From the New York Times-bestselling author of Stony the Road and one of our most important voices on the African-American experience, a powerful new history of the Black church in America as the Black community's abiding rock and its fortress.

The companion book to the upcoming PBS series.


For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, segregated West Virginia town, the church was his family and his community's true center of gravity. Within those walls, voices were lifted up in song to call forth the best in each other, and to comfort each other when times were at their worst. In this book, his tender and magisterial reckoning with the meaning of the Black church in American history, Gates takes us from his own experience onto a journey across more than four hundred years and spanning the entire country. At road's end, we emerge with a new understanding of the centrality of the Black church to the American story--as a cultural and political force, as the center of resistance to slavery and white supremacy, as an unparalleled incubator of talent, and as a crucible for working through the community's most important issues, down to today.

In a country that has historically afforded its citizens from the African diaspora tragically few safe spaces, the Black church has always been more than a sanctuary; it's been a place to nourish the deepest human needs and dreams of the African-American community. This fact was never lost on white supremacists: from the earliest days of slavery, when enslaved people were allowed to worship at all, their meeting houses were subject to surveillance, and often destruction. So it continued, long after slavery's formal eradication; church burnings and church bombings by the Ku Klux Klan and others have always been a hallmark of the violent effort to suppress the struggle for equality for the African-American community. The past often isn't even past--Dylann Roof committed his slaughter in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church 193 years after the church was first burned down by whites following a thwarted slave rebellion.

But as Gates brilliantly shows, the Black church has never been only one thing. Its story lies at the vital center of the civil rights movement, and produced many of its leaders, from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on, but at the same time there have always been churches and sects that eschewed a more activist stance, even eschewed worldly political engagement altogether. That tension can be felt all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of today. Still and all, as a source of strength and a force for change, the Black church is at the center of the action at every stage of the American story, as this enthralling history makes vividly clear.

*This audiobook includes a PDF of the Appendix and Acknowledgments from the book.
“Engaging. . . . In Gates’s telling, the Black church shines bright even as the nation itself moves uncertainly through the gloaming, seeking justice on earth—as it is in heaven.” —Jon Meacham, New York Times Book Review
 
“Gates’s thoughtful, comprehensive survey . . . examines the political as well as the spiritual role of the Black Church, and the way it has both shaped and been shaped by the world outside the walls of individual churches.” —Columbus Dispatch
 
“Sweeping, vivid. . . . The eminent Harvard historian and connoisseur of American lives [Henry Louis Gates, Jr.] turns his compassionate gaze to the black church, illuminating a pantheon of good shepherds who brought a fierce social conscience to the Lord’s work. Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Barbara Hale, recently-elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock: all spring to life as spiritual visionaries and carpenters of the arc of justice.” —Oprah Magazine
 
“Gates combines reflections on his childhood with centuries of history in his thoughtful examination of the Black church in America. Blending research, interviews with scholars and insights from his own life, Gates illuminates the central role of the Black church in the movement for social justice and the support network it has been for a community often in need of safe spaces. . . . [The Black Church] is as comprehensive as it is celebratory.” —Time

“Fascinating . . . Meticulously researched, The Black Church spans more than 400 years of Black ecclesiastical history in the United States States—beginning with Catholic enslaved people brought by the Spaniards and continuing all the way to John Legend’s take on the essential role the church played in his early life.” —Shelf Awareness

“Readers of American religious and African American history will not want to miss this title.” —Library Journal

“[An] invaluable illumination of the many ways the Black church has been an ongoing epicenter of inspiration and action.” —Booklist (starred)

“Through meticulous research and interviews . . . Gates paints a compelling portrait of the church as a source of ‘unfathomable resiliency’ for Black ancestors as well as the birthplace of so many distinctly African American aesthetic forms. . . . Powerful, poignant, and ultimately celebratory. Let the church say, ‘Amen!’” —Kirkus (starred review)
 
“A brisk and insightful look at how the Black church has succored generations of African Americans against white supremacy. . . . Punctuated by trenchant observations from Black historians and theologians, Gates’s crisp account places religious life at the center of the African American experience.” Publishers Weekly

“Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has once again delved deep into the doings and sufferings of Black people in the USA! This time he gives us a rich story and riveting song of the profound forms of spirituality and musicality that sustained Black sanity and dignity. Although Gates rightly highlights the centrality of the ambiguous legacy of the Black Church, he also explores the crucial realities of Islam and other non-Christian religious practices. And the last powerful and playful chapter on his personal dance with an elusive Holy Ghost lays bare his own signifying genius grounded in a genuine love of Black people and culture!” —Cornel West

“Absolutely brilliant—a book that should spark a very rich conversation within the field and echo far beyond it. Its reckoning with the Holy Ghost in the context of Gates’s own childhood is extraordinary. More than a wonderful synthesis of a deep literature about Black Christendom, it is a necessary reminder of where the Black community has found its strength to persevere, and to fight, and where it must find it still. Not least, Gates shows us that sacred music has never just been music; it is a taproot and a through-line across all of American history. A necessary and moving work.” —Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., author of Begin Again

“A brilliant book: while I've spent some years studying this topic, I was enriched by how much new still is to be learned. Gates’s insights into the role of the Holy Ghost in the Black Church are particularly revelatory. This is a rich and absorbing survey of the people, ideas, institutions, and expressions that have formed Black American history, and indelibly imprinted all of American history. You'll learn a lot about the past, and understand more about the present. Absolutely marvelous.” —Paul Harvey, Professor of History, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, author of Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity

“A path-breaking book: Henry Louis Gates approaches the Black Church as a subversive cultural system, opening up a vital cross-disciplinary conversation about the true import of this pillar of the African American community, so central to our history, our identity, and our movements for social justice. As engaging as a compelling novel yet brimming with important contemporary scholarship, The Black Church sheds brilliant new light on the problem of religion and race in America, and the critical role of Black Christians in achieving equity, justice, and the ‘healing of the nation.’” —Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Assistant Pastor, Union Baptist Church; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor, African American Studies and Sociology, Colby College

“If you want to understand the long arc of black struggle, hope and resilience, read Gates’ The Black Church.  It is a concise and compelling history of the significance of black churches in American society.” —Marla Frederick, PhD, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and Culture, Emory University, Candler School of Theology