Spiritual Churches
The spiritual church movement developed in the early
twentieth century among African Americans who had responded
to Spiritualism and its championing of the cause of universal
brotherhood. In spite of its rhetoric, however, too often
Spiritualists practiced the same racism so evident in nonSpiritualist
circles. By World War I, black leaders began to form
their own separate churches, some of which grew into substantial
denominations. Among the first to emerge was Leafy Anderson
(1887–1927), who in 1913 founded the Eternal Life
Christian Spiritualist Association. She moved to New Orleans
in 1920, by which time her association had more than ten congregations,
and founded a congregation, the first of many spiritual
churches in what would become one of the most important
centers of the spiritual movement.
Through the 1920s a number of new spiritual churches
emerged, beginning in 1922 when the black members of the
National Spiritualist Association of Churches were pushed out
and formed the national Colored Spiritualist Association of
Churches. The next year, in Detroit, Willie Hurley founded the
Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church, and in 1925 William Frank
Taylor and Leviticus L. Boswell founded the Metropolitan
Spiritual Churches of Christ in Kansas City. Also founded in
the mid-1920s was the Church of God in David (later the Spiritual
Israel Church and Its Army).
The spiritual movement is quite diverse. It mixes Protestantism,
Spiritualism, and various elements of popular folk religions.
Individual congregations and denominations use different
blends of these elements. Leafy Anderson represented the
more conservative wing of the movement she used the Bible
and denounced the voudou and popular magic she found
among potential members. One the other hand, her student,
Mother Catherine Seals, freely incorporated elements of ‘‘hoo-
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1462
doo,’’ the popular folk magic of the Southern black community,
into her church’s rituals.
George Willie Hurley incorporated Masonic elements in the
mystery school that became a part of every congregation in his
Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church. He also followed Father
Divine’s example and proclaimed himself God. As Jesus was
the God of the Picean Age, so he was the God of the coming
Aquarian Age. Hurley was also a pioneer black nationalist and
incorporated Ethiopianism into his teachings, identifying black
Americans with their African heritage, especially with the land
of Emperor Haile Selassie.
The spiritual movement has experienced upheavals as new
leaders have appeared on the scene. For example, in 1942, the
Metropolitan Spiritual Churches of Christ merged with the Divine
Spiritual Churches of the Southwest, making it by far the
largest spiritual denomination in the country. Shortly thereafter
William Taylor died, and Thomas Watson, formerly the
head of the Divine Spiritual Church of the Southwest, was elected
to succeed him. However, by that time Clarence Cobbs had
arisen as a charismatic leader of a church in Chicago and believed
that the church was his to inherit. As a result of the struggle
for control between Watson and Cobbs, the church split,
with Cobbs inheriting the larger group.
During the last half of the twentieth century, spiritual
churches have experienced ups and downs. Both Spiritualist
and spiritual churches are more susceptible than most to volatile
swings in support for prominent leaders who rise and pass
from the scene. While several large denominations remain,
many of the young talented mediums have formed independent
churches or passed into the New Age movement.
Sources
Baer, Hans A. The Black Spiritual Movement A Religious Response
to Racism. Knoxville University of Tennessee Press,
1984.
Jacobs, Claude F., and Andrew J. Kaslow. The Spiritual
Churches of New Orleans Origins, Beliefs, and Rituals of an African
American Religion. Knoxville University of Tennessee Press,
1991.
Murphy, Larry G., J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward. Encyclopedia
of African American Religions. New York Garland Publishing,
1993.