December 10, 2005

Sanctification, Liberations, and Black Worship

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Sanctification, Liberations, and Black Worship
By James H. Cone

"Black American spirituality was born in the context of the struggle for justice…. When the meaning of sanctification is formed in the social context of an oppressed community in struggle for liberation, it is difficult to separate the experience of holiness from the spiritual empowerment to change the existing societal arrangements."

MY concern in this article is to examine the spiritual foundation of black worship as reflected in its components of preaching, singing, shouting, conversion, prayer, and testimony. Hopefully I will be able to clarify the connection between the experience of holiness in worship and the struggle for political justice in the larger society.


Black worship is essentially a spiritual experience of the truth of black life. The experience is spiritual because the people encounter the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Black worship is truthful because the Spirit's presence authenticates their experience of freedom by empowering them with courage and strength to bear witness in their present existence, what they know is coming in God's own eschatological future.

Have I got a witness?
Certainly Lord!
Have I got a witness?
Certainly Lord!
Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.

This call and response is an essential element of the black worship style. Black worship is a community happening, wherein the people experience the truth of their lives as lived together in the struggle of


James H. Cone is Charles A. Briggs Professor of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary, New York. He has been prominent in the development of a "black theology" movement and is the author of such well-known books as Black Theology and Black Power (1969), A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), The Spirituals and the Blues (1972), and God of theOppressed (1975). The substance of this article was delivered as an address by Dr. Cone at the Sixth Oxford Institute on Methodist Theological Studies, Lincoln College, Oxford, England, July, 1977.

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freedom and held together by God's Spirit. There is no understanding of black worship apart from the presence of the Spirit who descends upon the gathered community, lighting a spiritual fire in their hearts. The divine Spirit is not a metaphysical entity but rather the power of Jesus, who breaks into the lives of the people giving them a new song to sing as confirmation of God's presence with them in historical struggle. It is the presence of the divine Spirit who accounts for the intensity in which black people engage in worship. There is no understanding of black worship apart from the rhythm of the song and sermon, the passion of prayer and testimony, the ecstasy of the shout and conversion as the people project their humanity in the togetherness of the Spirit.

The black church congregation is an eschatological community that lives as if the end of time is already at hand. The difference between the earliest Christian community as an eschatological congregation and the black church community is this: The post-Easter community expected a complete cosmic transformation in Jesus' immediate return because the end of time was at hand; the eschatological significance of the black community is found in the people believing that the Spirit of Jesus is coming to visit them in the worship service each time two or three are gathered in his name, and to bestow upon them a new vision of their future humanity. This eschatological revolution is not so much a cosmic change as it is a change in the people's identity, wherein they are no longer named by the world but named by the Spirit of Jesus. Roberta Flack expressed the significance of this eschatological change in the people's identity in her singing, "I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name. He told me that the world will turn away from you, child, if I changed your name." This change in identity not only affects one's relationship with the world but also with one's immediate family. "He told me that your father and mother won't know you, child, if I changed your name." Because the reality of the Spirit's liberating and sanctifying presence is so overwhelming on the believer's identity, the believer can still say with assurance: "I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name."1

The Holy Spirit's presence with the people is a liberating experience. Black people who have been humiliated and oppressed by the structures of white society six days of the week, gather together each Sunday morning in order to experience another definition of their humanity. The transition from Saturday to Sunday is not just a chronological change from the seventh to the first day of the week. It is rather a rupture in time, a Kairos-event which produces a radical transformation in the people's identity. The janitor becomes the chairperson of the Deacon Board; the maid becomes the president of Stewardess Board Number I. Everybody becomes Mr. and Mrs., or Brother and Sister. The last becomes first, making a radical change in New York, 1969.


1 See Roberta Flack's record album, "First Take," Atlantic Recording Corp.,

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the perception of self and one's calling in the society. Every person becomes somebody, and one can see the people's recognition of their new found identity by the way they walk and talk and "carry themselves." They walk with a rhythm of an assurance that they know where they are going, and they talk as if they know the truth about which they speak. It is this experience of being radically transformed by the power of the Spirit that defines the primary style of black worship. This transformation is found not only in the titles of Deacons, Stewardesses, Trustees, and Ushers, but also in the excitement of the entire congregation at worship. To be at the end of time where one has been given a new name requires a passionate response with the felt power of the Spirit in one's heart.

