African-American Churches

By: William E. Montgomery

Type: Overview Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Updated: September 29, 2020

African Americans who entered Texas from the 1820s through the Civil War years generally did so as slaves. In this country they developed a faith born from the union of African traditions and Christian evangelism. Through the eighteenth century slave traders delivered cargoes of men and women either recently enslaved in Africa or transported from plantation islands in the Caribbean. The former usually had had little contact with Christianity, though the Catholic Church had long maintained missions in sub-Saharan Africa. The latter had nurtured the concepts, rituals, and customs of Africa in the diaspora. The Europeans with whom slaves had contact on the plantations of Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean basin exerted scant influence on slave religion. By the time owners and traders began transporting slaves to Texas, however, distinctively African-American patterns of worship had evolved. Most slaves had some form of contact with organized Christian churches and merged the ideas they learned there with what they remembered individually or collectively from Africa.

Many slaves congregated in churches that Whites provided for them. Some masters felt responsible for offering spiritual guidance to their chattels, especially their personal servants. Albert C. Horton, a Baptist deacon who was heavily invested in slave property, built a church for the benefit of his people. Other masters, in light of the Christian-based, militant abolitionist movement, sought pragmatically to supervise the slaves' religious instruction in order to filter the subversive messages from the Christian Gospel. They wanted slaves to hear that God expected them to obey their masters and not steal from them. Frequently on larger plantations slaves attended services in the same churches that Whites used, usually gathering in the afternoon when their masters had returned home. In some churches Whites and Blacks actually worshipped together. The Methodist Church reported approximately 7,500 Black congregants in 1860, the largest number of recorded Black members in any communion. The Baptist Church listed at least 1,087 African-American members. And both the Presbyterian and Protestant Episcopal churches acknowledged Blacks as full members of their congregations. Biracial churches, however, were not really the slaves' churches. Whites controlled them, ordinarily assigned Blacks to separate pews, and rarely permitted Black preachers to ascend to the pulpit. How slaves responded to this type of worship varied from one individual to the next, but in most cases they preferred churches of their own and preachers who also were slaves. They tired of hearing Whites preach about obedience and honesty with, as Wes Brady later recalled, "nary a word about having a soul to save." They preferred contemplating the uplifting Christian messages of freedom and equality, and they enjoyed the rhythmic elements of music and dancing, derived from Africa, that suffused their worship services.

Just how formally the slaves' churches were organized depended largely on whether owners sanctioned them or not. Slaves on many plantations gathered surreptitiously because their masters would not allow churches on their places. Sarah Ashley, who lived near Coldspring, testified that her master whipped slaves whom he caught at prayer meetings; however, she stated that she and others "run off at night and go meetings." Where Whites did permit them, Black churches occasionally functioned as regular congregations. In 1840 the First Baptist Church of Galveston allowed five slave members to worship by themselves; within a few years they had a building of their own named the First Africa Church. Slaves in La Grange, Fayette County, constructed and organized the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1860. In 1854 the Colorado Baptist Association recognized a separate slave congregation as a member of the organization, and just before the beginning of the Civil War the Methodist Church reported thirty-seven slave missions. However, the Union Baptist Association expressed the prevailing view among Whites when it stated that for slaves to have separate congregations was "inconsistent with their condition as servants, and with the interests of their masters."

The buildings that independent slave congregations occupied ran the gamut from brush arbors, which were mere clearings in the woods with log benches sheltered by tree branches, to plank buildings. The most substantial ones were those that the slaves' masters allowed them to build. Not infrequently, White congregations passed older buildings on to slaves when Whites moved into new buildings. When Federal military authorities read the Emancipation Proclamation to slaves in 1865 (see JUNETEENTH), all slaves in Texas became free. Even the small group of Blacks who had not been slaves before the Civil War felt a sudden liberation from oppression. An overwhelming urge to try on their new "freedom clothes" took hold of most Black people. Freed slaves walked away from their plantations, sought out long-separated loved ones, and celebrated their redemption with parades, picnics, and general revelry. A more lasting gesture of their new status, however, was their withdrawal from White-controlled congregations and the formation of churches of their own. At first, Whites hoped to maintain some measure of control or direct influence over the former slaves, but gradually they came to the conclusion that separation was best all the way around since in a White church, as the officers of one White Baptist association put it, they "never will be...permitted to exercise equal rights...with the White members of the church."

