Baton Rouge Traditions

Black Preaching Styles: Teaching, Exhorting, and Whooping

By Joyce Marie Jackson


I got “the call” when I was walking in Bon Marche Mall near the I. H. Rubenstein Department Store. A voice spoke to me twice.

—Pastor Inita Smith

Periodically, I visit other churches and have a chance to hear various preachers deliver their sermons. In addition, we have guest ministers who preach at my church. This article briefly examines four ministers and the richness and diversity of preaching styles in Black "folk churches" of Baton Rouge and their relationship to African verbal lore and performance aesthetic.

As many students of religion have pointed out, the African American "folk church" has historically represented the single cultural institution through which African Americans have been able to express themselves freely and without constraint (Mays and Nicholson 1933; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990; Frazier 1964; Lincoln 1974). Since the church is the most conservative institution in the African American community, it is logical to assume that ritual services, including the mode of worship and style and function of music, would be most likely to be preserved in their least changed form. Many cultural ties of the African ancestral lineage have been maintained within the enclave of the African American folk church. Pearl Williams-Jones characterizes the folk church as:

. . . a mystical, invisible body of believers unified by a common Christian theology as well as a visible body and community of Black people unified by common cultural ties. We may consider the Black folk church as being an institution controlled by Blacks which exists principally within the Black community and which reflects its attitudes, values and lifestyle. It is a church of everyday people and one of any denomination. (1977: 21)

Many of the ritual practices that we commonly associate with the African American folk church—such as freely structured services, dance, improvisational music, the emotional and musical style of delivery of some preachers' sermons and prayers, and spontaneous verbal and non-verbal responses by preachers and congregations—have clearly emerged from African values and aesthetics.

The Great Awakening (1740) seems to have provided African American preachers with their first significant public exposure. It was also during this era that the camp meeting proved to be a powerful instrument for accelerating the pace of slave conversions as well as providing a certain degree of freedom for those charismatic enslaved men who could preach. The evangelical cast of this religious form stressed the conversion experience rather than the process of religious instruction, which made Christianity more accessible to illiterate enslaved people and (often barely literate) slaveholders alike. In this form of Christianity, a converted heart and a gifted tongue were more important than the amount of theological training received. Accordingly, if a converted slave showed talent for preaching, he or she was able to preach, and not only to Black congregations. The tendency of religion to level the playing ground—the focus on "the souls of all men before God"—became manifest when the awakened or converted Blacks preached to unconverted Whites during this era in the South.

In many cases, preachers operated, still, as the property of their owners. But there were also numerous examples of enslaved preachers who were purchased and set free to preach. For example:

After the resignation in 1792 of their pastor, the mixed congregation of the Portsmouth, Virginia, Baptist Church "employed Josiah (or Jacob) Bishop, a black man of considerable talents to preach for them." Portsmouth congregation thought so much of Bishop that it purchased his freedom and that of his family (Jackson 1931:176). In that same year the Roanoke (Virginia) Association purchased a slave named Simon and set him free to exercise his gifts because they thought "him ordained by God to preach the Gospel" (Raboteau 1978:134).

This preaching style and long, colorful narrative prayers had been developed earlier during the institution of slavery. The chanted sermon style—once held to be altogether European in origin—actually has historic precedent in several groups in West, Central, East, and southern Africa. Because many African cultures emphasize oral traditions, the artful manipulations of "the word"—from the precolonial epics of the West African griot to contemporary playing the dozens or rapping in the streets—is a highly prized skill among people of African descent. Although both African American and Anglo Americans perform the folk chanted sermon—and may go beyond chanting to actually singing—the tradition has been most fully developed in the African-American community.

Four Preachers: The Call and Style

I strategically planned to interview preachers from four different denominations in the Black community in Baton Rouge. Although each has a somewhat different type of seminary-trained background, they all share the traditional style of Black folk preaching that has similar threads of continuity with African roots, including rhetorical structures, vernacular language, vocal musicality, antiphonal aspects, and hermeneutics of Black preaching.

