Of the Faith of Fathers examines the religion of the Negro people in post-Emancipation America. He begins the essay with an anecdotal summary of his first experience with the Southern Negro Church. Du Bois states that his experience at the Negro church was the opposite of what he had been used to; instead of engaging in a somber service, Southern Black worship relied on many different, and vivid, factors. This Church, as it had been established initially as a slave religion, relied on a preacher, music, and frenzy. The role of the Preacher, as the center of the black church, changed depending on geography and time. He was, however, always an essential center of the Church.
Throughout his visit, Du Bois also noted how the services were filled with a distinct Negro spiritual. The music was a rhythmic and sad melody, which got stronger as the black congregation shared its despair and hostility. These feelings, derived from slavery, made the black Church experience a distinct once. Another defining characteristic of the Southern black Church was shouting. These churchgoers shouted to feel a connection to God, which was necessary during slavery and directly after it. Du Bois argues that these rituals needed to be studied so that America could not understand not only American history, but also the history of the African-American in American history.
He provides three questions that theorists may ask when studying this group. They first needed to study the meaning of slavery. Secondly, they needed to study how blacks felt about being in the New World. Finally, there needed to be an analysis of what was good and what was evil. During and after slavery, the distinction between good and evil was a difficult one to make, particularly because the Negro had been under harsh rule for so long. Du Bois also contends that both the Baptist and Methodist religions owed their condition to the Negro, for it was their spirit and resilience that brought these religions to prominence in the United States. A holistic study of American history would provide a more precise account of the Negro condition, and of the importance of religion.
Du Bois continues by explaining that the Negro Church was the center of black social life. This was just not a venue for worship, but also a gathering place for societal meetings and celebrations. He contends that by using churches as their social center, the African-American community further proved the existence of the color line. Only the “Negro people” (Du Bois, Page 137) attended these church services and any other events held within this venue, thus proving the extent of the color line. Du Bois continues by providing the reader with a history of the black church. In 1890, he states, there were 24,000 black churches.
Du Bois continues by providing the reader with a basic historical background on the black religion in the United States. This religion began back in tribal Africa, where the clan chief spearheaded religious life. For this group of people, nature worship served as religion, for it was all they new. After being transported on slave ships from Africa to the West Indian sugar fields and the United States, this changed. The organization of the plantation made it so that there no longer was a chief in charge, and so that the plantation owner became the center of religion.
These owners embraced he Christian religion, as it provided a way in which to subdue slaves into submission. While the role of the chief disappeared, there remained a different, but equally important figurehead: the medicine man. The medicine man, a person who was in charge of providing cures for ailing followers, was more of a creator of voodoo. This first church, thus, was not really Christian, but more a conglomeration of both African and Christian religions. It was, mostly, voodooism.
The journey of the establishment of the black church was a long and hard one. Initially, the unorganized relation led to having no central leaders or powers. As slaves were freed from slavery and the church began to to be more centralized, the Negro Church developed into an almost entirely Baptist and Methodist one. This formal establishment of a religion was preceded by the Negro's religious beliefs throughout their enslavement. Initially, confinement to plantations resulted in disconnected black religions throughout the Southern US. After Emancipation, however, many Negroes joined Methodist and Baptist congregations.
The Negro Church, Du Bois argue, does not have many differences from the white churches. The people attending these institutions were just getting situated to their new role as free men in a new nation, and were affected by religious forces that ultimately shaped them as a group. Churches in both communities do not tend toward judgment or politics, instead remaining separate in their houses of worship, but equal in their beliefs.
Throughout this essay, Du Bois uses the Negro Church as a symbol for the black community. Although the church was used as a form to encourage submission by whites, blacks used it in order to promote faith and also to promote hope: hope that they would be free from the injustices from the era, and hope that they would eventually gain all the rights they needed. These Church services, in order to engage the Negro people, used songs from the past.
The Preacher, throughout this chapter, holds a very significant position. While in white communities, teachers and doctors held prominent positions, the preacher held the highest position within black society. This was not only because of their reliance on faith, but also because education was so limited that very few actually had the opportunity to pursue other careers. He is the center at all political gatherings.
Because of the limits of education in other venues, the preacher also serves as a political leader and an idealist. His main goal was to inspire hope for the Negro people. It was the preacher that allowed for the African-American group to forget about its sorrows and pursue opportunities.
Christianity was a very effective religion for African-Americans, as it encouraged African-Americans to be passive and to rely on morality. At the time, the South was not concerned with changing racial relations for blacks and whites. Christianity, thus, was used because it aided African-Americans into assimilating into their new positions. It also promoted their submission within society, which made acclimation much easier.
While Christianity was a white religion, the black people had been able to adapt it and make it their own. They had songs which they sang at these services, and demonstrated their reliance on religion in different ways. This group shouted in order to demonstrate that they had heard and felt the Spirit of the Lord. According to Du Bois, this expression of emotion served to subdue a group of people that had previously faced the worst of all: slavery.