Remembering the Black Church: A Portrait

February 28th, 2012

Many consider Carter G. Woodson the father of Black History. As a black historian writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, Woodson was instrumental in establishing The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In the years following the establishment of The Association, Woodson established and published the scholarly publication The Journal of Negro History. Woodson explored a wide range of African American cultural phenomena as he attempted to provide an exhaustive account of African American experience and culture. One of the phenomena under Woodson’s gaze was the Negro Church.

In 1939, Woodson published an article entitled “The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution.” According to Woodson, Negroes lacked governmental support and thus their churches were placed in the role of fulfilling functions normally handled by governmental agencies. Woodson’s aim, therefore, as a historian and social scientist, in his brief article is to articulate the growth of the Negro in the United States due to contributions of Black churches in the lives of Negroes.

In examining Woodson, it is of primary importance to understand how he speaks about the Negro Church, that is, what type of language he deploys to speak about the Church. Beyond that, it is important to understand just how Woodson understands the Negro Church in its many manifestations. It is also imperative to give an account of what is hidden within Woodson’s understanding.

Essentially, for Woodson, the Negro Church is an “all-comprehending institution” that “touches almost” every aspect of Negro life. He is worth quoting at length here:

The Negro church touches almost every ramification of the life of the Negro. As stated elsewhere, the Negro church, in the absence of other agencies to assume such responsibilities, has had to do more than its duty in taking care of the general interests of the race. A definitive history of the Negro church, therefore, would leave practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched. All efforts of the Negro in things economic, educational and political have branched out of or connected in some way with the rise and development of the Negro church.[1]


At first glance his language appears univocal. There does not appear on the surface to be a prime analogy within which traits are distributed from one object to the next. He presents the Negro Church as “all-comprehending” as a fact. Thus, he works ontologically and empirically as he spells out the very being of the Negro Church. At first glance then, one may conclude that Woodson is not working at an analogical level. He simply points to the fact that the Black Church has been very significant in the fulfillment of goals and ends constitutive of Negro life, hence, “all-comprehending.”

All-Comprehending Institution is Woodson’s literal acclimation of the way things are with respect to the institution of Negro Church in the lives of African Americans.

Woodson does not say the Negro Church is like an All-Comprehending Institution. Through historical evidence he shows that the Church is an All-Comprehending Institution. Thus, he is speaking univocally in his analysis of the Negro Church.

But is it possible that Woodson speaks in another way? His language presents a blend of what is there and what is not. While he does make an empirical and ontological claim about the Negro Church, he also works at a level of analogy. Analogy has a specific form of predication: A is to B as C is to D. In Woodson’s language concerning the Negro Church, a certain analogue presents itself. Woodson asserts:

The Negro church touches almost every ramification of the life of the Negro. As stated elsewhere, the Negro church, in the absence of other agencies to assume such responsibilities, has had to do more than its duty in taking care of the general interests of the race. A definitive history of the Negro church, therefore, would leave practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched. All efforts of the Negro in things economic, educational and political have branched out of or connected in some way with the rise and development of the Negro church.[2]


From this language emerges the analogue: the Negro Church is to the Negro, what society and government is for whites. The analogue is between the Negro Church and society/government. These institutions all have one thing in common. They are filed under the category community. One of the aspects of community is to integrate the concerns and needs of its members, hence his use of the language the Negro Church as a “All-Comprehending Community.” The Negro Church is an all-comprehending community because it integrated the needs and concerns of African Americans when other communities would not. Woodson “attributes” aspects from society and government to the Negro Church and assigns them equal proportionality.

What is the significance of Woodson’s analysis for Black History Month? Black History Month, derived from Woodson’s Black History Week, celebrates the story of African Americans as a part of the “American Story.” The month highlights personalities such as Frederick Douglas, W.E.B DuBois, Harriet Tubman, and Henry Louis Gates, among others. Woodson’s analysis of the Negro Church is important for Black History Month in that it has been one of the most powerful institutions in African American life, functioning as God’s instrument of freedom on an educational, political, and economic levels. It is at once a spiritual and religious institution as well as a political and social institution. The role of the Black Church in the lives of many African Americans must not be forgotten.

 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Carter G. Woodson, “The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution,” The Negro History Bulletin 3, no. 1 (October 1939): 7.

[2] Carter G. Woodson, “The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution,” The Negro History Bulletin 3, no. 1 (October 1939): 7.

comments powered by Disqus