After slavery, when they gained a free choice in church membership, most Black Texas churchgoers became Baptists. In organizing new churches Blacks usually found Northern missionaries, White and Black, ready to assist them. Israel S. Campbell, a Black missionary from the Midwest, moved to Galveston in 1865 and organized a church there. Baptist theology, worship, and ecclesial structure appealed strongly to the freed people. The Baptists' egalitarian ideas about redemption and baptism by total immersion were particularly attractive. Baptists believed that salvation was available to all who repented of their sins, a thought that at least partially compensated for worldly hardship and injustice. Baptism in creeks or rivers dramatized the sinner's spiritual death and rebirth as a Christian. Congregations enjoyed the social aspect of baptisms, converting them into occasions for picnics and fellowship. But beyond that, Christian baptisms resonated with ancient West African water rites that were embedded in African-American culture. As when they were slaves, the freed people enjoyed the informality of the Baptist worship service, one that accommodated singing, shouting, and vocal interaction with their preachers. They also appreciated the fact that Baptist organization was congregational. They had had enough of control during slavery; they craved freedom to join with other churches in associations if they so desired or to break away and form new organizations.

Although essentially congregational, Baptist organization united local churches into district associations and state conventions. Black Texans formed their first district association in 1868 and made plans in 1874 for a statewide convention that convened the following year. These organizations allowed churchgoers to recognize each other's hard work in Christian activity as well as to bring together resources in support of schools, old-age pensions, indigent care, and other social causes.

Before emancipation, Black Methodists were affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. But missionaries representing three Northern-based denominations accompanied Union military forces into Texas at the end of the Civil War. Some were chaplains who ministered to the spiritual needs of Black troops and civilians. Michael M. Clark, who arrived late in 1865, was the first regular African Methodist Episcopal Church missionary to work in the state. Houston Reedy, another AME missionary, organized a church in Galveston at about the same time. By 1868 the church claimed 3,000 members. In 1875, though originally attached to an episcopal district that included Mississippi and Louisiana, the African Methodists of Texas received their own bishop, who presided over the Texas Annual Conference. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was smaller than the AME Church and sponsored fewer missionaries, but it had enough members by 1881 to warrant the formation of an annual conference. Northern Whites controlled the Methodist Episcopal Church; however, it aggressively and successfully pursued Black members. Claiming to be a biracial organization without segregation, ME missionaries appealed to African Americans who envisioned a racially integrated society. For the most part, though, ME churches in Texas and elsewhere in the South were predominantly White. Only slowly did Blacks gain entry into the Methodist Episcopal ministry, and not until the twentieth century did they rise in the organizational hierarchy. Through its relationship with the Freedmen's Bureau, however, the ME Church was able to secure ownership of church buildings, a valuable asset in the Methodist competition for Black adherents who owned little property. Methodist Episcopal leaders met at Trinity Church in Houston in 1867 and organized the Texas Conference, which by 1871 claimed 7,934 Black members and fifty-one ministers. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, attempted to retain its Black membership in segregated churches by transferring title to church property to congregations that remained affiliated with it. The desire to be free of their former masters exceeded the lure of real estate, however, and in 1870, in the wake of sharply declining Black membership, denominational leaders established a separate organization called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (later the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church).

The Episcopal and Presbyterian churches also admitted Black members. African Americans in Crockett organized the first Black Presbyterian church in the state in 1874, and in 1888 seven Black Presbyterian churches formed the Negro Presbytery of Texas. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Colored, listed approximately 1,700 members in 1890, worshipping in thirty congregations across Texas. Black Episcopalians and Presbyterians tended to be comparatively well-to-do business and professional people. George T. Ruby was among the prominent Black Presbyterians. Despite their presence in those denominations, however, the vast majority of African-American churches in Texas after the Civil War were either Baptist or Methodist.