This study centers on previous ethnographic interviews with preachers; participant observations of worship services; and a review of published literature related to Black religion, preachers, and religious ritual in Africa and the diaspora. Participants were interviewed about their background, their "call" to preach, their style of preaching, and their awareness of the African cultural performance aesthetic that shapes the tradition of Black preaching. I did not give them a definition of preaching style because it was also my intent to understand what each of them considered to be a preaching style.

Pastor Inita Smith

Pastor Inita Smith. Photo: Lawrence Square.

Pastor Inita Smith talks about her preaching style and the concept of being God's storyteller.

Jackson: What is your preaching style?

Smith: I don't know if I have a certain style. My personal take on this is everyone who has been called has something unique to offer and different ways of offering it. Some that are called are not called to be in the pulpit. I try not to be judgmental. God tells me to tell his stories. For last Sunday, "Beware, Buyer, Beware" was my topic. Be careful what you buy into. An example coming from the Bible, when Esau bought into the plan he was hungry and he sold himself for a meal, a bowl of soup. Another example—the first buyer beware when Eve tempted Adam, and Eve bought into the serpent's plan.

Bread—Jesus said I am the bread of life. When he fed the 5,000, He basically said, I am led by the spirit. Whatever He offers, it has already been done, it's in the plan. Self's biggest problem is "self." Sometimes we lose people trying to be too pedantic. Just tell the stories. People understand the stories. My calling was teaching by telling the stories.

In viewing preaching style, Pastor Smith looks at several factors: what you wear, how long you preach, and what you use to bring the message.

Smith: Your outer appearance carries a lot of weight. You want your congregation to listen to what you are saying and not pay attention to what you are wearing, so I wear a robe when I enter the pulpit. Also, you have to pay attention to the length of time you present yourself. You have to captivate, not bore people; they have a short attention span. I also use song to bring the message. Songs—sacred and secular—have powerful messages. Take for instance, "Respect Yourself" performed by Aretha Franklin and another version by the Staple Singers. Everybody understands what is being said here and it is a very powerful, but simple message. Look at "Rock of Ages." He was in a cave. Look at "Amazing Grace," where the lyrics were written by [John] Newton, the captain of a slave ship. Wow, you talking about a turn-a-round! God's grace is amazing and what a message!

Pastor Inita Smith has a close relationship with her congregants. She has two churches, Moses Chapel United Methodist with about thirty members and Beech Grove United Methodist with about fifty members. She was seminary trained at Millsap College and licensed to preach in Woolworth, Louisiana, at the Methodist Conference Center. She said, "I got the call when I was walking in the Bon Marche Mall near I. H. Rubenstein Department Store—a voice spoke to me twice."

My interviews with and observations of preachers attest to the tenacity of certain traditional belief structures, among them the continuing importance of "the call," the concept that one has been "chosen" by God as His intermediary or messenger. The nature of the call manifests itself in a mysterious way through a "sign," through healing powers, through conversion, or just by hearing the "voice of God." Personal choice to become a preacher, growing out of a divinely inspired call, is an important aspect of the Black preaching tradition. Most Black preachers remember the day, date, place, and what they were doing at the time. Some ministers try to fight the call, ignore it, or deny that it is God calling them for many years, but eventually most comply. Getting the call is the beginning of a long journey.

Dr. Herman Kelly

Dr. Herman Kelly. Photo: Courtesy of Herman Kelly.

Rev. Herman Kelly, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal for 17 years, is extremely active in his community. He comes from a line of preachers: His great uncle was a United Methodist pastor and missionary, and some other uncles were preachers. He also teaches courses in religion, education, and African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University [LSU].

Jackson: What is your educational/theological background?

Kelly: Morehouse College BA [Bachelor of Arts], Springfield College MA [Master's of Arts], Boston University School of Theology Master's of Divinity, and Memphis Theological Seminary Doctor of Ministry.

Jackson: Did you get the call from God to preach, and if so when and under what circumstances?

Kelly: God called me while a senior in high school, but I fought the call for 10 years. . . . I was in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I finally gave into my struggle with God.

Jackson: How long have you been preaching and when did you get your first church? How long have you been at Bethel?

Kelly: I have been preaching since 1980. My first assignment was in Newport, Rhode Island, at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. I have been at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge for 17 years. I have the longest tenure of any pastor at Bethel.

