When considering the Harlem Renaissance religiously, one sees many varied influences investing in Harlem socio-spiritually. Though there were indeed these differing religious expressions, from Black Muslims and Black Hebrews to Father Divine and his Peace Mission, the religious landscape of Harlem during the 1920s was overwhelmingly Christian. As such, this portion of the collage focuses on two representative men who articulated interestingly different approaches to addressing the issues of urban black Americans during this period. These two men are Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, father of Countee Cullen. Their respective personalities and distinct approaches toward leadership in black Harlem helped to shape the nature of the Renaissance, socially and ethically.
In Harlem, service and leadership manifested themselves in wide-ranging ways and the church was no exception. Though the titles of these two men are the same, what they used this title to show and achieve fall along different lines. For Rev. Cullen, leadership in black America was about responsibility: living in such a manner that would address the issues of the Negro people while challenging up and coming black leaders to attain to his measure of success, which he believed was the product of his ability to perform a particular notion of black masculinity.
For Rev. Powell, service and leadership always meant diving into the core of problems to alleviate the suffering of others yet also equipping them to do so autonomously, understanding their service to God through the church as one of choice, not as the product of a herd mentality. Powell's leadership of Abyssinian was characterized by striking discernment. The former keen on the necessity of principled living and the latter to stress watchful, social responsibility, advocacy and empowerment, these two men not only impacted the nature of thought within their respective congregations, but helped to anchor notions of collective struggle and triumph over common problems.
Rev. Cullen was very concerned with how he performed the office of black leadership. He strictly believed there was a particular way in which leaders should act and any desires, thoughts and actions outside of those narrow confines were to be avoided or suppressed for the good of the race.
As a result, a big part of Rev. Cullen's life and of the way he raised Countee was to emphasize orderliness, sophistication and manhood. Leaders were to lead exemplary lives; to affirm the values they believed not only through their words, but primarily through their actions on behalf of people. In his actions on behalf of Harlem, one notes one major theme; he was motivated to work and live for the good he thought his example and platform could lend to uplifting black Americans.
The leadership roles he took on reflected these aspirations. He served as president of the Harlem chapter of the NAACP, helped to found the National Urban League along with Powell and many others, helped organize the Silent Protest Parade of 1917 to demonstrate Harlem's intolerance for violence against black people, and later, he provided leadership and financial assistance to the case of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s. His service in these organizations achieved two primary aspirations: to use his platform to lead because he felt it was just, but also to demonstrate what it meant to be a "pillar of the community." (Lewis: 75)
Beyond these duties, his family "belonged to the right social clubs, supported the appropriate charities", held "soirees" at their brownstone on Seventh Avenue, living what Cullen believed was an ethically sound life worth emulation. (Lewis: 75, 105) Very literally, he pursued the ends he sought for the good of the race. The importance of this observation is that, as Lewis comments, he may not have been attracted to women. (Lewis, 76) Even so, by all accounts, he had a very successful marriage to a women and raised an exemplary son. He did so because he believed that a certain notion of manhood was correct and lived in such a way that reinforced what he believed.
In Cullen's ministerial emphases, one notes a pre-occupation with performing his idea of a proper notion of manhood. Leadership is not only to be decorous, but also distinctly male. The idea of manhood for Rev. Cullen was not a factor every man was born with inherently, but one that requires cultivation and discipline. As a result, Rev. Cullen's notion of masculinity led him to emphasize the merits of hard work, physical activity, athletics and "the strenuous life" as ways for men to attain masculinity. (Powers, 1) In these themes one clearly notes a stress on the male body as the location for leadership. For Cullen, the achievement of black manhood was the one lack that separated black Americans from equal standing with whites. Thus to recover the physical aspect of Cullen's notion of manhood is also to achieve uplift for the entire race.
Cullen's emphasis on training for "masculinity" as preparation for leadership seemed a bit crude but was understandable in his context. Between the years of 1882 and 1927, there were 3,513 African-Americans lynched; ninety-seven percent of the victims were men. (Powers, 3) Since slavery, the male body had been the chief location of violence by whites using it as a tool to enforce their perceived superiority. By these estimates, the recuperation of a positive sense of black manhood through the medium of training the body seemed a reasonable, if not definitive answer to racial uplift for people like Cullen.
For these reasons, and for the sake of his individual faith profession, Rev. Cullen believed it necessary to perform his concept of black manhood in order to seize manhood for black men and social worth for the black race by extension. Through hard work and tightly fashioned moral exhortation, Rev. Cullen raised Salem from a "a tiny, struggling mission church to one of the most powerful African American churches of the twenties, with more than three thousand members, large property holdings, and a plethora of ministries to the tidal wave of immigrants from the South." (Powers, 4)
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist helped to transform the office of the black pastor into an overtly political position in an urban context. He is described as employing "pragmatic harmonization" in his approach to the uplift project in Harlem. As a result, he was often viewed as teetering ideologically between silent economic approaches to addressing the core issues of Harlem to that of overt political agitation. For Powell, the importance of this supposed teetering is rather skill at discerning the needs of one's surroundings and tailoring one's approach to meet those needs. Further, Powell understood that possessing capital without full agency placed limits on how much of a citizen one could be.
Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment Powell ever landed in his time at Abyssinian Baptist came before the church was ever located in Harlem. In While still at their previous location in another part of the city, Powell confronted his congregation of with the idea of moving to Harlem where they could address the then still infant demographical and cultural movement, When Powell initially presented the idea in 1921, the body of Abyssinian proved less than enthusiastic.
Despite their initial resistance and after much persuasion climaxing in Powell's threat to leave the church due what perceived was a lack of commitment to calling, Abyssinian went on to purchase a site, build and pay off a new building in Harlem by 1927. (Kinney, Abstract: 9) With this done, Powell and Abyssinian could attend to doing the work his heart had longed to do since his youth: to become a relevant teacher and credible advocate for the heart of black America; the population about which he cared most. He used the pulpit not only to draw people close to God, but to help them to realize that this nearness comes only through compassion for people.
In a Sermon entitled, "A Hungry God", Powell addressed his congregation about the depth of poverty in New York during the Great Depression.
You and I can add to God's power on Earth. We clothe God by clothing men and women. Jesus interpreted this as meaning to clothe men and women when they are naked. When you give men and women coats, shoes and dresses you are giving clothes to god. If the Bible does not mean this it does not mean anything.
The importance of this sermon to this study was that it accomplished far more than pacification of its hearers and achieved much greater than blind obedience to the pastor's word. Rather, as was Powell's essential objective, it enlightened the congregation about the destitute state of many of their brothers and sisters throughout New York. Further, it is a prime example of how Powell kept critically in touch with his community, surveying its expanses and attending to its needs. In a very real sense, he pastored Harlem.
The product of his advocacy was a great swell of support in the form of soup kitchens and volunteer support throughout the city. Powell's heart was always fixed on helping others and, like Cullen, manifested itself not only through his words in sermons but through his living. This example evidences the priority Powell placed on the quality of his life together with people in community. As this portion witnesses, he believed that his religion truly would "not mean anything" if it did not mean to care for people.
Outside of his church pastorship, Rev. Powell was also greatly involved in many of the same organizations as Cullen. Powell interest in leadership and service led him to the Harlem chapter of the NAACP, to become a co-founder and Board member of the National Urban League, to help to coordinate the 1917 Silent Protest Parade, to spearhead the creation of a church network to feed the hungry during rough economic times, as well as to publish his sermons in several books to the benefit of young people wishing to attend college. As we can see through his involvements, his life was always about compassion, always about service and sacrifice.
Unlike Cullen however, he was not pre-occupied with performing the perfectly moral life. Though he did exhort his congregation to avoid gambling, excessive drinking and frequenting clubs, he did so largely because he knew that many members of his congregation could not afford to spend their money on such things and live comfortably. Rather than being motivated by a strict moralist compulsion, Powell balanced a progressive, uninhibited approach to addressing social justice issues with a more conservative personal ethic, displaying in his person an effective model for tailoring his approach to what were the needs of his community.
Rather than feeling compelled to demonstrate to black Americans how they should live, he Powell was much more concerned with discerning needs from the people and re-presenting to them their needs with constructive and empowering solutions. Much less interesting in rubbing elbows with the right people, his common, principled approach to leadership yielded an extremely loyal and abundant following.
In these two men, there is indeed ideological overlap considering even the themes along which they have been differentiated in this essay. It would be obscene to assert that Rev Cullen did not practice discernment in his approach to Harlem or that Rev. Powell took no responsibility for providing a good example for the members of his congregation and the city at large. Instead, the point of this essay is to draw out particularly strong themes along which to display particular aspects of the religious landscape in Harlem during the Renaissance.
The greater purpose of this essay is to write into the history of the Renaissance the influence of religion on the movement. It is clear that writers from Hughes to Cullen to Fisher often employed the language of Christianity in their work during this period. Through showcasing these two representative religious leaders, this essay hopes ultimately to write religion into the way we remember the Renaissance, not simply as a deterrent to self-expression as it is commonly remembered or above average people in judgment. Instead this essay hopes to remember religion during the Renaissance as a constitutive element of Harlem; a resident, not an outsider.
NAACP or UNIA? | Finale | Home
Click characters above to navigate the site.
New Negro | Set The Stage | Buckets or Books? | Jazz or Junk? | NAACP or UNIA? | Church Leaders | Finale! | Curtain Call