An African-American Bishop Recalls Conflicts over Styles of Worship (1888)

Born in 1811 to free black parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Daniel Alexander Payne educated himself for a position in the ministry. He moved North for seminary training, and in 1841 he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the most important black church in the nineteenth century. He rose quickly, becoming a bishop in 1852. From this position he championed education and a “respectable” piety for African Americans. His Recollections, published well after the Civil War, recall his earlier days, when church work required him to visit parishes throughout the country. This passage reflects on the tensions he encountered in seeking to shape the spiritual practices of everyday black churchgoers.

About this time I attended a "bush meeting," where I went to please the pastor whose circuit I was visiting. After the sermon they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested the pastor to go and stop their dancing. At his request they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro. This they did for about fifteen minutes. I then went, and taking their leader by the arm requested him to desist and to sit down and sing in a rational manner. I told him also that it was a heathenish way to worship and disgraceful to themselves, the race, and the Christian name. In that instance they broke up their ring; but would not sit down, and walked sullenly away.

After the sermon in the afternoon, having another opportunity of speaking alone to this young leader of the singing and clapping ring, he said: "Sinners won't get converted unless there is a ring." Said I: "You might sing till you fell down dead, and you would fail to convert a single sinner, because nothing but the Spirit of God and the word of God can convert sinners." He replied: "The Spirit of God works upon people in different ways. At camp-meeting there must be a ring here, a ring there, a ring over yonder, or sinners will not get converted." This was his idea, and it is also that of many others. . . .

I have remonstrated with a number of pastors for permitting these practices, which vary somewhat in different localities, but have been invariably met with the response that he could not succeed in restraining them, and an attempt to compel them to cease would simply drive them away from our Church. I suppose that with the most stupid and headstrong it is an incurable religious disease, but it is with me a question whether it would not be better to let such people go out of the Church than remain in it to perpetuate their evil practice and thus do two things: disgrace the Christian name and corrupt others. Any one who knows human nature must infer the result after such midnight practices to be that the day after they are unfit for labor, and that at the end of the dance their exhaustion would render them an easy prey to Satan.

How needful it is to have an intelligent ministry to teach these people who hold to this ignorant mode of worship the true method of serving God. . . . The time is at hand when the ministry of the A. M. E. Church must drive out this heathenish mode of worship or drive out all the intelligence, refinement, and practical Christians who may be in her bosom.

Source: Daniel Alexander Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years (Nashville, Tenn.: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 1888).