Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1995-1996 index

Distributed June 11, 1996
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

History of African American religion

Historian says church arsons are nothing new for blacks in America

The recent rash of arson and vandalism at African American churches has roots as far back as the 18th century and may not be the work of extremist groups, according to John Saillant, visiting assistant professor of Afro-American studies at Brown.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- John Saillant, visiting assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at Brown University, says the current rash of church arsons in the South is nothing new. Its roots in American history go as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries.

"There were many early incidents of blacks being punished (whipped, etc.) for practicing Christian worship," Saillant says. "Sometimes there was literally a disruption of worship. There were also incidents of buildings being destroyed by fire or force. For instance, in Connecticut when Prudence Crandall enrolled a black girl in her private school in the early 1830s, a crowd flattened the building. What were called `race riots' were often attacks on homes inhabited by black people when the land where the homes were located became desirable.... I see church-burning in this tradition, not in one of its own.

"Most people associate church-burning with the 1960s attacks on churches believed to harbor civil-rights activists," Saillant says, "but that was part of an older phenomenon."

Saillant says he would be surprised to find links between extremist groups and the arsons. "Unfortunately, the behavior is not extremism, but normalism."

Saillant specializes in 18th and 19th-century African-American religion. He is available for interviews through the Brown News Bureau.