Rev. Wright also stated, “Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable for all the people in this country.”
To that, I stand and shout a hearty “Amen!”
The True Invisible Institution
Of course . . . that requires that we provide historically accurate analysis of the “Invisible Institution.” Historians coined the term “Invisible Institution” to describe the secretive worship services that African American Christians held under slavery. Without these, enslaved black Christians were forced to endure message after message by white preachers telling them repeatedly, “Slave obey your Master. Slave don’t steal from your Master. Slave don’t cheat your master.”
In order to enjoy true worship and biblically relevant preaching, slaves had to slip away into the woods or quietly worship in their cabins—away from the ever-watching eye of the Master or overseers.
Here’s the point relative to Rev. Wright’s insistence that the Invisible Institution must become invaluable. What message was preached? Was it a message of hatred, vitriolic anger, and resentment? Or, was it a biblically-based message of hope through mutual reliance upon Christ and the Body of Christ? Perhaps some eye-witness accounts might help to answer these essential questions.
One ex-enslaved African American Christian known to us as “the Preacher from a God-fearing Plantation,” offers us our first glimpse of the Invisible Institution. “Meetings back there meant more than they do now. Then everybody’s heart was in tune, and when they called on God they made heaven ring. It was more than just Sunday meeting and then no more godliness for a week. They would steal off to the fields and in the thickets and there, with heads together around a kettle to deaden the sound, they called on God out of heavy hearts.”
What occurred during these covert worship services? Pastor Peter Randolph, himself an ex-slave, provides the details we seek. “Not being allowed to hold meetings on the plantation, the slaves assemble in the swamps, out of reach of the patrols. They have an understanding among themselves as to the time and place of getting together. This is often done by the first one arriving breaking boughs from the trees, and bending them in the direction of the selected spot.”
Once there, then what? “Arrangements are then made for conducting the exercises. They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds, etc. The male members then select a certain space, in separate groups, for their division of the meeting. Preaching in order by the brethren; then praying and singing all around, until they generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy, and talks very slowly, until feeling the spirit, he grows excited.”
But that’s not all. Randolph elaborates on the inner condition and the interpersonal consolation they experience. “The slave forgets all his suffering, except to remind others of the trials during the past week, exclaiming, ‘Thank God, I shall not live here always!’ Then they pass from one to another, shaking hands, bidding each other farewell, promising, should they meet no more on earth, to strive to meet in heaven, where all is joy, happiness and liberty. As they separate, they sing a parting hymn of praise.”
The Visible Institution
Of course, in the North, and later after Emancipation in the South, there arose the great African American churches. Historically, what type of preaching of the Word do we uncover? Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, the great pastor, educator, and historian of the African Methodist Episcopal Church speaks about the Word preached in the Church. “So that whensoever the Gospel is preached in this house, it may descend with all its purity, power, and demonstration upon the hearts of the unrepentant, turning them from darkness to light, and from power of sin and Satan unto God; that its sanctifying influences may be felt in the souls of all believers, lifting their desires, their hopes, and their affections, from earth to heaven, and leading back the wandering sheep of the house of Israel, into the fold of eternal life.”
According to Bishop Payne, the Word preached in the church was then to be lived out and depended upon in every day life during the week as daily nourishment and spiritual direction. “An individual man or woman must never follow their own conviction in regard to moral, religious, civil, or political questions until they are first tested by the unerring Word of God. If a conviction infringes upon the written Word of God, or in any manner conflicts with that Word, the conviction is not to be followed. It is our duty to abandon it. The only safe guide for man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, pastor or people is the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.”
Celebrating the Historic Value of the Black Church
Absolutely—the Invisible Institution of the historic Black Church is invaluable—when we understand with historical accuracy the nature of the Invisible Institution. These brief glimpses can only whet one’s appetite. For a full course meal, you may want to consider my work, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.
Throughout this book we learn that African American Christians—pastors and lay people—unlike the caricature displayed in Rev. Wright’s recent comments, lived Word-based lives that focused upon applying biblical truth to their horrific suffering. Never minimizing their suffering; instead they maximized God’s grace and the healing power of salvation from sin and the hope-giving power of a caring Savior and a connected congregation. Indeed, these are invaluable lessons of the Invisible Institution!
Johnson, God Struck Me Dead, p. 73.
 Randolph, From Slave Cabin to Pulpit, pp. 112-113.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Washington, James, ed. Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, p. 36.
 Payne, Daniel Alexander. Recollections of Seventy Years, pp. 233-234.