Complaints of blacks who have become members of predominantly white churches commonly center on two ingredients of worship: the sermon and the music. Black preaching and singing have no real counterpart in the white church. More than simple style differences are involved here, though these are perhaps most noticeable. What makes the black sermon unique is the blend of African oral traditions with the cultural components of Afro-American life, resulting in what has been called a “miracle of artistic and religious production.”
Although the black sermon has distinctively Christian components, its best parallels are to be found in the African “grist,” the blues, the poetry and folk tales of the African diaspora in America; not in the traditions of Whitefield (who preached to slaves around 1732, despite his personal advocacy of slavery), the white Pentecostals, or backwoods Southern white fundamentalists. It forms a special genre of oral literature that goes beyond the usual categories of white homiletics, and that opens up to an even larger realm of subtle chemistries of art and style found only in black churches. Of course, the black church is also aware of Euro-American models, having confronted these through white ministries to blacks, the seminaries, and some few black supporters of the so-called white ideal. But the synthesis of these traditional Protestant patterns of preaching with distinctly African and Afro-American oral traditions yields far more liturgical varieties in black congregations than can be found in white ones.
The preaching we are discussing, then, is a phenomenon of black churches. It lives on in those groups that are closest to the masses of blacks and, like them, more isolated from white observation. In particular, these distinctive forms may be found in the Baptist and Holiness groups, though they are not limited to these. Typical examples include the old slave sermons, which in parts were made unintelligible to the overseer; the story-telling sermons, which live on in the writings of James Weldon Johnson and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, among others; the oratorical sermons, typified by those of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the singing sermons, of which Shirley Caesar is the most prominent practitioner; the traditional sermons, illustrated by C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father; and the novel kind of expository sermon found especially in Pentecostal churches, where each Scripture verse is called out by a “reader” and repeated by the minister, phrase by phrase, with commentary at each juncture.
Whatever the particular structure, certain elements are common to the “black sermon.” Not all these elements are found in a single sermon, though usually most of them will be. Taken together, these make this distinctive homiletical phenomenon what it is; without them, one could hardly designate a sermon as generically black or Afro-American.
The first of these elements is the antiphonal call and response, of most commonly identified Africanisms in black preaching. The audience “talks back” to the preacher. The responses are not casual or infrequent, nor are they made only when the minister says something especially important. They form a continuous chain of action. The audience may repeat the last word or phrase of each sentence or most of them; or it may follow a minister’s “hum” with one of its own; or it may insert its own phrases (as long as they do not interrupt the flow of the message), such as “Yes, Lord,” “Ain’t it so,” “So true,” “Preach,” “Break it on down,” and “Take your time.” As Henry H. Mitchell says in his book Black Preaching:
When a Black preacher quotes the centurion (Matthew 27:54), it is almost obligatory that he pause after the first “truly” and wait for the congregation to repeat the word. In fact, this may be done several times before the quotation (excellent for climax) is completed with “this was the Son of God” [Lippincott, 1970, p. 167].
Closely connected with the antiphonal response, but operating even without it, are the pacing, the cadence, the rhythm. As much as the forms of words themselves which are used, this timed register is a key component of the poetic sound of black preaching. A good analysis of these metrical patterns is to be found in Bruce A. Rosenberg’s book The Art of the American Folk Preacher.
Third, sentence forms also are distinctive. Special combinations of sentence patterns contribute to both the antiphonal and the rhythmical qualities. The sentence is usually shorter than in everyday speech. It contains only a main clause and possibly one subordinate clause. Few polysyllables are used, not because the preacher doesn’t know long words but in order to preserve the rhythm of the presentation. There is much use of the King James Version style of speech and of Black English (the term refers to particular patterns, rather than to so-called dialect or slang).
Fourth, formulas are used. There are phrases that have become familiar in almost all the black churches. Sometimes they are taken from the everyday speech of the black community (“truth is a light”), from gospels or spirituals (“my soul looks back and wonders”), or from favorite Scriptures (“you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”). Aphorisms flow abundantly.
Often these formulas are used to begin sentences or introduce new thoughts; and as such they form natural divisions. Among these introductions are, “After a while,” “I can see,” “Every now and then,” and “I saw John early one morning.” There are also shared expressions that the minister uses to punctuate his sermon, such as: “Oh Lord, I feel cold spirits,” “I know you don’t like it,” “I don’t believe you know what I’m talking about,” “Amen, walls,” and “Well, it’s true anyhow.”
Fifth, the melody or chant of the black sermon predominates toward the close of the message. At this point, the preacher stops speaking his words and begins to chant them and eventually to sing them. This is done without any break in the movement of thought or words. The key that the preacher selects is picked up by some of the responding saints as well as by the pianist and/or the organist.
Sixth, dramatics are important in some sermons. The preacher may choose one or more persons from the audience to “act out” or pantomime some event while he leads them both in the action and by preaching.
Seventh, many sermons begin on a low note and spend considerable time in “teaching” before moving to the higher and more complex elements involved in “preaching” that have been discussed here.
Other qualities too separate the black sermon from the white sermon. This second group of trademarks is not as related to the special African and Afro-American cultural influences. Again at the risk of oversimplifying, these differences may be noted: (1) The black sermon is usually given a much longer title than the white, usually in sentence form, and the title is often repeated aloud by the congregation when it is announced. (2) Commercial outlines are not used; neither are commercial sermonic illustrations. Most of these materials, prepared by white publishers, are too artificial or too far removed from black experiences to be of any use. In fact, little use is made of the usual three-point outline format. (3) Black sermons do not typically use the sensational “life story,” testimony approach common to some white evangelists. (4) The black sermon is seldom conversational in tone, and is rarely read from a prepared manuscript. (5) Few doctrinal sermons are preached. This does not mean that doctrine is unimportant to black Christians; it does imply that there is less criticism of other churches or other ministers that believe differently. One exception to this is the Apostolic or “Jesus Name” groups, which have made their particular mode of water baptism essential to salvation. (6) On the other hand, black preaching does not attempt to be “objective,” in the sense that some white denominational preachers strive for objectivity in discussions of current affairs. Personal doubts a minister might have are seldom raised in the pulpit. Sermons generally express an emphatic quality of assurance that is largely missing from prominent white pulpits. And one also seldom finds a black preacher employing the shock technique to alert (or alarm) listeners.
These characteristics of black preaching among the masses are, in my opinion, very valuable. I reject the condescending note of Joseph R. Washington, who in Black Religion describes some of these elements as mere “folk religion” and says they are derived from economic class factors. If black preaching has been “overlooked, ignored, and judged illegitimate and subhuman,” the reasons are those set forth by Bishop Joseph A. Johnson in The Soul of the Black Preacher:
To elevate and articulate the Black Christian experience by white theological technicians would have inevitably resulted in the elevation and appreciation of the Black Americans who produced this new interpretation of the Christian faith. It would further have meant that the Black man in America would have to be glorified culturally and elevated socially and economically. The Black preacher and the Black community would have to be accepted on a new level. The white American cultural ego would not permit this [Pilgrim, 1971, p. 152].
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more