Jackson: What do you consider to be your preaching style?

Kelly: My preaching style is preacher/teacher/theologian. . . . The Biblical text . . . should be preacher/teacher. . . . I want to enhance reason and faith informs my preaching, and I give the congregants a mind and spirit encounter or as Howard Thurman said, "Head and Heart." I give three points and illustrations and stories of application for everyday living.

Jackson: What do you consider other preaching styles to be?

Kelly: We have expository preaching, storytelling, and social gospel. . . . I do some social gospel preaching.

Jackson: Are you a singing preacher? If so, do you have any type of musical background?

Kelly: I sing if I am moved by God. I have very little musical background. I love the hymns of our Faith.

Jackson: Do you consider a Black preaching style as having a relationship to African practices and aesthetics?

Kelly: Yes! We are people of stories. We tell stories to explain our journey in life. People of the African Diaspora were people who had a storytelling background. The call and response is part of our tradition.

Jackson: In your course at LSU, Black Rhetorical Traditions, do you make the correlation between African American preaching and African oratory traditions?

Kelly: Yes! The sermon is a biblical experience. The oratory tradition of African Americans has its roots in the Black preaching experience. The church and faith was the centerpiece for the Black community. Our first experience with public oration was in the Black Church, i.e. Easter speeches, choir solos, and dramatic presentations, and youth participation in worship services. In St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Florida, my oratorical background and faith foundation was laid. I was asked many times to use my public speaking skills. The main point of the preaching experience is the call of God. I have no doubt that God called me to this endeavor. Why? Sometimes the assurance of the call of God on one's life is the only experience that sustains during times of trials and difficult moments.

The Black Church was and still is the "cultural womb of the black community." Not only did it give birth to new institutions, including banks, insurance companies, and schools, it also provided an arena for political activities, an educational academy, and outlets for artistic, musical, and theatrical development for the youth in the community. Often the first public performance by Black youth is given at the church. Similarly to Rev. Kelly and other ministers honing their oratory skills at church, writers also emerged there; indeed, the first Black book publisher was the A.M.E. Church (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990:8).

Minister Sharon Adams

Minister Sharon Adams. Photo: Courtesy of Sharon Adams.

Minister Sharon Adams does not have a formal association with a church but has a teaching ministry, She has preached at various churches and was a former minster to a large body of Louisiana State University students for whom services during the 1990s were held at the campus African American Cultural Center. Her eclectic and Afrocentric spirituality appealed to many of the students.

Jackson: What is your preaching style and spiritual approach?

Adams: I read or recite scripture, possibly give a brief history of the section or biblical character I am speaking about. I may add in a personal experience or current event. After the spirit hits, I may go into a vocal projection as the sermon evolves and builds into a climax where I often repeat phrases to reiterate the message.

Jackson: What other styles do you recognize in the theological world?

Adams: So, you have the teaching, whooping, gloom and doom messages. Then you have the prosperity preachers, teachers on faith and grace. Then you have preachers like T. D. Jakes who does more like a condemnation type of preaching, but also faith and grace and brings hope into his messages.

Minister Craig Davis of New York was a serious diabetic and had to lose a lot of weight. In the process of doing that he lost members of his family. Although he had not before, he now has a healing ministry. . . . Minister [BeBe] Winans in the Church of God in Christ preaches on redemption. He does elevate and projects his voice to get his point across to the congregation, but he does not whoop.

Singing preachers minister in song. They sometimes start their sermon in song and [their service] definitely ends in song. He [a singing preacher] can bring the Holy Spirit in so high. It is just like Aretha Franklin, she can sing a long meter and she can usher in the Holy Spirit and tear a church up!

Minister Sharon Adams' ministry is the African American Universal Apostolic Ministry. She has an unusual background for an Apostolic minister in that she was raised Catholic.

