The Church in the Southern Black Community



St. John A.M.E. Church, Nashville, Tenn.

African Americans transformed Protestant Christianity in the American South. No longer just a branch of the religion, Protestantism in the South during the period from roughly 1860 to 1930 became the central institution of daily life. Prior to this period, in the 1770s during a time of evangelization, large numbers of slaves converted to the Methodist and Baptist faiths. These religions promoted the idea that all Christians were equal before God, which provided hope for those in bondage. They also encouraged expressive forms of religion such as clapping, dancing, and singing, which was similar to African worship practices. Though many slave owners enforced strict obedience from their slaves during church services, an “invisible institution” arose which allowed African Americans to worship how they wished. Religion was also used as a mechanism for slaves to cope with their suffering under slavery.

After emancipation in 1863, founding and developing Black churches was an important aspect of the larger task for former slaves to reunite with their families, to find jobs, and to reintegrate into society as free people. Already long-freed northern African Americans saw this as an opportunity to spread Northern churches to the South. Most southern African Americans chose to join independent black denominations, from which the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the National Baptist Convention were founded. These black denominations were substantially different from the white protestant churches of the South, mostly due to their highly expressive practices of worship.


The “Church in the Southern Black Community” collection is composed of biographies, church documents, sermons, histories, encyclopedias and other such texts assembled by the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s “Documenting the American South” project. This covers a huge range of topics about African American religion in the South during the American Nadir. Using text mining tools, this large corpus of texts can more easily be managed.

As the word cloud above suggests, the church in the Southern black community is complex and covers several different themes. This word cloud shows that within the texts there are mentions of clergy, denominations, education, race relations, slavery, and several other topics.

This TermsBerry is similar to a word cloud, but offers a bit more information. The words in the larger bubbles appear most frequently throughout the corpus. By hovering over a word, the TermsBerry shows which words co-occur with it (darker means a stronger link). The word “church” collocates with “baptist,” “methodist,” and “episcopal” revealing that the different denominations are a major discussion topic within the corpus.