America has a long and contentious history when it comes to black people praying in public. In the brush harbor churches during the early days of the Black Church, black worshipers had to be wary of owners and overseers breaking up their meetings. When North America’s first ordained black minister, the Rev. John Marrant, led a group of enslaved black people from the Jenkins’ Plantation in Combahee, South Carolina out to the woods to pray, Mrs. Jenkins, the plantation mistress, sent her husband to the woods with a group of armed men to break up the meeting. She didn’t want her slaves learning religion from a free black preacher. Those poor souls were bound, stripped naked, and beaten until their blood covered the soil–all because they went to the woods to pray.
Black people didn’t fare much better praying indoors either. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and several other African American parishioners knelt in the gallery of St. George’s for prayer one Sunday in 1787. Church leaders promptly attempted to have them move to the balcony where there were seats designated for African Americans. When they insisted on finishing their prayers, they were pulled off their knees and forcibly removed from the gallery. In protest of their ill-treatment, Allen and Jones led the other black parishioners out of St. George’s Methodist Church, never to return.
If you’re like me, then your social media timelines have been filled with news of the NFL players protesting injustices like the ones suffered by Jones and Allen, or worse inhumane brutality like the kind to which Marrant’s followers were subject. While widespread support for players’ right to peacefully protest certainly exists, many object to players assuming a posture of prayer while the nation’s anthem plays. Following the many sides to the complex story can be draining, especially because it gives rise to so many unanswered questions. What happens next? What happens when #takeaknee inevitably moves from the field to the stands and fans start to kneel during the anthem? Will they be assaulted and ushered from arenas like the founders of the AME Church? What happens when the #staywoke religious organizations capitalize on the religious implications of the #takeaknee movement and decide to #boycottNFL at the stadium and in the streets? Will their blood spill in the streets like Marrant’s peacefully gathered parishioners in the South Carolina brush harbor?What happens when NFL owners empower police to disassemble lawfully gathered protesters? If history is any indicator, then violent paths may await us all. Perhaps America will witness (again) the brutalization of (mostly black, mostly nonviolent) political activists and demonstrators at the hands of the police. I hope this is not what the future has in store. But if not, may the words of the Spiritual be a source of strength? “Father remove this bitter cup/If such thy sacred will/But if not content to drink it up,/Thy pleasure I’ll fulfill.”
Alphonso F. Saville, IV is a scholar, educator, and artist. His research explores American religious history, African American religious literature, and religious freedom in contemporary American society. His poetic works are showcased via Twitter and Instagram. You can follow Dr. Saville @drphonsarelli.
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