Negro Spirituals and the Invisible Church

The Invisible Church

The invisible church was one of the few ways for slaves to be able to freely express and be true to themselves while in captivity.

Background and History

Back in the early South during slavery, African slaves were not allowed to worship by themselves. Black codes, which were laws that prohibited slaves from engaging in certain actions, made it against the law for slaves to worship unless in the presence of whites. African-American slaves were passionate about worship and religion, but not fond of the white way, so they were forced to come up with a secret way to worship. The Invisible Church was then created.


Slave Accounts

When going to worship, the slaves would "Hold prayer-meetin' in de woods, den dey turn down a big wash pot and prop it up with a stick to drown out de sound of de singin'".
Fannie Moore
Ex- Slave
When the slaves attended white church, they were told "Serve your masters. Don't steal your master's turkey. Don't steal your master's hawgs".
Lucretia Alexander
"White fo'ks have deir service in de mornin' am' black folks have deirs in de evenin".
Sarah Fitzpatrick
Alabama Slave

Components of Worship


Moved from speech to song.

Communal Singing

Involved everyone that was present in the church, and included hand clapping, body movement, shouting and religious dance.


Sharing a testimony, or story, of how religion has worked in their life.


Congregational participation was expected and highly valued.

A Way of Life

Through the invisible church, slaves were able to be passionate about their religion on their own terms. It became the norm for them, and was a sense of freedom in their lives of control and captivity. In a sense, the invisible church became their hidden way of life.


Burnim, Mellonee V. “Spirituals.” African American Music: An Introduction, by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, Routledge, 2015, pp. 53–54.


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