On the margins of theology – VII

15 02 2010

Protestantism in a hot climate

Studying the history of popular religion and living Louisiana, it is only a matter of time until one runs into the remnant and legacy of the New Orleans Spiritual Churches. On a walking tour of the French Quarter, I encountered an entire photo exhibit of these very unique and vibrant churches. One photo that impressed me was a lot like the one above. It was of a black woman wearing a long robe with a picture of the Infant of Prague sewn into it. Pinned to this robe were bills of various denominations. She was also wearing a mitre, and the photo itself was probably of an episcopal consecration. When I saw this, I joked to AG that I was going to take a picture and submit it to the New Liturgical Movement website.

“See, traditional vestments make a comeback!”

I don’t think they would appreciate the barely veiled endorsement of womens’ ordination.

On a more serious note, however, I am always a bit astounded by the white Christian narrative of this country that consistently ignores the concerns and contributions of the black church. While the white Protestant churches have made some impact on the world’s cultural stage (as the immaculate green lawn of a Mormon church in an Argentine slum no doubt shows), it would seem that the black church, along with its rhythm, rhetoric, and sound, have had a far greater impact on the cultural patrimony of humanity. But the tendency of white pundits, cyber and otherwise, is to talk passed the black experience of Christianity in America as if it were some sort of afterthought, a vaguely familiar phenomenon hardly worth mentioning.

Even for Catholics who think that they know something about the faith, the common narrative goes something like this: Protestantism is anti-incarnational, and this quasi-gnosticism leads to all sorts of nasty things like Gospel Frisbees and Katharine Schori. Protestantism is a drab and rootless religion. It is only admirable in that it teaches that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, but even then it is far too “subjective” in how it relates to the Church. In order to continue the “great American experiment”, all that is noble and uplifting about our religiosity, the common societal mind must convert to sanitized and “conservative” post-Vatican II Catholicism. The restless (white) intellectual can revel in his medievalism while going to a sacramental worship space that has the same ambiance as a supermarket check out stand.

Though small and quite marginal, the New Orleans Spiritual Churches are the best evidence of why such a paradigm is really a myth. In their structure and worship, they had a predominantly Pentecostal flavor: the lowest and “least sacramental” rung of American Protestantism. Not only that, but most ordained women (as shown above) and they were some of the first churches to do so. But (as also shown above) they did not shy away from all that was “incarnational” in popular Catholicism: altars to saints, holy water, the rosary, etc. Indeed, they went beyond the “sacramental” vision of Catholicism, and were often considered the slightly less ominous cousins of Haitian voudou. Saints, holy souls, and even the Indian chief Black Hawk would often possess worshippers at their services, and were able to counsel and guide people from beyond the grave.

The definitive book on these churches is titled, The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs, and Rituals of an African-American Church by Claude Jacobs and Andrew Kaslow. The book is a result of field studies done in these churches in the 1980’s, when they were already in decline. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that these churches were imported from up north. Leafy Anderson, the first leader of the church, was born in Chicago, and only came to New Orleans later in life. There were of course “spiritual churches” elsewhere, but none took on the color and life of the ones located in the city of New Orleans. This city, so dominated by the ethos of Roman Catholicism and the religious sensibility of Africa, quickly turned Leafy Anderson’s faith into something that has no equivalent on American soil. The closest thing one could compare this religion to is Brazilian Umbanda, northern Mexican spiritism, or the cult to Maria Lionza in Venezuela. The overall attitude and energy, however, was the very same as that of the black church anywhere else in the country.

Old-style Roman Catholic practices gave this faith its most colorful characteristics. Many churches were often filled with altars to various saints, such as the Virgin, St. Lucy, St. Joseph, and St. Michael. Devotees, in order to ask or give thanks for a favor, would crawl in front of the altars, light candles, or leave other offerings. Even today, the clergy of the Spiritual Churches often wear birettas and bright cassocks, and they offered the seven sacraments. The Spiritual Churches even adopted the Italian Catholic custom of constructing St. Joseph’s altars, making food and inviting people to partake of it on his feast in the old Sicilian manner.

Besides these, however, there were other practices that traced their origins more to spiritist and other “non-Christian” influences. There was, of course, the already mentioned cult to the Indian chief Black Hawk, the imagery of which was tied into the phenomenon of the Mardi Gras Indians in black neighborhoods. But there also existed such ceremonies as the “Uncle bucket service”. In the back of many Spiritual churches could be found a bucket of sand with three American flags in them. These three flags could represent either the persons in the Holy Trinity, or the persons of “Kind Uncle”, “Aunt Peggy”, and “Little Brother”, benevolent spirits of the Spiritualist pantheon. During services, processions would often be formed towards the back of the church where devotees would stick their fingers in the bucket and make a wish according to their needs. These and other ceremonies proved that the Spiritual churches also existed in the context of Southern hoodoo or rootwork, and Jacobs and Kaslow show that Spiritual ministers also has a following similar to that of the Mexican curandero to whom many would come for advice, counseling, and healing.

