The newspaper article transcribed below tells the story of a rural African-American church in Grenada, Mississippi whose congregants played banjo and fiddle music during worship services and “marchings.” The piece, which was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1887, is curious because of the religious use of the banjo and also because the church was led by a woman, who is noted for exercising tremendous influence over church-members as well as the political life of the surrounding community.
As Randy Sparks notes in On Jordan’s Stormy Banks (1994), Cindy Mitchell, referred to as “Scinda” here, led a congregation that included at least one hundred families in the 1890s (197). The “new religion” described in the article would have been connected to the holiness movement, in which the practice of using otherwise “secular” instruments was common. Rare details about the objects used during worship, such as a red table-cloth decorated with patterns stitched in white offer intriguing glimpses into the religious life of a unique community.
The banjo music and “shuffling feet” described appear similar to the sort of string band music that would have accompanied a corn-shucking or other rural celebrations, but one wonders how these musical styles might have been adapted for the purposes of worship. Also, the congregants are said to have formed circles, danced, and shouted in much the same way that ritual “ring-shouts” often were described in Afro-descendant communities during and after slavery.
Readers will note that while the author writes very favorably of the religious group and its leader, his views also exemplify the way race and racism structured community life and reportage in the post-Reconstruction-era South. Not only does he identify the priestess by her former enslaver, but he also describes her physical appearance according to its racial characteristics. That said, Scinda’s band appears to have imposed limits in order to protect their worship grounds from racism. According to first person accounts that Sparks cites, white congregants sat in the back of the church or outside near the windows and black members occupied the best seats (Sparks 197). We can imagine that the author himself was asked to take a seat in the back of the church.
You can download a PDF of the newspaper by clicking on the link below and view a few excerpts from the article in the images following the transcription. Many thanks to Randy Sparks of Tulane University who offered insights about “Cindy’s Band” to us over email to provide additional context for the article.
A New Religion in Mississippi, the complete PDF.
A NEW RELIGION IN MISSISSIPPI.
The Negro Woman Scinda Its High Priest–Worship That Includes Singing, Dancing and Banjo Music .
Correspondence of the Picayune. Grenada, Miss., Sept. 12, 1887.
Grenada county furnishes a new theocracy, which is interesting. Along after the war a negro woman named Scinda, who was a slave of Captain Mitchell, a farmer of this county, suddenly revealed it to the world that she had been inspired by God and was a servant of his to direct his people, both black and white. She organized a band of exhorters and wont from farm to farm pleading with both colors to quit their meanness. Her band grew and now it numbers something like 800 members of her color.
In company with some friends I drove out to her church, which is situated three miles from here, Sunday evening. Long before we reached the church we could hear the picking of the banjo and the shuffling of feet. Alighting,
arrayed in gorgeous red and yellow, came to the door to greet us and welcome us in. The church is a small structure made of pine logs. Around the walls hang her paraphernalia used in her marches through the country. In the center of the room stood a little table covered with a red cloth of grotesque figures of white sewed on it. this is where the members speak.
When we arrived a “soldier” was telling his inspirations of the day. He consumed about ten minutes, then they danced and sung and played the banjo and shouted. When dancing begins they all stand up and as many as can join hands until a circle is formed. They march around and around, singing their own chants, occasionally stopping and each one goes through a “shuffle” to the music of a banjo. This performance lasts about ten minutes, then another preaches, then a dance and so on until a few minutes before they break up for the day. Then every voice is hushed and a stillness pervades the house.
Rising slowly and deliberately from her seat Scinda, the priestess of this new, original and strange religion, proceeds to the appointed stand. Every one watches her with wide-eyed wonder and is eager to catch every syllable of her utterances. Her sermons are
SHORT AND TO THE POINT.
