Black History Month & Disciples History

Monday, February 5, 2024

Black History Month is both a celebration of Black history, in all its diversity and richness, and an annual reminder that, for far too long and in too many places, Black history has been marginalized, often viewed as little more than a footnote to someone else’s story. For us, as Disciples, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the narratives of Black Disciples have often been overlooked or marginalized in our histories of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the broader Stone-Campbell Movement. This is not a challenge unique to us. In the 1970s, Sydney Ahlstrom, in his field-defining book, A Religious History of the American People, highlighted the omission of the Black religious experience from earlier historical accounts. Ahlstrom emphasized that a deep, serious engagement with African American religious history would need to become "the basic paradigm for a renovation of church history." In the half-century since Ahlstrom’s book appeared, scholars of African American religious life have significantly enriched our understanding of its impact on the fabric of American religious life and thought, uncovering its rich diversity and complexity to upend the commonly held stereotype of a monolithic “Black Church.”

However, while there has been progress within the academic study of American religious history to account for the influences and experiences of African Americans within the larger narrative of American Christianity, denominational histories have tended to lag behind. They continue to be influenced by what historian Ed Blum, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois, terms the "spiritual wages of whiteness,” that is the tendency to conflate whiteness with godliness, a phenomenon that reappears time and again throughout American history. This concept implies that perceptions of whiteness often shape our understanding of a church's core history, thereby obscuring the significant roles Black Christians have played in those faith communities.

In recent years, there has been a concerted effort within the study of Disciples and Stone-Campbell Movement history to address these oversights, particularly over the past two decades, and yet there is much more to do. If you're interested in exploring these resources further, please reach out to me. I'd be more than happy to discuss them with you.

At the Historical Society, we are actively working to make the primary documents of Black Disciples history more accessible through digitization; to tell the story of African American Disciples history through interactive exhibits; and to center the religious experiences and contributions of Black Disciples by sponsoring a series of books on African American Disciples history. Our commitment to this work was further solidified at the 2022 DCHS Kirkpatrick Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we openly confessed the impact of racism, both overt and internalized, on the histories we have previously told. We pledged anew to tell the fuller and truer history of Disciples, ensuring that the stories of Black Disciples are allowed to stand on their own merits and no longer merely as footnotes to another’s story.

In honor of Black History Month, we want to highlight some of the African American Disciples artifacts and resources available in our Digital Commons:

Historical & Contemporary African American Periodicals

Books & Pamphlets on African American Disciples History

Documents & Artifacts from African American Disciples History

Video Presentations from the 2022 Kirkpatrick Conference, "Visions of Wholeness: Systemic Racism, Antiracism, and ‘Reconciliation’ In Our Shared History and Tradition"

We are eager to hear your suggestions for additional Black Disciples history resources we can digitize and place in our Digital Commons. Please don't hesitate to reach out.