In the act of worship itself, the experience of liberation becomes a constituent of the community's being. In this context, liberation is not exclusively a political event but also an eschatological happening. It is the power of God's Spirit invading the lives of the people, "buildin' them up where they are torn down and proppin' them up on every leanin' side." When a song is sung right and the sermon is delivered in response to the Spirit, the people experience the eschatological presence of God in their midst. Liberation is no longer a future event, but a present happening in the worship itself. That is why it is hard to sit still in a black worship service. For the people claim that "if you don't put anything into the service, you sure won't get anything out of it." Black worship demands involvement. Sometimes a sister does not plan to participate too passionately, but before she knows what is happening "a little fire starts to burning and a little prayer-wheel starts to turning in her heart." In response to the Spirit and its liberating presence, she begins to move to the Spirit's power. How and when she moves depends upon the way the Spirit touches her soul and engages her in the dynamics of the community at worship. She may acknowledge the Spirit's presence with a song.

Everytime I feel the spirit
Moving in my heart I will pray.
Every time I feel the spirit
Moving in my heart I will pray.

Upon the mountain my Lord spoke.
Out of His mouth came fire and smoke.
In the valley on my knees,
Asked my Lord, Have mercy, please.

Everytime I feel the spirit
Moving in my heart I will pray….

Song is only one possible response to the Spirit's presence. God's Spirit also may cause a person to preach, pray, or testify. "I believe I will testify for what the Lord has done for me" is an often-heard response in the black church. But more often the presence of the Spirit elicits what W. E. B. DuBois called the "Frenzy" 2 and what the people


2 See his The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Fawcett, 1968), pp. 141f.

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call the "shout," which refers not to sound but to bodily movement. "When the Lord gets ready," the people claim, "you've got to move," that is, to "stand up and let the world know that you are not ashamed to be known as a child of God."

There is no authentic black worship service apart from the presence of the Spirit, God's power to be with and for the people. It is not unusual for the people to express their solidarity with John on the Island of Patmos and to say with him: "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10). Like John, black people believe that to be in the Spirit is to experience the power of another presence in their midst. The Spirit is God's guarantee that the little ones are never, no not ever, left alone in their struggle for freedom. The Spirit is God's way of being with the people, enabling them to shout for joy when the people have no empirical evidence in their lives to warrant happiness. The Spirit sometimes makes you run and clap your hands; at other times, you want just to sit still and perhaps pat your feet, wave your hands, and hum the melody of a song: "Ain't no harm to praise the Lord."

It is difficult for an outsider to understand what is going on in a black worship service. To know what is happening in this eschatological event, one cannot approach this experience as a detached observer in the role of a sociologist of religion or as a psychologist, looking for an explanation not found in the life-experiences of the people. One must come as a participant in black reality, willing to be transformed by one's encounter with the Spirit. Those who are willing to receive the Spirit, being open to what God has in store, will probably understand what the people mean when they sing:

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Since I laid my burdens down.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Since I laid my burdens down.

I'm going home to live with Jesus,
Since I laid my burdens down.
I'm going home to live with Jesus,
Since I laid my burdens down.

It is the people's response to the presence of the Spirit that creates the unique style of black worship. The style of black worship is a constituent of its content, and both elements point to the theme of liberation. Unlike whites who often drive a wedge between content and style in worship (as in their secular-sacred distinction), blacks believe that a sermon's content is inseparable from the way in which it is proclaimed. Blacks are deeply concerned about how things are said in prayer and testimony and their effect upon those who hear it. The way I say "I love the Lord, he heard my cry" cannot be separated from my intended meaning as derived from my existential and historical setting. For example, if I am one who has just escaped from slavery and my affirmation is motivated by that event, I will express my faith-claim with the passion and ecstasy of one who was once lost and now found. There will be no detachment in my proclamation of freedom. Only

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those who do not know bondage existentially can speak of liberation "objectively." Only those who have not been in the "valley of death" can sing the songs of Zion as if they are uninvolved. Black worship is derived from the meeting with the Lord in the struggle to be free. If one has not met the Spirit of God in the struggle for freedom, there can be no joy and no reason to sing with ecstatic passion "I am so glad that trouble don't last always."


There are six principal components of black worship: preaching, singing, shouting, conversion, prayer, and testimony.

