The Invisible Church That Was Seen All Over

The Birth of the Invisible Church

Since the Africans arrived in America (particularly the South) from the Motherland, a majority of them have attempted to preserve as much of their African heritage as possible, including certain cultural and religious practices. It was not until the Great Awakening happened in the mid 1700’s (around 1740) that led to a vast population of slaves converting to Christianity. The method that was used to convert was based on experience rather than the enforcement of the Bible. By this time, an overwhelmingly noticeable amount of Blacks had begun to attend sermons. During their presence at White services, the slaves started to feel as if the way the Europeans worshiped was not satisfactory.

It was proclaimed that many of the slaves forcefully tolerated the White worship despite their true feelings of it (Maultsby and Burnim 53). This led to slaves wanting to worship on their own time in their own way, therefore creating The Invisible Church. Despite the laws where slaves could not assemble without white supervision, they gathered at sites in secret to worship. Some of the places included fields, swamps, and or in living quarters. To the newly converted slaves, belief in Christianity was not viewed as losing their African Heritage because they managed to keep it intact through worship.

Ways of Worship

One of the prominent ways of worship that was introduced and valued in the Invisible Church was the Ring shout. The Ring shout is a style of folk spirituals that consists of antiphonal singing(call and response), accompanied by clapping, other percussion, and dance as the people would shuffle in counterclockwise circles. Oftentimes, the leader would take their place in the center to lead the songs. This form of worship included long repetitive songs with a variation of tempo and robust vocal timbre to compliment the melodic lines (Maultsby and Burnim 56). The performance of the Ring shout was also polyrhythmic(West and Central African origins) because the simultaneous singing, clapping, and stomping initiated contrasting rhythms. The creation of the Ring shout also led to another form of worship that occurred during the Ring shout called the drama shout. This was where the person in the center would lower their body inch by inch down to their knees, then down to their head, and then back up again.

Visual reenactment of the ring shout.

Visual reenactment of the ring shout.

Ring shout: Good Lord (example used in class)

Criticize, Criticize, Criticize!

As the knowledge of the Invisible Church and their unique way of worship circulated, the church received a lot of criticism. Many people who were not members of Invisible Churches viewed their way of worship, specifically the Ring shout, as barbaric. One notable critizer of the Invisible Church and the Ring shout was Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. Bishop Payne was a black man born in Charleston, SC and a member and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal(AME) church. He saw the Invisible Church and the Ring shout as a “bush meeting”, “disgusting” and anyone who practiced were “ignorant but well meaning” (Maultsby and Burnim 59).

Impact on Today's Churches


Although there were numerous churches and people criticizing the practices and ways of worship that took place in the Invisible Church, these activities resulted in churches adopting their way of praise, one notably being the Baptist Church. The Baptist denomination of Christianity is recognized for their large Black population and their distinct way of worship. The typical way of praise and worship in a Baptist Church includes prayer, communal singing, testifying, and the possibility of preaching taking place(Maultsby and Burnim 53). It is common for prayer to go from speech slowly into song. Congregational participation is suggested and done so by shouting out onto the Lord. Singing, clapping, stomping, shouting, and dancing follows the affirmations. All of which is very similar to the practices and ways of worship demonstrated in the Invisible Church (Maultsby and Burnim 53).

Praise break out at Union Baptist Church.

Praise break out at Union Baptist Church.

Praise break out during preaching.

Brief Conclusion

Slaves wanted to express themselves and worship differently in their newly learned religion of Christianity. Although they began to practice the “European Religion”, they kept their African roots intact through worship. Overwhelming amounts of criticism came when the Invisible Church and their systems of worship were introduced, but they did not allow the backlash to stop them from their way of praise and worship. Instead, Invisible Churches continued to take place and give praise the same way they always have, therefore becoming a large influence on today’s churches, spiritual music, and religious forms of expression.


Burnim, M. V., & Maultsby, P. K. (2015). The Transatlantic African Cultural and Musical Past. In African American music: An introduction (2nd ed., p. 4). New

York: Routledge.


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