From the Archives: Whither the Black Church in the Twenty-First Century?

Moses N. Moore Jr.
Yolanda Y. Smith

As the church and wider religious community wrestle with the challenges confronting the nation and world in the new century, it is instructive to recall the prophetic response of an earlier generation of Yale Divinity School seminarians and alumni who similarly faced the known and unknown tasks of the early twentieth century.

In the spring of 1931, black seminarians preparing for religious work joined with YDS professor Jerome Davis to organize and host a three-day gathering titled The Yale Seminar on the Negro Church. This historic conference had as its theme “Whither the Negro Church?”1 In attendance were well-known YDS black alumni such as Henry H. Proctor (YDS 1894) and other prominent clergy, scholars, and leaders, including George Edmond Haynes, A. Philip Randolph, and Benjamin E. Mays. In concert with their seminarian hosts, they attempted to devise a strategy for addressing the spiritual, economic, and racial issues preoccupying black churches and the wider Christian community. Topics included, “The Negro Church in a Changing Social Order,” “The Negro Church and Economic Relations,” “The Negro Church and Education,” “The Negro Church and Race,” and “Future Leadership of the Negro Church.”

Acknowledging the historic contributions of the black church and clergy, seminar participants nevertheless warned of the inadequacy of traditional responses to the complexities facing the world in the 1930s. Resolutions adopted by seminar participants were far-sighted in their call for the black church to 1) “set itself to the task of developing a more prophetic and fearless technique in making applicable the implications of the religion of Jesus in relation to our social order” and 2) “discover and develop a type of leadership that would do for America and the Negro race what Gandhi has done for India and what Jesus has done for the world.”2 In keeping with its concern to “produce a new type of leadership,” the seminar concluded with a challenge to YDS and other seminaries to provide a theological education that would inspire and enable graduates to meet the spiritual, economic, and racial needs they identified.3

A Far-Reaching Revival

Although plans to hold future seminars at the Divinity School apparently failed to materialize, this pioneering gathering, little known and only belatedly appreciated, anticipated revival of the prophetic black religious tradition – a tradition that would provide leadership and inspiration for the emergent civil rights movement and its evolution by century’s end into a struggle for human rights that would enlist the efforts of later generations of YDS black seminarians.4

Now almost three quarters of a century later, the core questions and issues illuminated by the 1931 seminar loom again with increased urgency: Whither the black church and the wider Christian community in the twenty-first century?5 How will today’s church (to cite the language of the 1931 gathering) “set itself to the task of developing a more prophetic and fearless technique in making applicable the implications of the religion of Jesus” in the face of a changing social order contoured by the new economic, technological, and political demands of a truly international community?

Though the dialectic of race, religion, and culture remains central to the witness of the black church and broader Christian community, new conditions and debates radically extend the agenda that the 1931 seminar forged. Among these: gender equality, economic justice, sustainability, shared access to global resources, inter-religious and inter-cultural tolerance, technological responsibility, heightened violence (personal, domestic, national, and international), and expanded access to quality education, advanced technology, and health care.

Relevant also is the seminar’s question as applied to contemporary theological education: How will YDS and other seminaries equip students, alums, and faculty to meet the challenges confronting the church and world in the twenty-first century? How will they equip new generations of future leaders with “a more prophetic and fearless technique in making applicable the implications of the religion of Jesus in relation to [the increasingly diverse] social order?”

Just as in the last century, the contemporary black church is in a position to help bridge the gap between the church, the academy, and broader Christian community by “keeping it real” – by forthrightly addressing pertinent issues and creating partnerships that promote communally and globally engaged ministry and theological education.

Barbara Brown Zikmund, former president of Hartford Seminary and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), captures the essence of this partnership model of church and seminary, observing that “theological seminaries live in a creative tension between giving churches what they want and challenging churches to rise to the radical demands of the gospel. By reminding seminaries that churches provide the context that nurtures mature faith … churches [help] keep seminaries accountable.” 6 Relevant here also is the observation recently shared by Allan Boesak, the South African scholar, social activist, and minister, who calls for a “dialogue of equals.” Such a dialogue compels each party (church, seminary, and community) to come to the table as “fellow seekers” with a genuine intention to learn from one another.7 Participants in the 1931 seminar knew that the black church at its best has long embraced similar models of partnership in its quest to do “what Jesus has done.”