In many ways their churches aided the former slaves' social progress. During years immediately after emancipation, Black Texans sought to satisfy their hunger for education. Officials in Washington recognized that appetite, and many education-minded private citizens in the North insisted that schooling was essential to the freedmen's progress and social order. Accordingly, the Freedmen's Bureau joined hands with such groups as the American Missionary Association and negotiated with church officials for the use of their buildings as schools. Many churches conducted their own schools, both Sunday schools and secular day schools, for the benefit of children and adults. The Constitution of 1869 acknowledged the state's responsibility for providing public primary and secondary education, and afterward the churches concentrated on higher education and vocational training. The AME Church established Paul Quinn College in 1872. The campus was initially located in Austin but moved to Waco in 1881 and to Dallas in 1990. In 1873 the all-Black Methodist Episcopal conference founded Wiley College in Marshall, the first postsecondary school for African Americans west of the Mississippi River. Baptists established several preparatory and collegiate institutions after Reconstruction. Bishop College, founded in Marshall in 1881, had the support of the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York. Texas Baptists also operated Guadalupe College in Seguin (which they purchased from the Catholic Church in 1884), Houston College, Conroe College, and Hearne Academy. During Reconstruction and after, the churches provided Black Texans with political leadership. Many preachers were active in Republican party politics. They held public office and discussed political issues with their congregations. Church buildings were often the sites of political rallies. At a time when business opportunities for African Americans were still limited, the churches also taught their members how to raise and sometimes how to manage money. In areas of finance, the women of the churches usually asserted themselves. They often were in charge of raising funds to finance church activities, including building projects. Occasionally they even kept the account books. They actually made many of the decisions that affected the regular operation of churches.

African-American churches in Texas grew steadily through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the census bureau counted church members in 1890, the Baptist state convention tallied 111,138. The African Methodist Episcopal Church showed 23,392 members and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church 6,927. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, with 14,895 adherents in 1890, was the third largest Black church in the state. The Methodist Episcopal Church enrolled 23,392 congregants in two conferences, Texas and West Texas, but because it was a biracial church it is impossible to know exactly how many of them were Black. By 1900 the African-American determination to realize the full promise of freedom had resulted in many remarkable individual and collective achievements. Unfortunately, progress often came over stubborn White resistance. Even benevolent Whites often exhibited a stifling paternalism that raised the hackles of many Blacks. At Bishop College in Marshall, a White administration and the controlling influence of the White Home Mission Society drew complaints from many Black Baptists. When, in 1891, the Home Mission Society proposed to downgrade Black-run Guadalupe College to a secondary school feeding Bishop, the simmering resentment of such Blacks as David Abner, Jr., Texas Baptist State Convention leader Lee L. Campbell, and Richard H. Boyd, who a short time later organized the Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention, suddenly boiled over. Meeting in San Antonio in 1893, convention delegates debated the Home Mission Society's plan. Allen R. Griggs from Dallas, agent of the Home Mission Society and brother of novelist and churchman Sutton A. Griggs, backed the proposal. Many of the delegates agreed that continued cooperation with supportive Whites was essential to race progress, while critics of the Home Mission Society and its allies, "who have deprived the Negro Baptists of this State from owning and controlling Institutions of Higher Learning," refused to accept the plan. This bitter debate led to a division of African-American Baptists into two state conventions, the General Missionary Baptist State Convention and the Baptist Missionary and Education Convention. Subsequent attempts to heal the Baptist breech failed. Baptists were no more able to reconcile their differences than national leaders such as William E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were able to agree in their prescriptions for race advancement. As a matter of fact, disputes and theological differences continued to divide the state's Baptists and bring about the formation of additional organizations. Ultimately, four statewide conventions came into being. The American Baptist Free Mission General State and Educational Convention of Texas grew out of the antebellum American Free Mission Baptist Society of Boston. It became the American Baptist Free Mission Association of Texas in 1930 and has been known as the American Baptist Convention of Texas since 1940. A split in the Missionary Baptist General Convention in 1981 led to the formation of the Central Missionary Baptist General Convention of Texas.

