THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA

The Negro Goes to Church


     (37) In their religion and religious activities the Negroes of Nebraska are probably freer from interracial influences than in any other phase of their life. Many of their religious customs and forms of church services are essentially unchanged from the pattern they followed in the South. Among the half-hundred Negro churches in Nebraska there are congregations and ministers substantially the same as when they came to Nebraska.

     Almost every denomination is represented by one or more religious groups among the Negroes. Some of these, notably the Baptists, have split into a number of separate congregations. In all of them, however, the characteristic type of church worship is an emotional one, as it has been ever since the various churches were established in this State. This fact has established a peculiarly intimate relationship between church and individual, so that the churches have been of considerable influence in the daily life of the Negroes. Yet at the same time, because of their emotional, unprogressive attitude, the influence of the churches has more often than not been dissipated to no significant purpose. In all fairness to the Negro churches it must be added that they are as a rule handicapped through insufficient funds and inefficient directive organization. Their programs consequently fall short of being utilitarian.

     There are in Omaha forty-odd Negro churches, and in Lincoln a half dozen. In both cities there are far too many churches for each to receive the support necessary to maintain it. The various denominations represented include Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Episcopalian, Memorial, Baptist. Catholic. Unity, Presbyterian, Seven Day Adventists, Sanctified, Holiness, Christian, Spiritualist, and Pentecostal. There is one People's Interdenominational church, the Independent, and in Omaha one branch of Father Divine's Heaven. There are four branches of Methodism: Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, Colored Methodist Episcopal, and Zion African Methodist Episcopal. Each denomination and sub-denomination is represented by from one to ten separate churches and congregations.

     The places of worship used by the various Negro churches range from rented basements, through store-front buildings, halls, simple frame structures, to one or two comparatively imposing cathedrals. There is not one of these but what is saddled with a burden of debt of many years standing. The spiritual leadership of the churches is represented by clergymen, ranging from unschooled men who bear the title only by right of assumption, to highly trained graduates of divinity schools.

     When all these factors are considered together it becomes evident that the Negro church in Nebraska faces obstacles which are not apt to be overcome until at least seventy-five per cent of the individual churches are eliminated. It is plain that the emotional type of church worship can have little practical influence on the affairs of the congregation. The constant struggle to raise funds has, in the majority of churches, relegated the spiritual teachings (38) to a place of secondary importance. Because of their lack of training at least half of the clergymen are incompetent to develop a constructive program. Group progress has often been retarded by the personal ambitions of religious leaders, who have exploited the church to their own gain. Finally, the lack of funds and facilities has been a fatal hindrance to the churches in their efforts to organize an instructive and recreational program of interest to the youth of the community.

     The history of the Negro Church in Nebraska dates from the year 1860, when a small religious group was organized in Omaha. No church building was as yet available to the members of this group, so they met for worship in private homes.

     The first formal Negro Church in Nebraska was the St. John African Methodist Episcopal, organized in Omaha in 1867. Its first minister, Rev. W. T. Osborne, was the first Negro minister to come to Nebraska. In 1874, a second church, the African Baptist, with Rev. Marshall as pastor, appeared in Omaha. In 1878 an Episcopal Church, St. Phillip the Deacon, was founded. Its first rector was Rev. Greene. He was succeeded in 1891 by Rev. John Albert Williams, who remained for forty-two years. The largest Negro church in Nebraska, Zion Baptist in Omaha, was founded in 1884. The largest church at Lincoln is the Mount Zion Baptist Church, organized in 1879, with the Rev. Marcus Mack as its first pastor. This comparison is on the basis both of the size of the building itself and of the membership of the church.

     The first Negro church in Lincoln was the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal, organized in 1870. Its first pastor was Rev. C. H. Brown. Other early churches were the African Methodist Episcopal of Sidney, erected in 1877, the African Methodist Episcopal of Nebraska City, founded by Rev. Jackson in 1879, and Union Church, the first Negro Church in Hastings, founded in 1886.

     The first Negro Church services, and many of them even today, were conducted in inadequate buildings. Rented basements and halls were common. The store-front church, a building used commercially during the week and as a place of worship on Sundays, was all that many congregations could afford.

     Some of the leading Negro Churches of Nebraska today occupy comparatively satisfactory buildings. A number of these buildings are owned by the churches, though usually they are mortgaged. None of them is entirely adequate, however, and in one case, that of St. John's A. M. E. Church, the building, begun in 1922, has never been completed.

