The Black Preacher

During the Great Awakening of 1800 and for years after, many itinerant preachers found that their listeners for religious services often numbered in the thousands. To accommodate such large congregations, the camp meeting was institutionalized. These large-scale worship services were especially successful in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee, where many clergymen from the North traveled. This new form of divine worship, sometimes attracting as many as 20,000 or more at events such as the one held at Cane Ridge, Ky., included black as well as white worshipers. Although this form of worship never caught on in the Northeast, it was highly successful in the South and Southwest. Many black ministers were inspired to preach at such gatherings, though at first only to other blacks, and a characteristic oral style of delivery emerged from this experience.

These sermons were characterized by the preacher's chanting the Word of God rather than delivering it conventionally. The sermon began traditionally enough with a statement of the day's text and its application to contemporary morals. Then, as the preacher got further into the day's message, he began to chant his lines, the metrics and time intervals of the lines became more and more regular and consistent, and as he became further imbued with the Holy Spirit, the preacher's delivery slid into song. The sermons were-and still are-characterized by an increase in emotional and spiritual intensity, expressed by the gradual transition from conventional pulpit oratorical style, through chanting, to highly emotional singing. Many black folk preachers are excellent singers and have had several years' experience with church choirs, if not on the professional stage. Quite a number have been choirmasters, and nearly all these men have from an early age attended church services in which music played a major role. A musical sense has thus been acquired, and its rhythms, intonations, timbres, and verbal phrasing are inextricable parts of the tradition.

Foreign visitors to black church services in the early 19th century remarked not only on the minister's chanting but on the congregation's equally emotional responses. Such witnesses were appalled by the unbridled emotionalism of such services.

The African heritage of black preachers influenced the style of their performances and of the congregations' responses. The African folksong tradition of call-and-response was carried over; not only was the preacher directly in this tradition, but in holy services the congregants felt free to call out to the preacher, or to the other congregants, as the Spirit moved them. The service became, and is still, however, something more than the regulated, orchestrated, and patterned response of one individual or group to another; in black services each member of the congregation actually creates his or her own sacred communion simultaneously with the holy service that is proceeding. Members of the congregation call out spontaneously, and such exclamations may not have been anticipated by the minister.

During a service in which the preacher has been successful in arousing the Spirit of the Lord or in bringing his congregation to a high emotional level, individual cries are frequent, some of the congregation will enter an altered state during which they may lose consciousness or dance seemingly involuntarily, and the preacher will be visibly ecstatic as well. Many people laugh aloud; a few cry unashamedly. When the service is over, they will say that they have had a happy time.

Research on this phenomenon suggests that while much of the sermon cannot possibly be heard distinctly, something is being communicated, and the congregation will feel that it has received God's Word. This may happen because many of the congregation know the Bible almost as thoroughly as does the preacher, and they creatively anticipate his message; also, in these services the congregation participates actively and creatively in the service, and may for long periods be "hearing" their own celebrations.

Both preacher and flock share many common traditions, no only inherited Christianity but also an Afro-American interpretation of that faith flavored by the experience of living in the South. Few preachers have had extensive seminary training; and many of their beliefs, like those of their congregations, are derived from popular traditions. For instance, many preachers prefer to use popular, folk versions of stories and parables in Scripture. Hence, although their Christianity is in the main "official," it is heavily influenced by folkloric elements. In some urban areas these preachers are often known as "old-time" country preachers," though many of them have migrated away from the rural South to the urban North. The Reverend C. L. Franklin, for instance, became most famous after he left the South and moved to Detroit.

The minsters do not use manuscripts but believe that when they are in front of congregations the Holy Ghost is using them to communicate His message to the people. This spontaneous preaching style is accurately and movingly reproduced by William Faulkner in the last portion of Sound and the Fury. In those pages the Reverend Shegog from St. Louis delivers a moving sermon in a style indistinguishable from the authentic oral performance. Significantly, this sermon is placed near the novel's conclusion; Faulkner recognized the great emotive and spiritual power that is the potential of this medium and chose to end his book on an affirming note.

Some white preacher also still preach in this mode; the style is not the exclusive property of one ethnic group. But the practitioners are mostly black and usually Methodist or Baptist. The practice is characteristically southern, though many preachers have now moved to the cities of the North and to the Pacific Southwest. These preachers continue to evoke the South in their services. Many professional black singers have vocal qualities that carry heavy echoes of this preaching style. Examples are Aretha Franklin (daughter or the Reverend C.L. Franklin), Sarah Vaughn, and Lou Rawls. Much of the "Motown Sound" owes a debt to southern country preaching.

The influence of black folk preachers on the nation extends well beyond the contributions of musical entertainment and popular arts. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a "spiritual" preacher whose "I Have a Dream" speech was in large measure a sermon on racial equality; he is known for this oral performance, which profoundly moved his listeners, regardless of their race or ethnic backgrounds. Today, this art is most prominently practiced by Chicago's Jesse Jackson, a southerner by birth and raising. His address to the Democratic National Convention (1984) was a spontaneous sermon, a moving oration delivered by electronic media to the nation and the world.

Bruce A. Rosenberg
Brown University


From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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