Three Urban Alternatives to Christianity

Where many African Americans turned after finding organized religion lacking.
Three Urban Alternatives to Christianity
Image: Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty
Saviour's Day celebrations at International Ampitheatre, Chicago, Illinois, February 27, 1966.

The arrival of millions of African Americans to the industrial North from the agrarian South over the course of the 20th century had more than just an economic and cultural effect. While many migrants joined churches in their new cities, helping to build key institutions that would ground their communities, others found the message of organized religion lacking.

Some left for Islam and off-shoots of Judaism and African spiritualism. Many found a home in urban folk religious movements. These sects often spoke directly to the plight of African American workers, most of whom had left Jim Crow only to find segregated Northern cities, racist labor unions, and race riots. These sects often preached that Christianity was the “white man’s religion” and offered a non-Christian and non-white centered paradigm for black people to liberate themselves from their oppression.

Today many Christians, especially those who live outside the city, may be unfamiliar with the history and context of those sects, which exist today predominantly in the inner city. Here’s three of the most common sects: the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), Nation of Islam (NoI), and Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI).

Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA)

The MSTA first began in the early 20th century under the guidance of Noble Drew Ali. Born in 1886, Ali was outraged by the treatment of black people during the Jim Crow era. He channeled this frustration into an attempt to provide a broader religious identity for black people.

Ali became obsessed with the idea that salvation for black people lay in their discovery of their true origin—descendants of the ancient Moabites. (In the Bible, Moabites are the descendants of an incestuous ...

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