Historical Context of Black Judaism

“Black Judaism is an example of a religious type that has been termed messianic nationalism. Groups of this sort combine religious expectation of divine deliverance from oppressive conditions with a strong sense of nationhood… Several writers have suggested that the ultimate roots of black Judaism lie in the
identification of African American slaves with the Egyptian servitude and liberation
of the biblical Hebrews.”

— Merrill Singer, “Symbolic Identity Formation in an African American Religious Sect”

“Rabbi Wentworth Matthew and members of the Moorish Zionist Temple, one of the earliest black Hebrew congregations in New York. Photo by James Van Der Zee. Donna Van Der Zee collection.” Caption from Merrill Singer’s “Symbolic Identity Formation in an African American Religious Sect”. Photo found on Forward.

The Zionist Appeal

Collective black American identity was in part birthed by the Protestant revivals at the turn of the 19th century. Mass conversions of enslaved people to Christianity compelled black Americans to modify the religion. One such modification was the emphasis on Hebrew scriptures and imagery. New black American Christians felt connected to the plight of the biblical Israelites.

Starting in the late 19th Century, pan-Africanism was infused with a desire to redeem Africa at the hands of black Americans. This desire, Ethiopianism, saw American black people as prophetic heirs of God’s redemption. Proponents of this kind of black nationhood saw Zionism as an analogous pursuit. Prominent pan-African intellectuals related the black American experience with Jewish diaspora. There was a desire to reunite the black diaspora and build a sovereign community in Africa. At this time though, Christianity was still the religion claimed by black Americans.

Birth of Black Judaism

In Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, scholars Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch trace the origins of black Judaism. They claim that the Church of God and the Saints of Christ started the phenomenon in 1896.

The start of the 20th century saw an emergence of black Americans who identified as Jewish. This phenomenon established a racial connection to Judaism, rather than the socio-spiritual one before. The Church of God and Saints of Christ were referred to as “black Jews.” They practiced a form of Judaism that incorporated Christian elements. They celebrated Passover and observed Sabbath, as well as practiced baptisms and taught about the life of Jesus Christ. Some figures within black Judaism distinguished their Jewish culture by rejecting black Christian culture. Prophet Cherry, one of the early leaders of a black Jewish congregation in Philadelphia, expressed disdain towards black Christians.

The period from 1908 to 1925 saw the emergence of many black Jewish congregations.

Rabbi Standing with Choir Josiah Ford, of the Congregation Beth B’Nai Abraham, is one of the few rabbis of the Black Jews in the United States. Here he stands with his choir. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images). Caption by Getty Images.