     In Nebraska cities other than Omaha and Lincoln the Negro religious groups are too small to assume the financial burden of constructing or buying a church building. As a rule the worshippers in these places rent a hall or meet Sundays in a private home. In many cases they are led in worship by a self-styled minister, in the absence of one formally ordained.

     Membership in the various churches ranges from small congregations of a dozen people to those in the larger churches, numbering three hundred or more active members. Somewhat less than half of the Negroes in Nebraska belong to some church, and less than forty per cent of these are considered as active members of regular attendance.

     Because they are hampered financially the churches are severely limited in their activities. Some of them have young people's organizations, and most of them have Sunday Schools. The larger churches occasionally have suppers, socials, entertainments, programs, and bazaars.

     (39) Among the religious leaders of the Nebraska Negroes a few have achieved distinction, not alone for their work in the church, but also for other activities paralleling their church work. Rev. John Albert Williams, for more than forty years rector of the church of St. Phillip the Deacon in Omaha, was outstanding in his efforts in behalf of Negro progress. Rev. O. J. Burckhardt of Lincoln, who came there in 1890, has long been a leader in the same field. Rev. John S. Williams, pastor of the Hillside Presbyterian Church in Omaha, directs a Negro chorus of over two hundred and fifty voices which is one of the finest in the country. Mrs. Eliza Turner until her death in 1938 regularly attended St. John's A. M. E. Church in Omaha for seventy years. She had been Sunday School teacher and, for part of the time, superintendent of the church for over fifty years.

     In Nebraska there are in all between sixty and seventy Negro ministers, considerably more than there are churches. Two of the Omaha ministers are women. The average age of the ministers is forty-eight. Their average time spent in the ministry is eighteen years, though this may involve terms of from one to five years as pastor of several different churches. Less than ten clergymen have earned a degree from any recognized institution of higher learning, and their average education is not beyond the eighth grade. Not much improvement can be hoped for in this situation so long as the majority of Negro clergymen are forced to supplement their inadequate salaries with outside employment.

     Among clergymen who have won distinction in their denominations are Rev. John Albert Williams, Episcopalian. He became one of the Secretaries of the Episcopal Diocese, Secretary to the Bishop of the Diocese, Editor of the Crozier, -- the official organ of the Episcopal Church, and was for twenty-five years one of the examining chaplains of the Diocese. He was the first Negro member of the Omaha Community Chest governing board. In 1929 he received the Cross of the Order of Sangreal, one of the highest orders attainable in the Episcopal Church. Upon but a few men in the entire world has this high honor been bestowed. Reverend Williams is the only Nebraska man ever to have won this distinction. Rev. H. B. Parks, Methodist, became a Bishop of the A. M. E. Church. Revs. W. F. Botts and E. H. McDonald have been officers of the National Baptist Convention. Rev. John S. Williams, Presbyterian, was in 1937 elected Moderator of the Omaha Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church.

     The need for higher education among Negro clergymen in Nebraska is, by contrast with their congregations, much more evident today than seventy years ago. Then the average Negro congregation, most of them but a few years out of slavery, was illiterate and ignorant. Today the Negro minister addresses an educated and informed group of people, many of whom are of superior intellectual attainments. The rise in the educational level of Negro congregations is undoubtedly one reason for the failure of the emotional type of church service to maintain its former prestige.

     Each of the Negro churches of Nebraska has from one to ten organizations affiliated with or sponsored by it. Each organization has from a half-dozen to fifty members. These groups are representative of the church attendants of all ages, though with a alight majority of young people's societies.

     Some societies admit members of either sex; others limit their membership to one sex only, depending, usually, on the activities of the group. Aside from the young people's organizations, the various groups may be classified as ladies' aid societies, missionary societies, purely social organizations, and a few cultural societies.

     (40) Some of the activities of the Negro churches, especially those of Omaha, are interdenominationally sponsored. Among these is the Sunday School Alliance, previously discussed, with its annual picnic. Another is the Usher Club, with branches in almost every church.

     The Negro churches recognize the need for organized philanthropy and welfare work among their more needy members, but are sorely handicapped by a lack of funds. Because of this drawback the relief they have been able to extend to charity cases is at best of only a temporary nature. The majority of their work of this sort is limited to the promotion of health programs for the dissemination of rules for hygienic living, and aimed especially at families with growing children.

     None of the Nebraska Negro churches, probably because they cannot afford it, has any great religious festivals or celebrations such as have some of the churches of other racial groups. Their nearest approach to it are the annual choral presentations, to be discussed later. The annual Coronation Ball and the annual Sunday School picnic likewise may be included in this category. None of these events is strictly a religious affair, though all are more or less dependent upon church sponsorship.

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