At the age of 30, I started reading the Bible for myself and then I eventually joined a Baptist church. When I was 16, I was always foreboding and went to join a convent in Techy, Illinois. I stayed there for three months and found out it was not for me. I went back to school and received a degree in architecture but still remained vigilant in religious studies on my own. I went to Italy for two years because my husband was in the Navy. While there I did a pilgrimage from the Vatican and studied and visited all the pertinent sites that the disciples became known for in the scriptures. I rested for a while and then began reading a conglomerate of Catholic and Protestant books and finally decided to go back to school. I went to Georgia and studied under George A. Stallings at the African American Catholic University.1 I received my doctoral degree in theology and was tested on Catholicism, Protestantism, and African religion.

Adams continues:

While working for an engineering firm in structural and civil engineering, I also continued to preach and minister. Since then I have preached at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and St. Michael's in Baton Rouge, and in African American congregations in Lafayette, Plaquemine and others. In addition, I served as the minister of a predominantly student congregation at Louisiana State University, and the worship services were held in the African American Culture Center. The services consisted of a combination of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Afrocentricism.

Minister Adams has studied Afro-based religions including Egyptian religion which is a combination of beliefs and practices which, were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. Today it would still include magic, mythology, science, medicine, psychiatry, spiritualism, herbology, as well as the modern understanding of religion as belief in a higher power and life after death. One of the more well-known concepts of the Kehmet people, Maat, symbolizes truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality and justice. The Egyptian Book of the Dead states that there are forty-two laws of Maat that were established 2000 years before Moses received the Ten Commandments. Ten of the Maat laws are similar to those of the Ten Commandments and in the sermon excerpt which follows, Minister Adams begins to compare the two doctrines.

Audio Player
Excerpt of sermon by Minister Sharon Adams, "The Journey through Life and Death" on July 20, 2016. Scriptures are from Genesis 25:12-17. Field recording by Joyce Jackson.

Minister Adams' flock was different than that of the other preachers in this study because she ministered predominantly to a new generation of Black young adults in her congregation—those who were born in the 1980s after the Civil Rights era. Her ministry was geared to a college-age body of youth who represented the Black intellectual class—both those who came to college with professional aspirations and those who made it to college in spite of their background in poverty. A large part of her congregation consisted of out-of-state students looking for a church home, especially important to them as students of a large Predominantly White Institution (PWI) as opposed to a small Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Minister Adams geared her sermons to relate to more student concerns, including their ambivalence about their racial identity their quest for both pride in their heritage and a strong sense of self, as well as a quest for a more Afrocentric spirituality. Compared to the other congregations, which were a mixture of age and class, this majority student congregation needed more counseling focusing on youth-related issues, but also her counseling had to be relevant to a God-centered spirituality as well as political and social issues in the larger community. Minister Adams rose to the occasion and in addition, became a mentor and role model to many of her young parishioners.

Pastor John E. Montgomery II

Pastor John E. Montgomery II has been the minister at the Greater King David Baptist Church since 1988 following the long legacy of Pastor Isiah Warner. Joining the ministry at a very young age, Pastor Montgomery performed his first sermon at the age of fourteen. His experience is somewhat different than the other ministers who started their formal journeys in the ministry as adults.

Pastor John E. Montgomery, II. Photo: Courtesy of Lea Polk Montgomery.

Jackson: What is your educational/ theological background?

Montgomery: I attended USL [University of Southwestern Louisiana, and now University of Louisiana, Lafayette], and majored in English. I earned a Bachelors in Theology from The New Orleans Baptist Seminary, further studies at Bishop College in Dallas, TX, and was later awarded Honorary Doctorate Degrees.

Jackson: Are there other ministers in your family and did you have any mentoring ministers in your life?

Montgomery: Yes, there are many ministers in my family: my sister, Elder Kym Copeland; my brother-in-law, Rev. Dennis Herbert; my uncle, Rev. Frank Collins, III; and my uncle, the late Rev. Larry Dupree.

Yes, I did have three mentoring ministers: Dr. C. V. Jackson, Rev. Andrew Johnson, and Rev. David Bates.

Jackson: Did you get "the call" from God to preach and if so when and under what circumstances?

Montgomery: I received my call from the Lord at the age of 13, preached my first sermon at 14, and pastored my first church at 21.

Jackson: That is amazing! Did you immediately respond to the call or did it take a while for you to be obedient?

