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Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877

October 18, 1987 – October 30, 1988

African Americans’ ongoing quest for autonomy in their spiritual and communal lives gave rise to African American churches in major East Coast cities—from the First Great Awakening in 1740, a series of religious revivals that exploded across America during the last half of the 1700s, to the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877. Throughout this period, African American churches met spiritual needs and also provided the foundation for a range of communal endeavors, from political organizing to the development of hospitals, schools, and colleges.

For many who survived traumatic voyages on slave ships and the violence of enslavement, religious practices were key to creating a sense of humanity. However, those who joined predominantly white churches encountered discrimination. By melding African religious traditions with Christianity, an African American Christian faith gradually emerged. Congregants considered an individual’s spiritual well-being integral to the economic and social well-being of the community, so the church became not only a house of worship, but the center of African American life.


American Sketches: A Negro Congregation at Washington. Published by The Illustrated London News, November 18, 1876. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joele and Fred Michaud.