Expressing his admiration for the black preacher, W. E. B. DuBois called him, among other things, "a leader, a politician, an orator, a 'boss,' an intriguer, an idealist."3 But DuBois did not include "prophet" in his list, certainly the black preacher's most important office. The black preacher is primarily a prophet who speaks God's truth to the people. The sermon therefore is a prophetic oration wherein the preacher "tells it like it is" according to the divine Spirit who speaks through the preacher.

In the black church, the sermon is not intended to be an intellectual discourse on things divine or human. That would make the preached Word a human word and thus dependent upon the intellectual capacity of the preacher. In order to separate the preached Word from ordinary human discourse and thereby connect it with prophecy, the black church emphasizes the role of the Spirit in preaching. No one is an authentic preacher in the black church tradition until called by the Spirit. No person, according to this tradition, should decide to enter the ministry on his or her own volition. Preaching is not a human choice; it is a divine choice. Just as God called Amos from Tekoa, Jeremiah while he was only a youth, Isaiah in the temple, and Paul on the Damascus road, so also God speaks directly to those set aside for the ministry. It is expected that the preacher will give an account of this calling, about how and when the Lord touched a soul and set a person aside for the proclamation of divine truth. Some preachers testify that it was late one Wednesday evening or early one Thursday morning. There is no rigidity about the time or even how the call came. But what is important is the authenticity of the call so that the people know that they are encountering God's Word through the sermon's oration, and not simply the personal interest of a given preacher.

In the black tradition, preaching as prophecy is essentially telling God's story. "Telling the story" is the essence of black preaching. It means proclaiming with appropriate rhythm and passion the connection between the Bible and the history of black people. What has the Scripture to do with our life in white society and the struggle to be somebody in it? To answer that question depends upon the capacity of the preacher to tell God's story so that the people will experience its


3 Ibid., p. 141.

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liberating presence in their midst. That is why the people always ask of every preacher: "Can the Reverend tell the story?" To tell the story is to act out with the rhythm of one's voice and the movement of the body, the truth about which one speaks. We can say of the black preacher what B.D. Napier says about the Old Testament prophet: "The symbolic acts of the prophets are simply graphic, pictorial extensions of the Word, possessing both for the prophet and for his observers-bearers a quality of realism probably unfathomable psychologically to the western mind."4

If the people do not say "Amen" or some other passionate response, this usually means that the Spirit has chosen not to speak through the preacher at that time. The absence of the Spirit could mean that the preacher was dependent too much on his own capacity to speak or that the congregation was too involved in its own personal quarrels. Whatever the case, the absence of a "hallelujah" and "praise the Lord" when the preacher speaks God's Word is uncharacteristic of a black worship service. For these responses let the preacher know that be is on the right track, and that what he says rings true to the Spirit's presence in their midst. An "Amen" involves the people in the proclamation and commits them to the divine truth which they hear proclaimed. It means that the people recognize that what is being said is not just Reverend so-and-so's idea but God's claim upon the people.


Next to preaching, song is the most important ingredient in black worship. Most black people believe that the Spirit does not descend without a song. Song opens the hearts of the people for the coming of God's Spirit. That is why most church services are opened with a song and why most preachers would not attempt to preach without having the congregation sing a "special" song in order to prepare the people for God's Word. Song not only prepares the people for the Spirit, it also intensifies the power of the Spirit's presence with the people. Through song a certain mood is created in the congregation, and the people can experience the quality of the Spirit's presence. One cannot force the Spirit to come through manipulation. The Spirit always remains free of human choice. By singing a song, the people know whether they have the proper disposition for the coming of the Spirit.

In many black congregations, there are special songs which are led by particular people, and no one would dare sing another person's song. That would be a sure way of "killing the Spirit." I grew up in Macedonia AME Church in Bearden, Arkansas, and I can remember several people's songs in that congregation. My mother's song was:

This little light of mine,
I'm goin' to let it shine;
This little light of mine,
I'm goin' to let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine.


4 "Prophet, Prophetism" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 912.

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Sister Ora Wallace, unquestionably the best singer at Macedonia, would always sing:

I'm workin'on the buildin'
It's a true foundation,
I'm holdin' up the blood-stained banner for my Lord.
Just as soon as I get through,
Through working on the buildin'
I'm goin' up to heaven to get my reward.

