The half-century that followed emancipation was a crucial time for African Americans, most of whom had been slaves and were struggling with little reliable support and against determined opposition to attain the full promise of freedom. The church played a vital role in that struggle, providing spiritual comfort, social services, political leadership, and a strong sense of community. In Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree,William E. Montgomery presents a pioneering social history of the black church in the South from 1865 to 1900.
Scholars who have written about the church during the post-emancipation period usually have done so from a narrow perspective, through denominational histories or biographies of church leaders, or as a part of broader studies. Montgomery, on the other hand, presents a comprehensive treatment of the African-American church and the southern environment in which it functioned. He traces the development of independent African-American church and the southern environment in which it functioned. He traces the development of independent African-American denominations and examines the place of black congregations in biracial churches. He identifies significant African religious traditions that became a vital part of the African-American church, discusses the role played by black preachers in the church and in the larger community, and examines the church’s involvement in African Americans’ assertion of their self-worth.
Montgomery also examines the differences and rivalries that existed among black churches. Contrary to most historians, he argues that inter-relgious tensions arose not from denominational differences but from class distinctions that were also evident in southern black society in general.
What emerges from this study of the black church is a portrait of a vibrant and powerful institution, one that is often seen as the purveyor of an otherworldly opiate for an oppressed people but that in reality was an important instrument for the steady advancement of African Americans.
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