Montgomery: I responded immediately, because I recognized the voice of God. He spoke so clearly; there was no mistaking Him. I was absolutely one hundred percent sure that it was God and He was clear about what He wanted me to do.

Jackson: Since you delivered your first sermon at the young age of fourteen and this is 2015, you have been preaching for about 41 years. How many churches have you pastored during this span of time? Give me the names and locations.

Montgomery: I was called to pastor my first church, Mount Zion Baptist Church # 1 in Loreauville, LA, at the age of 21. I have pastored two churches: Mount Zion Baptist Church # 1 in Loreauville, Louisiana, for 7 years, until the Lord called me to pastor The Greater King David Baptist Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in September of 1988. We are now "one church in two locations," 222 Blount Road and 7305 Harry Drive.

Jackson: What do you consider to be your preaching style?

Montgomery: God has blessed me to be multi-faceted. There are times He leads me to preach in a sermonic presentation, other times in a teaching principled oration, and sometimes an expository—[a] verse by verse walk through scriptures. Then there are times He causes me to minister through song, or "fire-side chats" with His people for His glory and for our good.

Jackson: What do you consider other preaching styles to be?

Montgomery: Ministering or preaching can be accomplished in various modes as the Holy Spirit directs and the personality of the presenter is utilized. There is old school preaching which includes tuning-up a whoop for an expected climatic end to the challenge presented through good Godly preaching. Then there is the teaching-style presentation geared towards those who earnestly seek God, God's will, and His way, and the principles to attain all of the blessings and promises of God. There are many styles of preaching, as there are personalities to preach them. One of the definitions of preaching is the presentation of truth (The Word of God) plus personality.

Jackson: Are you a singing minister? If so, do you have any formal musical background?

Montgomery: Yes, God has anointed me to sing. I have sung in choirs from my youth, and I have had vocal training.

Audio Player
Song before Rev. Montgomery's sermon "The Will of God in a Storm," based on 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18.. Field recording by Joyce Jackson.

Indeed, Pastor Montgomery has a musical gift, which compliments his sermonic gift. The sermon is the focal point of worship in the Black Church, and all other aspects of worship are subsidiary. Singing, however, is second only to preaching as the magnet of attraction and the primary vehicle of spiritual transport for the worshipers. In the more traditional folk church even the sermon or parts of the sermon will be sung or chanted in a ritualistic cadence where on occasion the organist joins in to accompany the minister's sermon, especially towards the climatic end. Together they perform a ritual counterpoint to reiterate the final point of the sermon. This musical climax often happens at Greater King David because Pastor Montgomery and the minister of music are particularly adept at this kind of musical sermonic eloquence. The intersection of music and spirituality is another West African practice where both, along with dance, were a part of a single holistic enterprise.

Jackson: Do you consider a Black preaching style to have a relationship or influence from African oratory practices?

Montgomery: Where the atmosphere and climate of the church is "call and response." whereby the preacher speaks the word and the people respond with "Amen" in agreement or some other encouraging response—yes, I would say the African oratory practices are pretty evident. It is a natural and native response of the preacher when the pew becomes one with the pulpit, [and] there is a rhythmic cohesion that connects the very basic instinctive reaction where the parts make a whole.

Though all four ministers are extremely effective with their congregations and other followers, they are also strikingly diverse in their spiritual journeys. Each had his or her own distinct idea of their specific preaching style, which developed in each case according to the type of sermonic performance to which they had been exposed for most of their lives. Although each had what we might call a "Black sermonic style," each focused on different criteria to characterize the distinctiveness of their own version of that style.

The Performed Word: African Musicality and Aesthetics

A detailed discussion of all the theological, doctrinal, musical, and African cultural elements of Black preaching is beyond the scope of this paper (See Davis 1985; Jackson 1981; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990 Rosenberg 1970). However, we can identify several key elements that are integral to the nature of Black folk preaching: vocal musicality (tone, rhythm and timing), rhetorical formulas, and African ritual aspects-cum-hermeneutics.

Rhythm and timing are among the most significant aspects of the preacher's musical art. Timing is a vital factor in the building of the entire sermon, which normally begins in prose and moves into metrical verse. To be effective, the rhythm of the lines must be maintained and properly paced throughout the performance.