Of all the favorite songs of Macedonia, I will never forget Sister Drew Chavis' song, because she sang it with such intensity and passion that it never failed to bring tears in the eyes of most people assembled:

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

By the time she reached the second stanza and began to sing "when my life is almost gone, Hear my cry, hear my call, Hold my hand lest I fall," the entire congregation was wet with tears, because they knew that they had to cross the River Jordan. Thus ' they waited patiently for the familiar lines in the third verse: "At the river I stand, Guide my feet, hold my hand. Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home."

It is possible to "have church," as the people would say, without outstanding preaching, but not without good singing. Good singing is indispensable for black worship, for it can fill the vacuum of a poor sermon. There are those who would say that a "good sermon ain't nothing but a song." In recent years, taking their cue from their white counterparts, many black churches have replaced congregational singing with choir singing, thereby limiting the people's involvement in worship. While choirs have their place in certain restricted contexts, the true black service involves the entire congregation in song.


Good singing naturally leads to shouting which is often evidence that one has been converted. As elements of black worship shouting and conversion belong together, because they are different moments in a single experience. To shout is to "get happy." It happens in the moment of conversion and in each renewal of that experience in the worshipping community. Shouting is one's response to the movement of the Spirit encountered in the worship service. For white intellectuals, including theologians, black folks shouting is perhaps the most bizarre event in their worship services. White intellectuals often identify shouting in the black church with similar events in white churches, trying to give a common sociological and psychological reason for the phenomenon. Such an approach is not only grossly misleading from my theological perspective but also from the premises and procedures that white scholars claim guided their examination. How is it possible to

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speak of a common sociological and psychological reason for religious ecstasy among blacks and whites when they have radically different social and political environments, thereby creating different psychological and religious orientations? It is absurd on sociological, psychological, and theological grounds to contend that the Ku Klux Klansman and the black person who escaped him are shouting for the same or similar reasons in their respective church services. Because whites and blacks have different historical and theological contexts out of which their worship services arise, they do not shout for the same reasons.

The authentic dimension of black people's shouting is found in the joy the people experience when God's Spirit visits their worship and stamps a new identity upon their personhood in contrast to their oppressed status in white society. This and this alone is what the shouting is about. This experience is so radical that the only way to speak of it is in terms of dying and rising again. It is a conversion experience. In one sense conversion is a once and for all event and is associated with baptism. In another sense, one is continually converted anew to the power of the Spirit and this is usually connected with shouting. "God struck me dead," recalled an ex-slave, connecting his conversion with the experience of dying.5 But on the other side of death is the resurrection, a new life and determination to live for God. Since one cannot stay on the "mountain top" but must return to the "valley of life," there is always the need to return to the place where one once stood, in order to experience anew the power of God's Spirit. This is what happens on Sunday morning at the "altar call." The preacher invites the entire congregation to renew their determination to stay on the "Lord's journey" and "to work in his vineyard."

The renewal of one's determination is often done with prayer and testimony. To testify is to stand before the congregation and bear witness to one's determination to keep on the "gospel shoes." "I don't know about you," a sister might say, "but I intend to make it to the end of my journey. I started on this journey twenty-five years ago, and I can't turn back now. I know the way is difficult and the road is rocky. I've been in the valley, and I have a few more mountains to climb. But I want you to know this morning that I ain't going to let a little trouble get in the way of me seeing my Jesus."


Prayer is the final element of black worship to be considered. Like the song, prayer creates the mood for the reception of God's Spirit, and is the occasion when the people specifically request Jesus to come and be with them. The people actually believe that they can call Jesus upon the "telephone of prayer" and tell him all about their troubles. They also contend that his line is never busy, and he is always ready to


5 See the book by that title edited by Clifton Johnson (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969).

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receive their call. It is not uncommon to hear the people say: "Jesus is on the main line, call him up and tell him what you want." Prayer is a way of communicating with the divine. That is why a black preacher seldom enters the pulpit without praying.

