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Renaissance and Religion in 20th Century Black America

African American news from Pasadena - Dr. Hopkins on Renaissance & ReligionAt its height, the renaissance movement in Black America was taking root throughout the nation’s inter cities; what began in Harlem, New York, and mirrored in such cities as Chicago and Los Angeles, alike, the rise and visibility of Black culture, pride and perspective began to secure its place as a mainstay in larger American culture. This was a time of Black enlightenment in many voices. Self pride and self actualizing voices began to articulate themselves via art, literature, music and poetry. Although much has been said on this subject, little has been mentioned about its effects on and relation to the Black church during this same time. Just how much of an effect did this movement have on the Black church and, in turn, how much of it was inspired by the church? It has long been suggested that the most educated person in the Black community was the Black preacher. This was largely true up until this particular period. The Harlem Renaissance produced what came to be known as the “New Negro” who, despite being associated with the Black church, was equally educated and more so, savvy. The phrase, ‘New Negro,’ coined from the literary preamble of the time, was taken from Alain Locke’s work bearing the same title. Within this work, however, there is little mention of the significance of the Black church.

During the renaissance movement, the dominant Black anchor institution up to this point was far from silent. Although there was little significant mention of the Black church, in the literature, poetry, music and art, the Black church did, indeed thrive and to an extent resist the cultural and humanistic strivings of the renaissance. During this time some of the largest Black churches in America included Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem (led by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.), and Immanuel Church of God in Christ along with the California Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ (led by Bishop Samuel Crouch). These two particular churches numbered upward to 5,000 plus members, alone.  Also originating from Harlem during this time was Father Divine and Sweet Daddy Grace. In California, COGIC, under the leadership of Crouch, founded, Crouch Temple which essentially became the focal point of religious Pentecostal life in Los Angeles; the growth of this church ensued from the well known Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival (led by William J. Seymour). At its height, COGIC life in Los Angeles flourished as the fastest growing regional religious movement throughout America. Both Immanuel Temple and Crouch Temple were located within the Central Avenue District, the epicenter of Black Renaissance in Los Angeles.

The Black church seems to have initially resisted the influence and strides of the renaissance movement. And even though this period lasted for only a short time, roughly two decades, its later impact upon the Black church eventually loomed large. The “so-called” New Negro within Black church circles appeared essentially at the end of the renaissance period, especially with the emergence of Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. These individuals, to borrow from Locke’s emphasis regarding the renaissance’s objective on ‘Modernizing Black America,’ became the modernized intellectual Black theological elite.   

[Dr. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins is Director of J.D.Institute and is a Professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA. He is the author of “Ecclesiastes” in the African Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures through Africa and the African Diaspora (Fortress Press), 2009, and “Duty or Responsibility? The African American Evangelical’s Identity” in the Journal of African American Christian Thought 1.  Dr. Hopkins is available for preaching, lecturing, speaking, and conducting workshops or seminars. You may contact him at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .]

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