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The Impact and Importance of Gullah Traditions in the Black Church

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

You’re Welcomed By Sonja Griffin Evans

Religion is a topic that can create stress and debate in social circles, because it can be so intensely personal to people. The impact of the black church in the lives of Black people has always been a deep rooted basis for or very existence. In the Black family, having some strong connection to a church, regardless of the denomination, is as much a part of the family as its structure. 

Since slavery, the Black church provided spiritual and religious sustenance to the Black community. The Black church has always been the foundation for information, education, grassroots political support or opposition and community outreach and continues to remain the most important element that has been created from the Black community. 

Traditionally, the Black church has served several purposes. In addition to its being a praise house for worship, the church was also a place of safety and the prime source of information for slaves. Having access to large numbers on a regular basis, enabled pastors to share information as well as to influence congregations into action regarding a situation or to support a particular candidate. Even today, politicians make visiting large Black churches a camping stop a priority because the endorsement from a Pastors goes along way within the congregation. The “power of the pulpit” became and still remains today.

By Sonja Griffin Evans

The Black church has always been instrumental in shaping, and even dictating the behaviors of its congregants in several ways; based from biblical scriptures and individual cultural traditions that have been passed down.  It was the central meeting place for all of the events and issues that were important to the community. 

One of the most important roles that the black church has played, has been as a catalyst for change in the Black community. Its stand against inequality made it a focal point in the Civil Rights movement.  Black churches in America have long been recognized as the most independent, stable, and dominant institutions in black communities. The influential strength of the Black church coupled with its institutional importance and reverence within the community, over time, caused it to become the focus and target of racial violence throughout the South. The impact of the church was so significant, that the symbol of the church; a cross, became what the KKK chose to burn in an effort to instill fear and terror in the minds of Black parishioners and hinder its growth. In fact, however, the reverse happened. Instead of caving to pressures meant to suppress and diminish its presence, the Black church was fortified and grew in its membership and influence.  Regardless of the symbolic tradition, various aspects of African traditions coupled with European influences have been enfolded into the evolution of the Black church.

Hilton Head Island is no different in its religious roots. The historic churches of the island date back over 150 years. Hilton Head’s religious foundation is built on churches that began on historic Beach City Road in Mitchelville in 1863 with the First African Baptist Church, which was pastored by Reverend Abraham Murchison, an escaped slave preacher, who baptized 1,000’s of freedman and helped to recruit Union soldiers. The church eventually split into several other churches; St. James Baptist in 1886, Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist in 1887, Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1892 and Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist in 1914. To date, the state has erected historic markers recognizing the importance of the island’s churches at First African, St. James and Queen Chapel. 

Each of these churches stand as the spiritual core of the island’s religious community.  As the population on the island grew, so did each of the churches. The number of churches and their differences in worship or denominations, however, did not change the relationship and interconnectivity between them. The congregations would rotate their services between each of the locations every three months. In between the time that they were not in the church, services would be held in the praise houses three times a week. The practice of the congregations coming together to share services, celebrations and church anniversaries still continues today.        

Early African Influences

Africans from the west coast of Africa, were known for using drums as a form of communication from village to village, as well as a type of coded messaging, not dissimilar from Morse code, as a way to spread information over long distances as well as amongst themselves without sharing the message with outsiders. Eventually, slave owners became aware of the practice, and banned slaves from using drums, as demonstrated in the following South Carolina law, which eventually spread throughout all of the slave states:

It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”

— Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740).

Without access to drums, slaves began to use whatever was handy: sticks, logs, spoons and even their own bodies to imitate the sounds of a drum to make a beat. Even through adaptation and mutation over time, the original basis of traditional communication still remains today and played an important part in the evolution of music; from rap to hip hop, jazz, blues and pop.   

The Cultural Importance of the Black Church 

C. Eric Lincoln sums up the multi-dimensional role of religion, and the Black Church in the African American community perfectly when he says religion made:

“the Black man’s pilgrimage in America less onerous. [It was] the organizing principle around which his life was structured. His church was his school, his forum, his political arena, his social club, his art gallery, his conservatory of music… His religion was his fellowship with man, his audience with God… It was the particular sustaining force which gave him the strength to endure when endurance gave no promise, and the courage to be creative in the face of his own dehumanization.”

In most Black communities in America, on corner after corner, churches are visible and accessible to the masses, and consistent with its history, the Black church continues to be the spiritual backbone of the community. Its growth and vibrancy is related to its ability to be engaged in the relevant day-to-day issues that affect the lives of the congregation. Society continues to change, and most churches have evolved in order to remain the vital part of the community that they have always been. The multi-dimensional role that the church played in the past continues today, so in addition to its traditional religious role, it continues to be a social and cultural anchor, and many churches include other quality of life, and life style elements like self-improvement classes, adult education, child care, and in some cases financial support for indigent members. 

Black survival looked different 150 years ago from what it looks like today, but there is still great urgency and need for the church to provide support for the Black community beyond spiritual guidance. The Black church has the important responsibility of continuously maintaining an evolutionary role in today’s society as the vehicle for delivering spirituality, culture and empowerment in every aspect of the Black experience.  If it is to remain relevant and influential, both the church leadership and congregation need to stay connected to the pulse of the community. To some extent, the church has to change as times change to address the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of the Black community. 

For more articles on religious practices in Gullah Religion click here.

For more sections about Life Before The Bridge on Hilton Head Island | Education, Lifestyle, Medicine, Religion

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