Harold Carter, a Baptist preacher in Baltimore, accurately describes the essence of black power: It is "more than a word spoken; it [is] an event to be experienced. The spirit of what happen[s] [is] as important as the words [being] spoken."6 Black prayer should be heard and not read because the rhythm of the language is as crucial to its meaning as is the content of the petition. To know what black prayer means, one needs to hear the deacon say:

Almighty and all wise God our heavenly Father, 'tis once more and again that a few of your beloved children are gathered together to call upon your holy name. We bow at your footstool, Master, to thank you for our spared lives. We thank you that we were able to get up this morning clothed in our right mind. For Master, since we met here, many have been snatched out of the land of the living and hurled into eternity. But through your goodness and mercy we have been spared to assemble ourselves here once more to call upon a Captain who has never lost a battle.7

At this point in the prayer, the deacon is ready to go through his lists of requests which normally relate to the bestowal of strength on the people to survive in a sin-sick world. When he concludes his requests, he moves toward his conclusion:

And now, Oh, Lord, when this your humble servant is done down here in this low land of sorrow; done sitting down and getting up; done being called everything but a child of God; Oh, when I am done, done, done, and this old world can afford me a home no longer, right soon in the morning, Lord, right soon in the morning, meet me at the River of Jordan, bid the waters to be still, tuck my little soul away in your chariot, and bear it away over yonder in the third heaven where every day will be a Sunday and my sorrows of this old world will have an end, is my prayer for Christ, my Redeemer's sake, and Amen and thank God.8

If one fact is clear from our examination of black worship, it is primarily a happening in the lives of the people. Both the content of what is said and the manner in which things are expressed emphasize that black worship is an eschatological event, the time when the people experience a liberation in their present existence for what they believe will be fully realized in God's coming future.


On the basis of our interpretation of black worship as an eschatological event, it is not difficult to understand why Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was so "confident


6 See his The Prayer Tradition of Black People (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1976), p. 21.
7 A prayer offered in South Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1928, reproduced in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps' Book of Negro Folklore (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1958), p. 256.
8 Ibid., pp. 256-257.

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that there was no religious sect or denomination [that] would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist.9 The process of salvation in terms of repentance, forgiveness, and new birth, so important for John Wesley, is also dominant in the black religious tradition, generally, and in black Methodism, in particular.10 Of course, these are also characteristic of other denominational traditions, notably among the Baptists and the Pentecostals, but we are, for the moment, especially interested in interpreting the black Methodist worship experience. Black worship, in any case, is the actualization of the story of salvation as experienced in the lives of oppressed black people.

The claim that the black church was influenced by Methodism, and other forms of evangelical Protestantism, does not mean that there are no essential differences among them. In fact, the differences are perhaps more important than the similarities. That was why Richard Allen and other blacks walked out of St. George Methodist Church of Philadelphia in 1787 and later founded the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in 1816. Similar events happened in other blackwhite Methodist contexts, giving rise to the AME Zion Church and much later the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.11 The central


9 See The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Right Reverend Richard Allen (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960), p. 29. For a biography of Allen, see Charles Wesley, Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1935); Carol V. R. George, Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of the Independent Black Churches, 1760- 1840 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
10 John Wesley's description of the order of salvation emphasizing repentance, justification, new birth, and assurance are prominently present in Richard Allen's account of his conversion experience. "I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost. Shortly after, I obtained mercy through the blood of Christ, and was constrained to exhort my old companions to seek the Lord. I went rejoicing for several days and was happy in the Lord, in conversing with many old, experienced Christians. I was brought under doubts, and was tempted to believe I was deceived, and was constrained to seek the Lord afresh. I went with my head bowed down for many days. My sins were a heavy burden. I was tempted to believe that there was no mercy for me. I cried to the Lord both night and day. One night I thought hell would be my portion. I cried unto Him who delighteth to hear the prayers of a poor sinner, and all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried. My soul was filled. I cried, enough for me-the Saviour died. My confidence was strengthened that the Lord, for Christ's sake, had heard my prayers and pardoned all my sins. I was constrained to go from house to house, exhorting my old companions, and telling to all around what a dear Saviour I had found." (Life Experience, pp. 15-16). The best account of John Wesley's doctrine is still Harold Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation (Stockholm, 1946).
11 The best history of black religion is Gayraud S. Wilmore's, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (New York: Doubleday, 1972). For an historical account of the rise of black Methodism, see Harry V. Richardson, Dark Salvation (New York: Doubleday, 1976). Unfortunately Richardson's book fails to point out the significance of the relation between black faith and history. Careful attention to the theological importance of their relationship would have disclosed the difference between black and white spirituality in Methodism. He seems to be unaware not only of the recent rise of black theology, but also of the theological importance of the rise of independent black Methodist churches and also of the emergence of the Black Methodist For Church Renewal in contemporary United Methodism. There is only one sentence on black theology and one short paragraph on BMCR in the context of about one page on "Protest Movements."
Although it is old, Carter G. Woodson, History of the Negro Church (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1945), is still a very important history of the black church. See also James M. Cone, "Negro Churches (in the United States)" Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 12, Macropaedia, 15th edition, 1974, pp. 936f.

