented their place more deeply in the U.S. religious landscape. Especially after emancipation, the AME and AME Zion churches sent large numbers of missionaries to the South, leading many Black Christians to leave mostly White churches and join predominantly Black ones. The AME Church grew from 20,000 members just before the start of the Civil War to 400,000 in 1884, while the AME Zion Church’s membership jumped from 4,600 at the start of the war to 300,000 in 1884.26 Other major denominations that came into existence during this period were the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870) and the National Baptist Convention (1880).27 Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau counted nearly 2.7 million “negro communicants” at Christian churches in 1890, reporting at least a fourfold increase in Black Christians over the previous three decades. It also found that Black people in 1890 were more likely than White people to be members of a Christian congregation (36% vs. 33%).28
Another type of Protestant Christianity, Pentecostalism, developed followings in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. The largest Black Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), formed in 1897 and gained steam after a revival in Los Angeles, California – known as the Azusa Street Revival – began in 1906. The revival, led by a Black preacher, the Rev. William J. Seymour, is credited by scholars with spurring the growth of Pentecostalism in the United States and subsequently around the world.
Catholicism, too, grew among Black Americans in the early-to-mid-20th century during what is known as the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans moved from rural Southern communities into cities across the country. Parochial schools, often viewed as an attractive alternative to public schools, were one way many Black families came into contact with Catholicism.29
Scholars say predominantly Black churches of the 19th and 20th centuries played important roles in Black society outside the sphere of religion. In a period when discrimination barred Black people from access to various public amenities, many Black churches offered job-training programs, insurance cooperatives, circulating libraries and athletic clubs.30 They were among the only places Black people could take public or semi-public leadership positions. Men gained prominence as pastors, while women often led church committees and organizations that provided social services locally or advocated for causes.31 Women were barred from preaching until 1884, when the AME Church allowed them to become licensed preachers.32 However, the denomination would not ordain women until the mid-20th century. (The AME Zion Church began ordaining women in 1894.) In 1900, to address gender inequality within the National Baptist Convention, Nannie Helen Burroughs and other Baptist women founded the Woman’s Convention.33
New religious movements
The turn of the century and the early 1900s saw the founding of small, non-Christian Black religious organizations that urged Black people to view themselves as “Asiatic,” “Moorish” or as descendants of ancient Israelites, and that used religion to nurture identities “outside of society’s racial hierarchies,” in the words of religion professor Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.34 They often contended that Christianity, the most widespread American religion, had failed Black people. Many of these movements drew upon narratives of Islam as an African religion. While they never attracted more than small portions of the Black population, some of these organizations had a lasting influence in Black communities.
The Nation of Islam, which became the most prominent of these groups, was founded in 1930 in Detroit by a man known as Wallace D. Fard. It taught that Black people were the “original” and superior race and that White people were “devils” resulting from an experiment designed by a Black scientist. Elijah Muhammad, who led the group from the mid-1930s until his death in 1975, preached the need for financial and economic independence for Black people and Black communities. He taught that separation of the races was the logical response to racism from White people, and he told NOI members they should not vote in U.S. elections or serve in the armed forces.35
Other groups included the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and the Ahmadiyya movement, the latter of which was founded in India but had a missionary in the U.S. who proselytized in Black communities. Noble Drew Ali, the founding prophet of the MSTA, taught his Black members that they were “not Negroes” but were “Moorish American,” an identity meant to link Black Americans to the Muslims of Northwest Africa, known as Moors, who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula centuries earlier. Then there was the “Back-to-Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey. While not a religious movement, its leader, Garvey, urged Black people to move to Africa to form “a government, a nation of our own, strong enough to lend protection to the members of our race scattered all over the world.”36
Black clergy and the civil rights movement
In 1957, a small group of Black civil rights leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with the initial goal of using nonviolent activities to coordinate protests across the South. The group’s president was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1955 had led a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama.
In speaking against racism and discrimination, King used both political and religious discourse. His celebrated speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, referred to language in the Declaration of Independence (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’”) and in the Book of Isaiah (“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”).
