An invisible institution

Daily Reading for August 3 • William Edward Burghardt DuBois, Sociologist, 1963, and George Freeman Bragg, Jr., Priest, 1940

When the Church of England came to America, it sought to embrace all of the people, without respect to race. Despite the difficulties and unfavorable conditions the very early records of parish churches disclose the fact that babes of African descent were brought to Holy Baptism and incorporated into the Church of Christ. The children of the slaves or servant class, were diligently instructed in the Church Catechism, and, at the proper time, brought to the Bishop for Confirmation. That is, after the Church in this country had received the Episcopate. But it must be remembered that the Episcopate was not obtained until the year 1787. The English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts manifested a special interest in providing for the religious instruction of the slave population in the American colonies. The white population in these colonies were not all of the same class or quality. Nor were the more numerous elements especially friendly to the Church of England and her method of presentation of the Gospel. Under such circumstances it was not at all strange that there was widespread indifference with respect to the religious training of the slave population. And, then, at the first, there was a general feeling that Baptism operated in converting the slave into a free man. Until the consciences of many were satisfied that Baptism did not destroy the relation of master and slave, but little progress was made in the conversion of the slaves to Christianity. All along there were those whose tender consciences suffered no change in this matter, and gradually, many manumissions ensued. By degrees, owing largely to this conviction, there came into being an ever increasing class of “free Negroes.” A number of very sincere white Christians in their last will and testament set free forever their slaves.

Then, in the North, following the Revolutionary War, there was a general, or gradual, emancipation of slaves. It is from this period that formal organizations among the colored people date. From then on to the Civil War, the record of organized Church life among the people of African descent is confined almost exclusively to the Northern States, where the largest number of “free Negroes” resided.

In the South the religious instruction of the colored people was carried on under varying forms. Usually the black people of a particular plantation who attended any religious instruction gave in their adhesion to the same religious faith of their masters. In a number of the white churches there was always “the Negro gallery” for the slaves. In some places where the slaves were exceedingly numerous special chapels were erected for them in which they were diligently gathered and instructed. Uniformly white ministers were placed over these chapels. But, simultaneously with these special chapels, and “the Negro gallery” in white churches, there came into being an “invisible” institution among the slaves, which, to them, was the real thing, despite their formal attendance upon the ministrations of white ministers. This institution was the native Negro Church, the great conservator of religious fervor and zeal among the black people of the South.

From History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church by George F. Bragg (Baltimore, Md.: Church Advocate Press, 1922); found at

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