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difference between black and white Methodism was and is the refusal of black people to accept racism and social injustice as reconcilable with the experience of conversion and new birth. We do not believe that it is possible to be sanctified and racist at the same time. If conversion and new birth mean anything at all, they must mean the historical actualization of the experience of salvation in works of piety and mercy on behalf of the oppressed of the land. John Wesley seemed to have recognized the historical vocation of the experience of salvation. He not only took a radical stand against slavery12 but also insisted on the social character of the experience of salvation. "Christianity," wrote Wesley, "is essentially a social religion; and … to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it."13 But John Wesley notwithstanding, North American Methodism, unfortunately, did not institutionalize his stand on slavery.14 The failure of white Methodism in this regard led to the creation of a white spirituality that is culturally determined by American values and thus indifferent to oppressed black people's struggle for social justice.

In contrast, black American spirituality was born in the context of the struggle for justice. The contradiction between the experience of sanctification and human slavery has always been a dominant theme in black religion. It is found not only in the rise of independent black churches but also in our songs, stories, and sermons.15 When the meaning of sanctification is formed in the social context of an oppressed community in struggle for liberation, it is difficult to separate the experience of holiness from the spiritual empowerment to change the existing societal arrangements. If "I'm a chile of God wid soul set free" because "Christ hab bought my liberty," then I will find it im-


12 See his "Thoughts Upon Slavery" (1774) in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. XI (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), pp. 59f.
13 Cited in Robert F. Wearmouth, The Social and Political Influence of Methodism in the Twentieth Century (London: Epworth Press, 1957), p. 185. Despite Wesley's emphasis on the works of piety and mercy, his view of salvation seems to make social justice a secondary ingredient of salvation and at most a mere consequence of it.
14 American Methodism began by taking a radical stand on slavery. In 1780 at the Baltimore Conference, the Methodists condemned slavery as "contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society." And four years later, at the Christmas Conference of 1784, they "voted to expel all slave-holding of Methodist societies … who would not, within twelve months after due notification, perfect a legal document to manumit all their slaves when they reached certain specific ages. The conference also voted to expel immediately all Methodists who bought (except for the purpose of liberation) or sold slaves." However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, when cotton became king, the Methodists, like other white churches, allowed the change in social reality to influence a change in their stand on slavery. The Methodists not only suspended their 1784 rules within six months, but in 1816 a General Conference committee reported that "emancipation is impracticable." [Cited in H. Shelton Smith, in His Image, But … : Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1972), pp. 37, 38, 45.] For an historical account of Methodism and slavery, see Donald G. Mathews, Slavery and Methodism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
15 For a theological interpretation of the slave songs, often called "Negro Spirituals," see my The Spirituals and the Blues (New York: Seabury, 1972), and "Black Spirituals: A Theological Interpretation," in THEOLOGY TODAY, April, 1972, pp. 54-69. In my God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1975), 1 used the songs, sermons, stories, and prayers as primary sources for a black theology of liberation.

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possible to tolerate slavery and oppression. Black slaves expressed this point in song:

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom, I love thee!
And before I'll be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

The historical realization of the experience of salvation has always been an integral part of the black religious tradition. The idea that black religion was and is "otherworldly" and nothing more is simply not true. To be sure, black religion is not a social theory that can be a substitute for scientific analysis of societal oppression. But it is a spiritual vision about the reconstruction of a new humanity wherein people are no longer defined by oppresssion, but by freedom. This vision can serve as an important force for organizing people for the transformation of society. Because black people know that they are more than what has been defined for them, this knowledge of the "more" requires that they struggle to realize in the society the freedom they experience in their worship life.

