Black churches in rural Missouri close, taking history and culture with them

Thursday, October 4, 2018 | by Emily Aiken, Jacob Douglas, Arin Jemerson and Sidney Steele

Pennytown, Missouri, was founded outside Marshall in 1871 by Joe Penny, a freedman from Kentucky. Today, all that remains of the once thriving black township is a one-room church that holds a yearly homecoming service.  


Black churches in the United States have a rich history, beginning with their development out of slavery through their impact on the civil rights movement. However, some of these churches are closing down as a result of a changing racial environment and changing attitudes towards religion.


As these churches close in mid-Missouri, their history could be lost forever. 


Black churches have dark origins in slavery, says Antoinette Landor, a professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri. Africans brought as slaves to this country were forced to abandon their religions and adopt Christianity, she says, noting that some slaveholders cited the Bible to justify their authority. Landor cites a passage from Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”


Over time, however, African Americans adopted the religion as their own and turned it into a tool of self-empowerment, giving rise to the civil rights movement, black liberation and #BlackLivesMatter. 


“All of those things have been built out of the black church,” Landor says. 


In Columbia, Second Missionary Baptist Church held NAACP Community Engagement forums about policing, equity and civility on a monthly basis for the last four months of 2017, according to its website. During the civil rights movement, Landor says, churches would preach about liberation and fighting the social injustice of the Jim Crow era. The church continues to be used as a place for conversations about race, racism and discrimination. 


Today, 53 percent of African Americans identify their religion as “Historically Black Protestant” according to the Pew Research Center. African Americans are also the most religious racial group in the United States:  83 percent of African Americans say they attend religious services regularly or semi-regularly. That compares to 66 percent of white Americans. 


In 1960, as the civil rights movement was still struggling to gain a foothold, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called 11 a.m. on Sunday morning “one of the most segregated hours in Christian America.”


But over time, more African Americans began attending majority white churches. Landor says this is because they saw it as their duty to promote integration. 


It’s also because their home black churches are closing, says Debra Mason, former director of the Center on Religion and the Professions at the University of Missouri.  


Sarah Johnson, a member of St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal church in Mexico, Missouri, believes it is important to keep black churches open to keep the history of African Americans alive. 


“They need to stay open for our youth and the babies that are coming up to know about a little bit more about their culture,” Johnson says. 


Across the United States, religious affiliation is declining. From 2007 to 2014, the number of people who identified themselves as Christian dropped 7.8 percent, according to Pew Research Center data. In many of the small black churches in rural Missouri, members say the congregations are gradually dying off. 


The closing of churches is a problem affecting all rural churches, regardless of race, Mason says, adding: “It is almost impossible for an independent congregation, black or white, to pay a full-time pastor.” 


While it is hard for many churches to maintain a full-time clergy, small churches that are part of a larger denomination can hire a pastor to work between multiple churches within a region, Mason says. This is not as easy for black churches, which are already rare in rural areas, according to Mason. 


St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Mexico has had to overcome this challenge. Pastor LaVelna Day travels from St. Louis to Mexico every Sunday to preach. Day says it is worth the struggle to maintain her full-time job in St. Louis and her role as the pastor in Mexico because she sees the need for a place for African Americans to have a familiar place to worship.


Evidently others do as well. Although the Pennytown congregation no longer meets weekly, people come from far and wide to worship every year the first Sunday in August for the annual homecoming services. 

To view a map of population change among African Americans and the closing of black churches in mid-Missouri, click here.

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