From the 1890s through the early decades of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of Blacks abandoned farm tenancy for jobs and new lives in the city. Many left for the "promised land"-Chicago-while others crowded into Dallas, San Antonio, Galveston, and Houston. Though the once-small Black urban population of the state had been diverse in class terms, in many ways a relatively well-to-do elite and an expanding middle class had dominated it. Members of these groups sometimes worshipped in Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations; however, more commonly, upper and middle class churchgoers attended Baptist and Methodist churches. Eschewing the style of the old slave preachers, the pastors of these urban churches usually were college or seminary trained. The men and women of the congregations dressed well and behaved in a restrained way. For Black folk arriving from the country and small towns, the urban churches lacked the excitement that made going to church a thrilling spiritual experience. Moreover, they felt uncomfortable sitting next to people they believed-often rightly-to be snobs. This may account, at least in part, for a decline in Black church membership from slightly over 396,000 in 1916 to approximately 351,000 in 1926. However, a more important phenomenon than this temporary slip in church membership was the steady drift of largely working-class, urban Blacks into so-called "holiness" churches. These included the Church of the Living God, General Assembly, organized in 1902 with headquarters in Waco, the Christian Workers for Fellowship, the Pillar and the Ground of Truth, and the Apostolic Church. Pentecostalism seeded itself in the same discontent with mainline Protestant churches. William Joseph Seymour, a Black man and one of the founders of Pentecostalism, settled for a while in Houston early in the century. By the 1930s the "holiness" churches ranked second to Baptists among adherents in such cities as Houston, where one Black congregation in five was a "holiness" church, and evangelists like J. Gordon McPherson and J. L. "Sin Killer" Griffin stirred the passions of rapt audiences.

In 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church completed a long- sought merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. At issue between the two groups had been the status of African Americans. Bowing to Southerners' demands for a segregated church, the Methodist Church organized a separate Black organization called the Central Jurisdiction. All of the denomination's Black conferences from every part of the country, including the Texas Conference and the West Texas Conference, were included in the Central Jurisdiction. For the first time, Blacks elected their own bishops, but they reported to the Central Jurisdiction rather than an integrated general conference. Some Blacks registered displeasure with this segregation by withdrawing from the church. Others remained but voiced their resentment. All in all the church lost much of its influence among Black Texans as a consequence of the merger. Then in 1968, amid the civil-rights movement, the church abandoned the detested Central Jurisdiction. Meeting in Dallas, it joined with two other Methodist organizations to form the United Methodist Church and did away with its policy of racial segregation. Moreover, the church responded to demands from Blacks for hymnals and instructional materials that included Black contributions and that related directly to African-American history and culture.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Black churches have maintained the tradition of active involvement in the social lives of their congregants. During the campaigns for voting and other civil rights, ministers and members were major participants, sometimes leading marches and voter-registration drives and at other times seeking accommodation with conservative White leaders, as the Baptist minister Sylvester M. Wright of Dallas did. The churches have generally espoused conservative social values; thus, even though women have been powerful figures in church affairs, they have remained mostly outside of the ministry and church leaders have condescendingly referred to female organizations as "auxiliaries." The churches have sought to counter social threats to Blacks by opposing liquor, gambling, drugs, and gangs. Furthermore, they have encouraged young people to remain in school, organized activities that keep youth busy in productive pursuits, and rewarded them for positive achievements. Just as much of the effort in race relations over the past 150 years has been toward integrating American society, in Texas many Black congregations are affiliated with and feel welcome in predominantly White churches. In 1994, for instance, approximately 400 Black churches belonged to the White Baptist state convention. Yet church integration has not worked in reverse. No predominantly White congregation belonged, for instance, to the Black Missionary Baptist General Convention. Many voices have asserted that eleven o'clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated time of the week. See also BLACK CATHOLICS, EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS, and BLACK COLLEGES.

Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989). Marvin C. Griffin, Texas African-American Baptists: The Story of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (Austin: Publisher's Marketing House, 1994). William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1970 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Religion
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Reconstruction
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Galveston
  • Houston
  • San Antonio
  • Austin
  • Central Texas
  • North Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William E. Montgomery, “African-American Churches,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 21, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995
September 29, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: