Gullah Religious Traditions
By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Hilton Head Island’s Deep Religious Roots
The historic Black churches of Hilton Head Island date back more than 150 years. The history begins in 1863 on Beach City Road in Mitchelville with the First African Baptist Church, which was pastored by Reverend Abraham Murchison, an escaped slave preacher. Reverend Murchison is also remembered because he baptized 1,000’s of freedman and helped to recruit Union soldiers. First African Baptist Church eventually split into several other churches to better serve the native islanders in the Hilton Head community. They are: St. James Baptist Church (1886); Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church (1887); Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (1892), and Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church (1914). To honor this religious history, the state of South Carolina has erected historic markers recognizing First African, St. James and Queen Chapel.
Collectively, the churches continue to stand as the spiritual core of the Hilton Head Island’s religious community. As the population on the island grew, so did each of the churches. However, their different denominations and worship traditions did not change their interconnectivity or the way they relate to each other. In the beginning, the congregations rotated services between each of the locations every three months.
The practice of the congregations coming together to share services, celebrations and church anniversaries still continues today.
Even though some of the African traditions that the Gullah maintained within the church might not continue to be consistently followed, it doesn’t mean that they are forgotten. One such African tradition is of the ring shout. In a time when slaves did not have access to instruments, the ability to make music or a beat was made from their using objects found close by or in most cases, their bodies. Drums were made from whatever raw materials that were available.
A ring shout was used in different ways. Often used as a discreet form of communicating messages to one another, eventually it became a form of worship or a “grown folks only” form of entertainment. During the shout, an individual pounds a large tree branch on a hardwood floor to enthusiastically develop a rhythmic beat joined by a chant that involves and motivates the group into participation, usually in a call and response format. The chant, prayer or song, is not dissimilar in style to a modern-day rap that is accompanied by dancing, clapping and shuffling of feet to the beat. Each ring shout has a different meaning and version of the shout. In some cases, the shout is indicative of a particular family or area.
On Hilton Head, there are popular versions called the knee bone and the buzzard loop. The knee bone is one of the oldest known shouts around today. Named from its association to having your knees bent in prayer or at times when, as people traveled by boat, their knees were bent in a boat and their elbows were bent while rowing. Each body part important in enabling the boat to be propelled forward. The buzzard loop was used more for entertainment, by placing a towel on the floor and repeating what was heard. This shout was used at times for coded messages within the shout. If someone was preparing to run the words “move Daniel move eagle fly” would be sung to send the message that the coast is clear for you to go.
Jumping the Broom
The earliest African indicators of wedding ceremonies including jumping the broom, comes from the West African country of Ghana. In Ghana, a broom symbolized the ability to sweep away wrongs from the past and a “cleaning” of the person’s future. A bride’s jumping over the broom was also considered a confirmation of her accepting domestication and a willingness to keep her future home clean. During the ceremony, waving brooms over the couple’s heads was also believed to ward off evil spirits. Over time, the inclusion of a broom became a common wedding ritual, making the physical act of jumping the broom a tradition that came from the Ghanaian Marriage Ritual of placing two large sticks on the ground to represent the structure of the new couple’s home together, with the bristles of the broom being gathered together, indicating those family members that have been scattered in other places. The fact that a broom consists of several fibers tied together, is indicative of God’s hand in bringing the couple together, reinforcing the strength of the couple’s union.
At a time when slaves were considered property, and not worthy of the legalities of marriage, the act of jumping the broom was a visual confirmation of the couple’s commitment in marriage prior to slaves being able to include the exchanging of rings as a symbolic gesture of their marriage. Finally, at a time when dignity and legitimacy was a daily struggle, the addition of this ritual gives homage to their African heritage and connection to their African roots.
Another African tradition that was common in Gullah religion is called Seeking. Considered a spiritual rite of maturity and passage into adulthood as well as membership into the church, the practice to seeking diminished only a few generations ago. Seeking has been described as a time when an adolescent or young adult can prove their spiritual maturity and connection through a period of self-reflection and discovery. When a person is seeking, they were identified by having a cloth string with a nine knots around it that was then tied around their forehead. The knots were believed to help you remember your dream and the string was used as an indication to others that the person was in isolation.
Seeking was often spent outside alone, praying and sometimes sleeping in the woods. During this process, which could last from a few days to a month, “till you got through” the rite of passage. Once the individual is motivated by thoughts or dreams, which once realized, identifies their spiritual mother, father or guide, as the individual who can interpret their dream which is not to be shared with anyone other than the guide. Once the guide challenges the dream and feels that spiritual maturity has been achieved, they were then baptized and made a member of the church.
Watch Night Service
Freedom’s Eve – The Birth of Reconstruction
During slavery, the anticipation of the end of slavery and oppression, as you could imagine, was thought of with tremendous expectation. At the time the rumor of Emancipation was circulating, the first Freedom’s Eve was created throughout most of the Black churches as a symbolic way of celebrating the end of slavery. Freedom’s Eve became a tradition that still brings us together on January 1st every year to celebrate “how we got over.” The tradition of this celebration continues to consist of African American descendants of slaves entering into a new year in some cases, on their knees with praise and worship.
January 1, 2018, marked the 154th anniversary of Freedom’s Eve celebrations. The term, Freedom’s Eve is not widely used anymore, however, the concept was inspired from celebration services held by the Christian Moravian church in the Czech Republic in the 1700’s called a Watch Night Service. The practice of the New Year’s Eve Watch Night celebration was eventually adopted by the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley. The event brought Methodists together for a time of reflection of their faith with a focus on the previous year in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. By 1770, the first Watch Night Service was brought to the United States at St. George’s Methodist Church. The adoption of the practice into the Black church is credited to two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who attended the first American Watch Night Service. The slaves, eventually became the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.).
The Watch Night tradition became the inspiration for not only celebration of Freedom’s Eve for African Americans, but also as a remembrance of the slave’s journey toward freedom. The merging of tradition came as a symbolic historical marker on December 31st 1862, when during the Civil War, freed blacks and as well as slaves gathered in churches to wait for confirmation kneeling in praise and worship for Lincoln to sign into law the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the Watch Night Service is mostly associated with Black churches regardless of the denomination. The tradition of gathering at church on New Year’s Eve to usher in the new year in prayer and worship is one that will continue for years to come.
In most Black communities in America, corner after corner, churches are visible and accessible to the masses. There is no question as to the value and importance to the Black community that the Black church has contributed in the history of the United States. Like so many years ago, the Black church continues to be the spiritual backbone of the community. As such, the church needs to be connected to and vocal on the relevant day to day issues that affect the lives of the congregation. As society has changed, so has the church in an effort to remain a vibrant and relevant part of the community. It’s vital role as a traditional religious and cultural anchor is unchanged and is important. Its role has grown to include other lifestyle elements like self-improvement classes, adult education and in some cases financial support for indigent members. As before, and today, it is necessary for the Black church to have an influential voice. In order for its voice to be heard, it requires the consistent infusion of support and dedication from not only its members, but it’s leadership, in order to keep itself grounded to the pulse of the community’s needs.
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.
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If only our ministers would relate some of the facts to the congregation.