She claims that every word escaping her lips is from God. Her sayings are original and some of them not devoid of good sense. In her sermon Sunday, among other things, the said: “Some of you darkies are like a hoe-cake cooked only on one side. You come to church, and oh, nothing is too good for you do. You sing and pray and dance and shout until one would think you are ready for heaven. Monday comes, you show the raw side. You are with the world; you steal, you like and do everything that is wrong. That is not the kind of religion we want. We want the hoe-cake cooked through and through; when you break it in the middle let it be brown as it is on the bottom.”Speaking of law, she said no law could be made too stringent for her. She wanted every violation of God’s will punishable on earth as well as in the world to come. “The judges of our courts,” she said, “ought to be baptized in the grace of God; the Bible says that lawyers should be good and honest, and prosecuting attorneys ought to be chuckfull of religion.” She insists on personal cleanliness, and in this she is not far from godliness. She rigidly enforces
HONESTY AND THE PROMPT PAYMENT OF DEBTS.
When a member of her band is convicted of doing any deed of dishonestly they are immediately expelled from her band. Scinda’s power over the temporal affairs of her members is absolute. Her law is their law, and to incur the enmity of their shepherdess is to displease God.
She plays a powerful part in the political affairs of Grenada county and the surrounding country. No politician dares to oppose her, and about election time she is the recipient of more adulation and homage than her white exponents of the Scriptures.
She holds the balance of power, and when a candidate has her promise of support he is safe. Her band probably polls 300 votes and every one of them votes as she directs. They dare not disobey the ten-thousandth part of her simplest behest. It means, if they do, that Scinda’s band will dance them into the bottomless pits of hell. She believes that a person is punished as he behaves himself on earth; that the more he sins the worse his punishment. This is in conflict with the teachings of other churches, who believe the smallest aim is punished by torture as great as the largest.
She regards virtue as the highest law of God, and it is said that none of the band indulge in any licentiousness.
Her teachings, with all their peculiar modes of worship, are good. She is
JUST IN ALL THINGS,
and her word is good for anything. The whites and blacks respect her. She preaches every Sunday at her little church and occasionally makes a trip through the country. Her meetings are opened by music and dancing for some time. They usually commence by 8 o’clock and last all day. At the close there is considerable ceremony. It is marked by a procession, single file, each one carrying a symbol marked by design, moving under the music of the fiddle and banjo. After rounds of marchings they assemble in solemn awe around their priestess Scinda, whose presence indicates she stands on
THE OUTER CIRCLE OF DIVINITY.
Here, after singing their peculiar requiems, they disperse one by one. Occasionally one is overcome there by clear visions of future happiness and demonstrations followed by hallelujahs and dancing.
Scinda is a small woman, with plainly marked features of African and Caucasian intermixed. Ignorant and uneducated, she has the confidence of a class of people who are marked by their good behavior, the payment of their debts and their love for Scinda and her doctrines.
She nor her band is not a subject of derision. They are subjects for thought. In this enlightened age, closely surrounded by churches, this woman has built up an influence that is powerful and continues to grow. She firmly declares that God has told her the world would come to a close this year. This statement only came from her a few days ago, and the colored people are exercised over her message from God as they were never before.
JAS. S. EVANS, JR.
Click on the images below to see excerpts from the original newspaper article.
Claims about disassociation between banjos and black religion appear to be overdone. My own research of 19th century and early 20th Century African American newspapers is replete with a number of reports of concerts and performances of what would now be termed classic banjoists at African American churches across the North including one concert at a major Black church in Washington DC around 1903 where the Aeolians, the major Black banjo mandlin and guitar club of the time, performed for thousands. African American churches in the late 19th and early 20th century in the North and in Southern cities, regularly had musical concerts, often of a quite secular nature.
Black jubilee singers like the Fisk Singers and their numerous imitators and competitors regularly used banjoists probably, again playing the classic style, in their accompaniment. Actually, similarly to what Monro reports about Trinidad, Jubilee singers had a major impact on spreading the banjo to Africa in the late 19th century. Hosea Eason,an African American from Connecticut, who arrived in Australia and New Zealand in the 1880s accompanied Jubilee singers, is seen as one of the most important figures in the development of banjo playing (again in the classic style) in Australia and New Zeland.
Doing hard research on the banjo and its real history quickly pushes away a lot of unfounded assumptions we once held to be gospel truth, a sentence I have written a hundred times over the past eight years
Tony, thanks for commenting and for sharing some of your fascinating research. What you describe about banjos in 19th century black churches and an international circulation is very interesting.