Sometimes this experience of God's gift of a new identity actualizes itself in political revolution as found in the well-known insurrections of Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831). 16 Black religion is by definition the opposite of white religion because the former was born in black people's political struggle to liberate themselves from oppression in the white church and the society it justifies. Even when black slaves could not actualize their experience of salvation in revolutionary struggle, they often verbalized the distinction between black and white religion. Harriet Martineau recorded the instance of a mistress being told by one of her slaves, "You no holy. We be holy. You in no state of salvation."17 A similar point is emphasized in a joke about a slave's reaction to the news that be would be rewarded by being buried in the same vault with his master: "Well, massa, one way I am satisfied, and one way I am not. I like to have a good coffin when I die [but] I afraid, massa, when the debbil come to take you body, he make mistake, and get mine."18

Sanctification in black religion cannot be correctly understood apart from black people's struggle for historical liberation. Liberation is not simply a consequence of the experience of sanctification. Rather sanctification is liberation. To be sanctified is to be liberated and politically engaged in the struggle of freedom. When sanctification is defined as a commitment to historical struggle for political liberation,


16 See Gayraud Wilmore'.s interpretation of these insurrections in his Black Religion and Black Radicalism, Chapter III. For a detailed account of more than 200 slave revolts, see Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1943).
17 Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 34.
18 Ibid., p. 35.

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then it is possible to connect it with socialism and Marxism, the reconstruction of society on the basis of freedom and justice for all.


Although black religion grounds salvation in history and refuses to accept any view of sanctification that substitutes inward piety for social justice, yet there is also included in salvation an eschatological vision. It is important to emphasize that this vision in black religion is derived from Scripture and is not in any sense a rejection of history. To reject history in salvation leads to passivity and makes religion the opiate of the people. Black religion, while accepting history, does not limit salvation to history. As long as people are bound to history, they are bound to law and thus death. If death is the ultimate power and life has no future beyond this world, then the rulers of the state who control the military are in the place of God. They have the future in their hands, and the oppressed can be made to obey the law of injustice. But if the oppressed, while living in history, can see beyond it, if they can visualize an eschatological future beyond this world, then the "sigh of oppressed creature," to use Marx's phrase, can become a revolutionary cry of rebellion against the established order. It is this revolutionary cry that is granted in the resurrection of Jesus. Salvation then is not simply freedom in history; it is freedom to affirm that future which is beyond history.

Indeed, because we know that death has been conquered, we are truly free to be human in history, knowing that we have a "home over yonder." "The home over yonder," vividly and artistically described in the slave songs, is the gift of salvation granted in the resurrection of Jesus. If this "otherness" in salvation is not taken with utmost seriousness, then there is no way to be sustained in the struggle against injustice. The oppressed will get tired and also afraid of the risks of freedom. They will say as the Israelites said to Moses when they found themselves between Pharoah's army and the Red Sea: "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt?" (Ex. 14: 1 1 ).

The fear of freedom and the risks contained in struggle are an ever present reality. But the "otherness" of salvation, its transcendence beyond history, introduces a factor that makes a difference. The difference is not that we are taken out of history while living on earth-that would be an opiate. Rather it is a difference that plants our being firmly in history because we know that death is not the goal of history. The transcendence-factor in salvation helps us to realize that our fight for justice is God's fight, too, and Jesus' resurrection already defines what the ultimate outcome will be.

It was this knowledge that enabled black slaves to live in history but not to be defeated by their limitations in history. To be sure, they sang about the fear of "sinking down" and the dread of being a "motherless child." They encountered trouble and the agony of being alone where

152 - Sanctification, Liberations, and Black Worship

"I couldn't hear nobody pray." They encountered death and expressed it in song:

Soon one mornin', death comes a creepin' in my room.
O my Lawd, O my Lawd, what shall I do?

Death was a terrible reality for black slaves, and as it visited the slave quarters, it left orphans behind:

Death done been here, took my mother an' gone,
O my Lawd, what shall I do?

Death done been here, left me a motherless child,
O my Lawd, what shall I do?

In these songs are expressed the harsh realities of history and the deep sense of dread at the very thought of death. But because the slaves knew or believed that death had been conquered in Jesus' resurrection, they could also transcend death and interpret salvation as a heavenly, eschatological reality. That is why they also sang:

You needn't mind my dying,
Jesus goin' to make up my dying bed.

In my room I know,
Somebody is going to cry,
All I ask you to do for me,
Just close my dying eyes.

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