As we consider the 1931 conference in light of the demands of the new century, we should be prepared to extend its hard-won lessons and insights – and, in its spirit, remain open to creative ways of addressing contemporary complexities and crosscurrents of religion, race, and culture. Thus the black church must be prepared and willing to enter into principle discourse and alliances with diverse communities such as Native Americans, Latino/Latinas, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and LGBTQ, applying the models of Gandhi and Jesus to the peculiar challenges of the current day.8

“Old Things are Passing Away”

Also of renewed relevance and inspiration is the perceptive counsel of conference participant and YDS alum the Rev. Henry H. Proctor. Almost a decade before the 1931 conference, he evoked the prose of Scripture as he described the conditions facing churches at the opening of the twentieth century:

Evidently, we are on the borderland of a new world, not only in the application of modern science to the progress of mankind from a physical viewpoint, but also in the application of the things of the spirit to the social relationships of man. Old things are passing away; all things are being made new.9

Consequently, Proctor boldly issued a call for the establishment of “a new type” of black church – a church willing to apply Christianity in innovative ways to meet the changing needs of a new era.10

Given the myriad challenges and heightened risks facing the Christian and global community at the cusp of a new millennium, the black church of today must also be willing to reinvent itself, even as it continues to draw inspiration from its past. Like the black church of old, it must attempt once again to empower both itself and the broader Christian community in alliance with seminary and academy, to discern and forthrightly engage the present and future with the hard-nosed realism yet unflagging confidence voiced in the “Negro” spiritual Been in the Storm So Long.11

Hispanic Catholics: Sending Mixed Signals?

American Hispanic Catholic ism’s path into the future is unclear, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey. American Hispanics have emerged as a demographic force in U.S. Catholicism: The percentage of American Catholics of Hispanic descent (now 29 percent) has more than doubled in twenty years. Nearly half of Catholics now under the age of thirty are Hispanic. However, statistics also show signs of Hispanic Catholic decline. Three-quarters of American Hispanics reported having been raised Catholic, but less than half of them now identify as Catholic.

The survey said conversions to Protestantism and a shift to religious non-affiliation account for the trend. Nearly one-third of Hispanics are now Protestant. But a new Latin America pope offers reasons for optimism. The survey reports: “Pope Francis reportedly is a traditionalist who also champions the issues of poverty and social justice. Hispanic Catholics are significantly more likely than white Catholics to believe the church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices, and a majority of Hispanic Catholics believe that in its statements about public policy the church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor.”

Source: Public Religion Research Institute

Moses Moore ’77 M.Div. is associate professor of American and African American religious history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Orishatukeh Faduma (Scarecrow Press, 1996), focusing on the theology of an 1894 YDS graduate from Sierra Leone. He is completing a biography of Henry H. Proctor, another 1894 YDS graduate. Yolanda Smith has served as associate professor, research scholar, and lecturer in Christian education at YDS. She is the author of Reclaiming the Spirituals: New Possibilities for African American Christian Education (Pilgrim Press, 2004).


1 The genesis of the seminar appears to have been the founding in 1930 of a “Negro society called Upsilon Theta Chi whose motto was ’Service and Sacrifice for Christ.’” Its aim was to “produce a new type of leadership,” which would “give itself unstintedly to the uplift of the Negro race and other oppressed peoples, and to the creation of a new social order based upon the principles of Jesus.” Jerome Davis, Foreword to Whither the Negro Church? Seminar Held at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT, April 13-15, 1931, p. 3. Among YDS black seminarians participating were Harry W. Roberts, Edward Carroll, John Dillingham, Everett Davies, Samuel M. Carter, Josephus Coan, and Charles H. Moss (absent because of illness), Davis, p. 48.

2 Whither the Negro Church?, pp. 45, 47.

3 Davis, Foreword to Whither the Negro Church?, p 3.

4 Especially notable were the contributions of A. Phillip Randolph and Benjamin E. Mays. See Dennis C. Dickerson, “African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930–55,” Church History 74 (June 2005), pp. 217–235.

5 An ongoing research project by the authors of this essay shines light on the contemporary relevance of their question. With this project, entitled “‘Been in the Storm So Long’: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry – One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education,” the authors have conducted interviews with black YDS alumni, gathering insights and historical perspectives. Several interviewees have emphasized the importance of ecumenical and inter-religious engagement, ecumenism, and inter-religious debate.

6 Barbara Brown Zikmund, “Theological Seminaries and Effective Christian Education,” in Rethinking Christian Education: Explorations in Theory and Practice, David S. Schuller, ed. (Chalis Press, 1993), p. 123.

7 Allan Boesak, reflecting on the theme “Ministry with South African Youth: From Apartheid to the Twenty- First Century,” in Yolanda Y. Smith’s “Youth, Culture, and Christian Education” course at YDS, Feb. 5, 2013.

8 It is commendable that current students, faculty, and staff at YDS have recently grappled with this question and the broader dilemma of diversity by embarking last fall on a year-long initiative on racial justice and inclusivity.

9 Henry Hugh Proctor, Between Black and White: Autobiographical Sketches (originally published 1925, reprint Books For Libraries Press, 1971), p.182.

10 Proctor.

11 Notably, Proctor’s ministry drew inspiration from the spirituals; one of his most important publications was a pioneering study called “The Theology of the Songs of the Southern Slave,” Journal of Black Sacred Music 2, no. 1 (1988), pp. 51-63.