The congregation's response plays a key role in the structure of the preacher's rhythmic delivery. A successful sermon always contains interaction between the preacher and the congregation, often in the form of call-and-response patterns. The structure of the preacher's chant depends upon the message, the length of the performance, and the degree of congregational participation.

The preacher's most common stylistic feature is the use of musical tone or chant in preaching, both spoken and sung. Intonational chant possesses some of the stability of song (List 1963), and is widely used by Black preachers to indicate the inspirational climax of their sermons. Intonational chant can take many forms and is variously referred to as moaning, hollering, shouting, chanting, grunting, and whooping.2 Most Black preachers rely upon one or a combination of these to create their sermon's climax.

Preachers also use sustained tone in various ways. Some preachers use it only in climatic utterance. Others tend to use some degree of sustained tone throughout different parts of their message. Still others use it only in places where the congregation clearly demands it.

Some preachers go beyond chanting to actual singing. They gradually establish a tonal center and then progress from chant to song. The sung portion shares with chanted sermons the characteristics of pitch stability—more or less equal lines, repeated contours, and formulaic rhetoric—but in addition, displays some of the embellishments characteristic of deliberate singing.

Within the preacher tradition, three modes of performance can be distinguished. As used here, the term "mode" does not denote a specific tonal or metrical organization of pitches but simply a manner of expression. The three modes of performance within a sermon include:

Casual speech mode: The preacher presents a passage of scripture in a casual utterance as in conversation.

Heightened speech mode: The preacher gives an explication of the scripture's doctrine in a form intermediate between speech and song (similar to sprechstimme3).

Chant/song mode: The preacher applies doctrine to everyday life; most folk preachers chant in the third mode of their sermon and some go from chant to song.

Of course, the entire performance is needed to get the message across, but the chant/song mode is the one that most determines a preacher's individual performance style. It is where his or her preference for particular melodies, tonalities, rhythms, and formulas is in greatest evidence.

A preacher's personal style is shaped in large measure by his or her previous musical training and experiences, and on any given day, by the feedback of a particular audience. A sermon is never delivered in exactly the same way twice. Each is viewed as a new composition even though it may contain themes and verbal formulas used many times before. The use of formula-the repetition of certain words and phrases often chanted to the same musical tones—enables the preacher to generate a sermon of considerable length composed of a spontaneous and highly complex poetic language. Here is an example of a repetitive formula utilized by Pastor John E. Montgomery II:

Audio Player
Excerpt from Pastor Montgomery's sermon on September 4, 2005 to illustrate repetitive formulas. Field recording by Joyce Jackson.

On September 4, 2005, Pastor Montgomery delivered a sermon entitled "The Will of God in a Storm," based on 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18. This was a month after Hurricane Katrina, the natural and manmade disaster which covered New Orleans with flood waters and over 250,000 people evacuated to Baton Rouge. Some of those evacuees attended the services of the Greater King David Baptist Church. An excerpt of the sermon is transcribed below:

Montgomery: In everything give thanks. Why? For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you!

Listen at this now, because somebody missed this point. It is not God's will that Katrina came and destroyed property and people, etc. That's not His will. That is not what it [scripture] is saying. What it's saying is even in the situation that God has allowed you to see and still be.

It was His will that you go through it and it not go through you.

It was His will to allow you to be tested so that you could come out more than a conqueror.

It was His will to allow you to experience that so that you will know that you are going to something greater then what you come from.

It was His will for you to understand that if you never had a problem you wouldn't know he could solve them.

It is His will that what you need to understand is that what you are going through, He has already prepared you for. It is His will that for you to understand that no matter what the devil throws your way, God has already run interference on it and He has already stamped success on your situation.

It is His will that you know, He is your source and supply. What can the world do unto you. Listen, if God be for you who. . . .

It is His will that you understand that!

God has got this thing fixed!! And when you know that in everything give thanks!!!

Formulas, as part of a special artistic language, are learned not through memorization but are practiced until synthesized into the individual's performance style. This is not only the practice of the Black preacher but also the exact practice of the African epic performer.