King’s prominence notwithstanding, scholars note that many Black Christian clergy did not support his approach. Some feared violence, while others preferred a more legalistic approach over King’s “direct-action” tactics. An example of the divide surfaced in 1960 and 1961, when King and others unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the National Baptist Convention USA’s sitting president, the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, who had not supported King’s tactics. King and his supporters ultimately left to found a new denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which fully supported the civil rights movement. Remarking on the level of support for this activism, the historian Barbara Dianne Savage wrote that “Black churches, their members, and their ministers were crucial to what the [civil rights] movement achieved, but it never involved more than a small minority of Black religious people.”37 Similar observations – or criticisms – that too few Black clergy advocated for Black people’s rights predated the civil rights movement; for example, in the first decade of the 20th century, the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells lamented that no church in Chicago, including her own, would let her use church space to hold a public meeting about a lynching.38
How did the fight for desegregation that arose in the civil rights movement affect the Black religious landscape? Are Black people more likely since the civil rights movement to attend multiracial congregations or congregations where other races are the majority, and less likely to attend predominantly Black places of worship? This is hard to know for sure. The 2020 survey found that 60% of Black Americans who go to religious services at least yearly do so in predominantly Black congregations, while 39% go to congregations with other racial compositions. It suggests that over the long term, fewer Black families with children are attending Black congregations. Among the oldest adults in the study (those in the Silent Generation and older), 83% of adults say that they went to a predominantly Black congregation when they were children, compared with fewer adults in the youngest generation (Generation Z) who say this (64)%.39
In the years following the civil rights movement, some Black theologians began urging clergy to view racial justice as essential to Christian morality. Proponents of a religious philosophy known as Black liberation theology argued that God and Christianity are mainly concerned with eradicating poverty and bringing about freedom for Black populations and other oppressed peoples. “God is not color-blind in the black-white struggle, but has made an unqualified identification with blacks,” wrote the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a prominent scholar of Black liberation theology.40 It is hard to know how many Black clergy adopted these views over time, though theologians estimated in 2008 that a quarter of Black pastors, at most, view their theology as liberationist.41
In 1975, the Nation of Islam changed its religious teachings and political outlook after the death of its leader, Elijah Muhammad.42 His successor, his son Wallace Mohammed, urged members to increase their participation in mainstream U.S. society – in contrast to his father’s call for separation. That said, after Wallace Mohammed changed the Nation of Islam’s name and distanced the group from his father’s teachings, Minister Louis Farrakhan, a prominent NOI member, founded a reconstituted Nation of Islam in 1978 that espoused Elijah Muhammad’s message. (Most members of the group, however, stayed with Wallace Mohammed.)
The second half of the 20th century saw a decline in the number of Catholic schools, and with it a decrease in the number of Black converts to Catholicism.43 During the same period, Black clergy and religious sisters in newly founded organizations such as the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the National Black Sisters Conference increasingly pressed the U.S. bishops to address Black Catholics’ concerns on issues such as inclusion, liturgy and music in parishes.44 Milestones included the first African American bishop being named to lead a diocese in the U.S. in 1977, the first Black archbishop in the U.S. being named in 1988, and the first Black cardinal in the U.S., Wilton Gregory, being named in 2020. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says there are 3 million Black Catholics in the United States, comprising about 4% of the national Catholic population, while Black priests make up around 1% of all U.S. priests.45 According to the 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 6% of all Black Americans are Catholic.
In the 21st century, many of the historically Black Protestant denominations that formed in the 1800s and 1900s have retained sizable followings. When the National Council of Churches last published a Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches in 2012, six of the eight denominations from the Conference of National Black Churches made its list of the 25 largest Christian denominations in the United States: the Church of God in Christ; the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.; the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church; and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.46
Megachurches, typically defined as churches with at least 2,000 weekly attendees, also are part of the 21st-century Black religious landscape. According to multiple studies, there are an estimated 120 to 150 megachurches in the United States where most attendees are Black, many of which date to the late 1800s.47 Some pastors of these megachurches (and some pastors of other mostly Black churches) have faced criticism for their emphasis on what is called the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s favor.48 The researcher Scott Thumma, who studies megachurches, distinguished between inner-city megachurches, which he says tend to be activist, and suburban megachurches, which he says tend to emphasize the prosperity gospel.49
Increased immigration from Africa has also affected the Black religious landscape in the United States, as African immigrants by some measures tend to be more religiously active than U.S.-born Black adults. In 2009, there were 1.9 million African immigrants who self-identified as Black, up from roughly 10,000 in 1970.50 Approximately a dozen Christian denominations that originated in Africa have congregations in the United States, including the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and the Nigerian-based Church of the Lord.51 The survey findings show that African immigrants are more likely than U.S.-born Black adults to attend religious services weekly (54% vs. 32%), to say religion is very important to them (72% vs. 59%), and to say people of faith have a duty to convert nonbelievers (68% vs. 51%). They also appear to be more socially conservative. For example, they are more likely than U.S.-born Black Americans to say that a father should provide financially for a family and that a mother should take primary responsibility for raising children. And they are less likely to say homosexuality should be accepted by society.52
While by numerous measures of religious commitment Black Americans are more religious than the general population, like other Americans they have become more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated – that is, as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Still, Black Americans are less likely than U.S. adults overall to be religiously unaffiliated (21% vs. 27%).