Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Invisible Institution vs. the Institutional Church

It's Thursday evening. I am reading. Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Lewis Baldwin.

I'm feeling sad. "For enslaved Africans in the antebellum South, the "invisible institution" - clandestine meetings held in the fields, woods, thickets, ravines, and cabins - constituted the most prominent setting for both private and communal prayer." (13)

Some prayed with their heads in pots...

Some prayed while huddled beneath "thoroughly wetted quilts and rags." (14)

These things break my heart. They prayed this way to keep "the sound of their voices from penetrating the air." (13) To pray to God the slaves had to "steal away to Jesus."

Baldwin writes: "The invisible institution became the major wellspring of the black prayer tradition." (14) The "Christian" slaveholders' institutional churches, on the other hand, were places where the wells had run dry.

On Secret Religious Meetings:

"A Negro preacher delivered sermons on the plantation. Services being held in the church used by whites after their services on Sunday. The preacher must always act as a peacemaker and mouthpiece for the master, so they were told to be subservient to their masters in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But the slaves held secret meetings and had praying grounds where they met a few at a time to pray for better things."

(Harriet Gresham, born a slave in 1838 in South Carolina, as reported by her interviewer, ca. 1935)