In The Singer of Tales (1960), his study of the epic, Albert B. Lord speaks of formula and memorization in oral composition:

When we speak a language, our native language, we do not repeat words and phrases that we have memorized consciously, but the words and sentences emerge from habitual usage. This is true of the singer of tales working in his specialized grammar. He does not "memorize" formulas, any more than we as children "memorize" language. He learns them by hearing them in other singers' songs, and by habitual usage they become part of his singing as well. (1960:36)

Lord goes on to compare memorization with learning a language:

Memorization is a conscious act of making one's own, and repeating, something that one regards as fixed and not one's own. The learning of an oral poetic language follows the same principles as the learning of language itself, not by the conscious schematization of elementary grammars [but] by the natural oral method. (1960:36)

Lord believed that once the epic singer has mastered this special language, he "does not move any more mechanically within it than we do in ordinary speech" (1960:36). The preacher as a kind of epic singer learns formulas by reading and studying the Bible and by hearing other preachers. Then, by habitual use, these elements become part of his or her sermonic performance.

Accordingly, the Black folk sermon is usually composed spontaneously, which is also very African. Such sermons are simply not effective when read. Literacy actually becomes a deterrent to the chanted sermon if the preacher tries to read and chant at the same time, which usually produces a discordant effect as the preacher's rhythm becomes erratic and he or she loses metrical consistency within each line. Some preachers can effectively read parts of a sermon out loud, but if they continue reading throughout, the sermon loses its effect. If forced to rely on a fixed text, preachers in this style cannot make the adjustment between stress for the sake of sound and stress for the sake of meaning. Most preachers in this style cannot use their personal style of meter and intonation while they are reading a manuscript. The two communicative modes—oral and written—are simply incompatible.

The Black folk preachers and their sermons link African and African-American cultures through biblical witness as well as through the performance practices described above. They provide perhaps the clearest evidence of the convergence of West African ritual and cultural streams. Within the context of North American slavery, Black preachers carefully selected, personalized, and presented biblical text in accord with the needs and aesthetic preferences of their congregations.

The New World formed a socio-cultural setting in which Christian themes merged with preexistent African religious concepts and epic traditions to create a unique folkloric genre, African American hermeneutics.4 This is the process by which the experience of being African in America is merged with the biblical text, to engender biblical readings and subsequent sermonic presentations that are grounded in a social, cultural, and liberatory perspective.

From their earliest beginnings as enslaved ministers, Black preachers have been characterized by their great emphasis on personal style and individual variations. The most certain thing that can be said about Black preachers is that nothing is certain or totally fixed. As illustrated in the above interviews, styles of Black preachers range from those known to proclaim the gospel in spectacular and dramatic ways to those noted for standing "flatfooted" in one place and hardly raising their voices—while still stirring large congregations. In between is a vast array of mannerisms, styles, and approaches, all used to communicate the gospel. In the context of the Black folk church, the preacher's performance is both dynamic and inventive as he or she has the responsibility for engaging spiritually as well as aesthetically the most effective and consistent biblical narrative in which millions of African American lives revolve around.


I would like to express my appreciation to the ministers whose names and lives are so central to the representation in these pages. I am particularly grateful to Minister Sharon Adams, Minister Inita Smith, Minister Herman Kelly and his First Lady Linda Kelly, and Pastor John E. Montgomery II and his First Lady Lea Polk Montgomery. They were all so gracious and willing to give me the time to conduct my ethnographic inquiries.

1. The African American Catholic Congregation Imani Temple is an African-centered quasi-Catholic expression of the Christian faith. It was founded in 1989 by the Reverand George Augustus Stallings, Jr., who is a former priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington D.C.

2. Whooping: the gasping sound marking the convulsive intake of air; loud scream or cry often made in excitement or when the spirit takes over.

3. Sprechstimme, also sprechgesang: a German term for a musical form that is a cross between speaking and singing in which the tone quality of speech is heightened and lowered in pitch along melodic contours..

4. Hermeneutics: the theory or science of the methodical interpretation of spiritual text.


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Joyce Marie Jackson is a folklorist/ethnomusicologist who teaches in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. This article was prepared in 2016 as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.