A current Anacostia Neighborhood Museum exhibit, "Climbing up Jacob's Ladder," conveys several messages about the religious experience of American blacks, one of which is this: To many slaves, their God was different from the God of their masters.
While the masters' God commanded obedience and complacency, the slaves' God "moved in history to liberate people," said Edward Smith, Smithsonian historian who put the exhibit together. Slaves "looked to the Old Testament for answers, which gave hope for a better day. The Old Testament told them there was a God who could deliver them from bondage."
Smith's project documents through photographs and artifacts the gradual rise of the black church and the creation of a new kind of religion weaving the Christianity of Europe and the United States with ancient traditions of Africa.
In the "proper instruction of slaves," white ministers depending largely on the New Testament told slaves to be content with their temporary earthly existence and look forward to freedom in the afterlife.
Blacks, on the other hand, " . . . had come to identify with the biblical children of Israel enslaved in Egyptian bondage," a plaque in the exhibit says. "They believed that just as God had delivered Israel, so would he deliver the sons and daughters of Africa from slavery in America."
Uprooted from Africa and dumped onto foreign shores, slaves climbed out of ships with nothing but lingering horrors of their ocean crossing. Many turned to religion to make sense of the confusion of coming to a new land.
With them, they brought their customs, including burial rituals in which valuable possessions of the dead were buried with them or laid on their graves.
"The slaves from West Africa held the belief that when a person dies his spirit should not go into the other world as a pauper," Smith said. A dish in the exhibit, excavated from a child's grave in the First African Baptist Cemetery in Philadelphia and dated from the 1830s, demonstrates this element.
Other African traditions woven into the new religion were voodoo and root work. "Even today in areas of the rural South there is belief in root work or magic," Smith said.
One of the many elements of traditional African religions carried over to Christianity was the shout, which is still practiced today in many black Pentecostal and some black Baptist churches.
"The shout is definitely an African retention," Smith said. "The shout is similiar to a dance associated with African religions that actually used dances. It was an emotional experience in which you danced out how you feel."
The exhibit, which covers the years 1740 to 1877, is divided into five units. It starts with blacks coming to America where they're introduced to Christianity by whites, including Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather.
The second unit, "Gather Together in My Name," presents the emergence of the black congregation from 1740 to 1800, which includes the "Great Awakening," a period in which revivals flourished amidst concern by whites for the souls of the slaves.
Massive numbers of slaves were introduced to Christianity, following a notion of many whites that although slaves were subhuman, they had souls, and all souls should be saved.
During that period the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Ga., was established. The church, officially organized in 1788 by Andrew Bryan, was one of the earliest black Baptist churches in the country.
"Onward Christian Soldiers," the third unit, covers the emergence of black churches in the North from 1800 to 1860. "Down in Egypt's Land," unit four, deals with visible black congregations in the South, as opposed to the underground "invisible" church. The period also covers the years from 1800 to 1860.
Unit five, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," looks at the further development of the black church in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. By 1877, when that unit ends, denominations that started in the North, including the African Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, were well established in the South.
Finally, the exhibit features the important role churches played in education -- the use of sanctuaries as classrooms on weekdays, and the founding of major black institutions including Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., Zion Wesley Institution in Salisbury, N.C., and Fisk University in Nashville.
A theme that runs throughout the exhibit is that of churches in the community climbing up Jacob's ladder. "Jacob's Ladder is an old Negro spiritual composed by slaves as they worked in the fields," Smith said. "I selected Jacob's Ladder because it decribes the type of movement from no awareness, as far as Christianity, to entering the white church, to creating churches of their own. Climbing up Jacob's ladder portrays the rise of churches from nowhere to somewhere."
The exhibit, fully titled "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities," is at 1901 Fort Place SE and runs until March 20.