In order to fully appreciate the Black Church in the 20th Century, one must understand its origins. Historically, black churches have been the most important and dominant institutions in African American communities. They have had more influence in molding the thoughts and lives of African Americans than any other single factor. Until recently, however, the black church was predominantly a rural church. This can be attributed to an 1890 census which indicated that nine out of ten black people lived in the South and more than eighty percent of them in rural areas. Only after the two World Wars and the Korean War did a massive migration of Blacks to the urban north occur.
The Black rural church was characterized by a clergy that often held secular jobs in order to support themselves economically. Much of the black rural congregation was poor and although fiercely devoted to the pastor, could not adequately take care of the pastor's economic needs. The churches did not provide pension benefits or health insurance, and this forced the clergy to work long beyond their retirement age. Due to their lack of resources, black rural churches did not participate in many community outreach programs, and very seldomly supported black institutions devoted to higher learning. Despite these shortcomings, the greatest strength of the black rural church lies in the loyalty of its members towards each other and to the church. Even today, the rural church serves not only as a religious institution, but as a social club, a political arena, an art gallery, and a conservatory of music. In effect, the lives of the black rural church members are centered around their church.
Before the mass migration of Blacks to the north, many Blacks living in the urban cities had already organized independent black denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and their Baptist counterparts. During the period of migrations, the urban churches helped acculturate rural migrants to the urban environment. Participation in social outreach programs that provided services to the poor was spurned on by flamboyant messiahs like Father Divine. Eventually, however, the black urban churches began to reflect the differentiation, stratification, and pluralism which the urban environment encouraged. The secular roles that the black church had traditionally nurtured, including politics, education, economics, and even black culture, came under the guidance of institutions such as lodges, fraternities, and civil rights organizations like the NAACP. Furthermore, the congregation reflected economic and class stratification because of the availability of different kinds of jobs. The urban clergy, therefore, could devote themselves entirely to the church because their economic needs were met by those who were relatively affluent in the congregation. Higher learning was also encouraged, and the churches generously donated funds to Christian black colleges.
Due to the increased educational levels found among members of the congregation and the clergy, as well as new modes of communication, a sense of group identity among Blacks began to emerge. Influential thinkers, such as W.E.B. DuBois, encouraged blacks to associate with one another rather than to try to acculturate themselves into the white American society that always discriminated against them. He believed that organized group action along economic lines would allow blacks to earn a better living which would then allow them to support agencies for social uplift. Other social activists, who were products of the Harlem Renaissance, developed a new concept of the Negro. This "new Negro" had self-respect, self-dependence, a new outlook, and assumed roles of leadership. In effect, this new Negro would no longer subject himself to the humiliation heaped upon him by white America. With such revolutionary ideas emerging and taking root, the seeds for the Civil Rights Movement were quickly planted.
Since the Civil Rights period, a revolution in consciousness that encompasses all Black institutions, including the Black Church, has emerged. Black liberation theology, the view that religion should be viewed and interpreted from a people’s own experience, has influenced the urban clergy. Black pastors are conscious of the need to provide black role models for their members and to support church-related black colleges. In addition, an interest in politics has reemerged, from the Reverend Jesse Jackson'spresidential candidacy bids in 1984 and 1988 to the election of thousands of black officials in large urban areas and small towns. The Black Church has played a significant role in the politics of the past and will continue to do so even though its political nature may be ambiguous at times because of its double African and American heritage.