Skip to content

The Reason Why We Sing: Introducing Black Pentecostal Spirituality -Clifton Clarke

May 30, 2015

TRWWSI was first made aware of what scholars called ‘black-led churches’ (see below as to why the author doesn’t like this term) when I moved from a small Southern town to a large, industrial Northern city where the church I went to had turned away lots of black people of the Windrush generation, saying, ‘It was nice to see you but your presence here upsets my congregation….’

The black people who remained sat on one side of our church and the whites on the other side.

I was later presented with these churches when teaching RE. There was a schools’ broadcast featuring them.

The author knows what he is talking about: My own experience of black pentecostalism comes from twenty years as a member of a church within the black pentecostal tradition, as well as five years as a minister in the New Testament Church of God….. Although the church I serve in has a predominantly black membership, it remains a church for the ‘who so ever will.’ The very idea of ‘church,’ the ecclesia, carries with it the idea of a multiracial commonality cutting across culture and gender for Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free (Gal 3.28). This for me contradicts the notion of a ‘black church’—or a ‘white church’ for that matter. It is also contrary to the spirit of Pentecost, which was characterized by the break­ing down of racial barriers both at Jerusalem in Acts 2 and in 1906 during the Azusa Street revival. The term ‘black-led church’ is also a misnomer because most of the prominent churches within the pentecostal tradition in Britain have extensive white leadership, usually based in the United States.

I was very interested in the way the author linked his Christian experience with African Traditional Religion (just as much as older denominations built on and inculturated existing religious experience as part of evangelisation). According to African philosophy God is the origin and sustenance of all things. The notion of a supreme God is the most minimal and fundamental idea of God found in all African societies.” God is not a philosophical proposition or an anae­mic thought but a life-giving spirit both immanent and transcendent.” He is the God of a million galaxies yet the God who is closer than my own soul. God is life, resurrecting, reviving and quickening all that is lifeless. God is power—healing, transforming, saving and destroying. The notion of being overcome or immersed in the Spirit was nothing new to the Africans and was all too similar to the experience of spirit possession.” It was the influence of the African slaves during the early pentecostal camp meetings that introduced the ecstatic behaviour—which Parham called ‘crude Negroism of Southland’—during which the Holy Spirit came upon a person. This was char­acterized by jerking, shouting, dancing, rolling on the floor, and all that now is associated with ‘being in the Spirit.’ Evil spirits are also very commonplace in African culture which again has a prominent role in black pentecostalism.

On healing ministry, he notes that to be struck with a fatal illness in an African context is no accident, but the direct result of an evil spirit or a bad omen.

Far from being escapist, their music, unlike the blues, their secular counterpart, the spirituals usually had a glimmer of hope beneath the note of despair that ‘trouble won’t last al­ways.’ The spirituals were by no means a reflection of the black slave’s striving to­ward social and political liberation, nor were they the result of an escapist atti­tude resigned to slavery whilst here on earth. On the contrary, as John Lovell has shown, the spiritual was a reflection of the social life of slaves which was based on their African background. The songs, then, were used to counteract the de­humanization that they confronted on a daily basis. In African traditionalism song was an expression of the community’s view of the world and its place in it. These songs were to black people what history books were to white people. Through song, story and history, initiation of the young into adulthood, death, marriage and belief were recorded. It was this African back­ground that made it impossible for slaves to accept a religion that denigrated their ‘personhood.’ Instead they combined the religion of the ancestor with the Christian gospel and created a spirituality of song that participated in their lib­eration from earthly bondage. Black pentecostalism has inherited much of its ‘song culture’ from the negro spirituals.

He explains: soon after I became a Christian, in the New Testament Church of God (NTCOG), it was clear to me that I was not actually bona fide until I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.’17 Although it was most certainly not a condition for faith, it was certainly the rite of passage that distinguished those Christians who were less spiritually experienced from those who were more experienced. It did not matter how theologically astute or versed in Scripture you were, or how well you could construct and deliver a sermon; if you had not received the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ you had not yet started, much less arrived. Ideally one’s baptism in the Spirit should be at a church service, so that the elders of the church can hear the person being baptized speak with tongues, which is believed to be the au­thenticating mark of the experience. If you were not fortunate enough to receive it in a public place, such as a service, then during prayer elders will listen to hear you speak in tongues and confirm whether or not what you have is the real thing. I remember the day after I received the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’—which incidentally was the most powerful spiritual experience I have ever had—feeling a strong sense of relief and joy. Part of my joy was due to the fact that I was now initiated. I had moved from being numbered among the ‘unfilled’ and having to labour at the altar for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, to being among the spiritual elite, those who were called to pray for those who were not yet spiritually initiated. The idea behind this emphasis is the belief that be­coming a Christian is much more than an intellectual acceptance of a rational faith, but rather an experience of the transcendent God or, in the words of Rudolf Otto the encounter with ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’

It might be suggested that the role of the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ is similar to the role played by the spirit possession trance in African traditional religion. This experience in an African context demonstrates to those who are observing that the dancer—who normally is a spiritual healer—is being possessed by a su­pernatural spirit, thus giving him special powers. Extrinsically, this possession trance is sometimes enacted in the services of black pentecostal churches during which a person or persons will shake, jerk, walk, or run up and down the aisles speaking in tongues and prophesying.