Even the “doctrinal” treatises of these churches were syncretic in extremely creative ways. They could incorporate the Baltimore Catechism, the Westminster Catechism, and various doctrinal works of the a large number of Protestant churches, along with ideas that come more from Kardecist spiritism than anywhere else. The Spiritualist devotee would make arguments of the Catholic clergy being the “frozen chosen”, as well as defend the invocation of the saints and the use of statues in worship. Such attitudes often made the Spiritual churches a “middle ground” between the overly institutionalized Catholic Church and the chaos of the Pentecostal/Baptist denominations, as well as integrating the various elements of occult African-American religiosity into the Christian framework.

As is the case with most churches, even these were “modernizing” in the face of changing religious demographics, and it can be said that whatever time did to weaken the Spiritual churches, it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that decidedly doomed these churches as a major force on the New Orleans religious landscape. Many of the neighborhoods most affected by that tragedy were the ones where the Spiritual churches were strongest. Upon my own visit to a Spiritual church in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, early last year, I concluded that they have at least at that church become indistinguishable from any other black Baptist or Pentecostal church. There were no altars or anything of that sort, but the photo of the female bishop of the church included a shot of her in red cassock and biretta. It is hard to tell if this was a less “Catholic” congregation to begin with, or if such “modernization” only occurred with time. In any case, it is common opinion now that these churches are on the verge of extinction.

Nevertheless, their legacy teaches us that there was indeed another trajectory than the current one of mainstream American religiosity. It also teaches us that African American Protestantism in the context of the predominantly Catholic religious ethos could take on a shape that is antithetical to the common sense theories of Anglo-Saxon “cultural Calvinism”. With the seven sacraments, female clergy, the invocation of saints, the wearing of elaborate vestments, and various forms of spirit possession, the Spiritual churches were a peculiar but important anomaly in long march of American Protestantism.



8 responses

19 02 2010

Interesting post. Mr. Vasquez, you mentioned Kardecian Spiritism. Are you familiar with it? If so, could you write your take on it (or send me at least an e-mail)? My parents are really into it and they really come up against my being a Catholic on many occasions because of that. I would like to know a bit more about what I’m dealing with.

15 02 2010

I think this will go some way towards answering your question:


Mr. Vasquez can speak for himself, of course; and that is what the link is intended for.

15 02 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

I would like to understand your overall project here a little better. I think I understand (now) that you are not offering proof of some proposition or trying to convince someone of something.
But you are offering this knowledge. What’s your vision of what your audience is to do with it? Your writing is fairly sophisticated and the topics certainly recondite: you can’t be thinking that you have an audience with no previous inkling of the things you discuss.
As the French say: It works well enough in practice, but what about in theory?

15 02 2010

Fascinating post! It’s sad to think that Hurricane Katrina has had such a detrimental effect on this cultural expression of faith that so enriched New Orleans. I assume, however, that a lot of people will be pleased by this.

15 02 2010

PS: Great post.

15 02 2010

I wanted to visit some of the Spiritual Churches after reading Jacobs, Kaslow, and Berry, but it was already post-Katrina and I didn’t think I would have any luck finding any that weren’t either out-of-commission or eklse relocated. I may someday get some free time I don’t need to spend in South Asia to go looking for these churches – do you know where I should search?

15 02 2010

-antithetical to the common sense theories of Anglo-Saxon “cultural Calvinism”-

This post reminded me of how much messier faith on the streets is compared to the environments many Americans inhabit.

As a Catholic volunteer/missionary/college liberal in Juarez in 1995, I met lots of “Evangelicos”. Of course, they had the usual prejudices towards certain traditions. But I often noticed the same people crossing themselves, and, it goes without saying, venerating La Virgen de Guadalupe (I was in Juarez on December 12 twice. ONe night I met a man who told me “Many Mexicans don’t believe in God, but they believe in La Virgen”). I was confused by this because I was used to the US, where the lines were so clearly drawn by the folks who handed out bibles on street corners at the University: this set of behaviors is Catholic and gets you sent to Hell; this set of behaviors (which really aren’t behaviors. NOOOOO. It’s just faith, because works are dead) gets you sent to Heaven (with all the other white people).

After a couple years in Juarez, I ended up in Honduras with a wife and two kids in 1997 (long story). My wife’s mother and step-father were Evangelicos. But they thought it was a good idea to have my kids blessed by a priest at mass, and to be baptized in the Cathedral, even though they had little regard for the Catholic Church.

15 02 2010
A Sinner

I wrote about the black church in a similar vein on my blog:

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