One of the strengths of black pentecostalism is its emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit for ministry and evangelism in the life of the believer. However, its one-dimensional emphasis on the role and function of the Holy Spirit, namely the speaking with tongues, can be rather unhealthy and very misleading. The idea that a person has not attained spiritual maturity—if indeed that can be at­tained—until they speak with tongues, has placed an unhelpful obsession with ‘speaking with tongues’ to the neglect of other aspects of the Spirit’s work. It is also unfortunate that the Holy Spirit ‘possession trance’ is often nothing more than ‘power play,’ by many with their own agendas, which is a dangerous game.

On Holy Communion, although the question of consubstantiation or transubstantiation is not an issue within this context—which holds firmly to the symbolic representation understanding—there is a clear expectation and acknowl­edgement of the presence of Christ. There is also a strong feeling of community participation in this sacrament which is reinforced by foot-washing. This is, for black pentecostal Christians, just as important as the bread and the wine. As the women leave to wash each other’s feet—which usually mean more than two-thirds of the congregation have left—there is often a sudden feeling of vulnerability as the men seek to hold everything together. The harmonious female voices are no longer present to supplement the deeper male voices. The seating takes a long time to re-arrange and there is a strange anxiety in the air. In a culture where men often project a certain image which involves sup­pressing personal emotion or vulnerability, inner feelings—which I distinguish from ‘spiritual emotionalism’—are often repressed beneath the triumphalism of pentecostalism. But the act of seeing, touching, washing and drying the feet of another brother in a worship setting somehow reminds us of the importance of seeing each other as people, with physical and emotional and not just spiritual needs. This seems to recapture something of the holistic spirituality which I think is a very important part of the holy communion.

The black pentecostal preacher is the medium of divine revelation through whom the word of God is imparted to the people. He or she is the vessel through which the Almighty communicates to the congregation. Because God is the au­thor of the word, it must be dynamic and filled with power. In the 1950s and 60s, a preacher would be highly respected if he or she could preach without notes. The subconscious and conscious thinking behind this was that God was then peaking directly through the preacher. What was being said, therefore, was not a roduct of human study or intellectualization, but the inspired word of God.

mong the older generation there is still an element of this anti-intellectualism, in he sense that the preacher must be a passive vessel. The pulpit is the symbol of divine revelation, it is the place where God speaks through the preacher and there­fore there is great emphasis placed on the holiness of the one who stands in it. It is often said by the older members that ‘this is a dreadful place; few can stand here. Sermons show a classic demonstration of the enactment of the call and response tradition. However, an incr­easingly younger membership demanding more than the nostalgic anecdote of life on the farm back home in the West Indies and the theological language cultur­ally inaccessible to the British-born black members. The compulsion that minis­ters are to undergo theological training before entering the ministry has also raised the theological expectation of the congregation.

Death is not and cannot be a private or family affair; it involves the entire community. This notion of the priority of the community over and above the individual is echoed by the now familiar phrase of John Mbiti, an Africa theo­logian: ‘I am because we are, because we are I am.’ According to African tradi­tional religion to die is not to cease to be, but to be elevated to the realm of the spirits or ancestors. According to African philosophy the community does not only consist of the living, but of the dead also

The idea that a funeral service and burial can be ‘contracted out’ to ‘professionals’—which would ostensibly mean the secularizing of the whole process—is repugnant to black people.

There is a familiar saying in Africa and the Caribbean which says, ‘You Euro­peans have watches but we Africans have time.’ Black pentecostals are notorious for their time-keeping. The reasons for this are complex and historical. Within a black pentecostal church, it is not unusual for a seven o’clock service to finally get underway thirty minutes later, during which time members come trickling in and the necessary arrangements and changes are made to the furniture. When two black people are deciding on the specific time to meet, they often joke about whether the time will be BMT (black man’s time) or GMT (Greenwich mean time). This flexibility with time also extends to the time at which the service ends. It is not unusual for a service which is scheduled to end at nine o’clock to goon till eleven or even twelve o’clock at night. This is often the case during revival services or on occasions when, as we say, ‘the Spirit takes over.’ Beneath the black pentecostal’s rebellion to conform to a ‘diary culture’ in which ‘time is money’—the corollary of which is, ‘distribute with extreme caution’—is the recognition that one should not be too enslaved by the constraint, of some­thing thing which is a product of human culture.

On a visit to Jamaica, the author explains: I remember being taken somewhat by surprise by the contrast between their pace of life and the one I had become accustomed to. There it was infinitely slower, which was not just because of the warm climate, but because of their whole outlook on the world. It took my uncle and I two whole hours to walk a hundred yards, due to him stopping and talking at every corner, engaging in the deep conversation that happens daily. It is a culture in which people encounter people on a deeper and much more personal and meaningful level.

I welcome the spirituality which they find in dreams: To deny the spiritual reality of dreams is to shut out a part of our spiritual capacity which is a large part of who we are. This is an area of spirituality often neglected in other Western Christian traditions.

He mentions taboos and superstitions passed down through Caribbean oral culture, for example, the wearing of red or black underwear by the spot of deceased husband or wife at nights until the day of the funeral. This is to prevent the spirit of the dead person coming back to have sexual intercourse with his or her spouse. If during a wedding the wedding cake falls to the ground, this is a bad omen, and would mean that either bride or groom will shortly pass away or that the marriage will not last long. It is also said that nine days after the birth of a baby, a woman is not to go out doors, to prevent a bad omen.

see also

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: