God. The Sea Island Gullah Church

“Let mornin’ star greet you on yo prayin’ groun’” – Gullah prayer

They are preachin’ in rhyme, singin’ in rhythm and prayin’ in time. The Sea Island, Gullah Church, evolved from a slave culture, and something about it all is still working. On Edisto Island, black church members drive from hours away to meet at one of the many packed churches, to sing and praise God and to pass babies around. There are many four hour services that crowd the black churches on this island every Sunday. Old women come in fancy matching hats and dresses; some bring their with their own tambourine. Young girls are called to communion in their own special group, and oh my, if you ‘pass over’ like Fred, my neighbor calls dying, the send off is like nothing you have ever experienced. It is emotional, musical, and personal. And the church is jam packed.

An historic Praise House off Hwy 17

Historically, the Gullah church was formed out of oppression, formed out of necessity rather than intent.

The songs, African American spirituals, told of human life and longing, and were infused with secret metaphors that hid meaning from Masters. It was called the invisible church – for slaves met in secret in the woods, to sing and shout and to bury their dead by torchlight, often in secret. After 1820, the invisible church moved to the Praise House. Today AME, Baptist and other churches dot Edisto Island.

Gullah, which identifies a culture more specifically, but includes, too, a way of speaking, a song language, which one can occasionally still hear amongst islanders. Gullah is a blend of words with its own syntax and rhythm and includes much that serves again as metaphor. The culture is rooted in religious expression pulling creatively from many traditions, mixing the European and African influences together with the strong influence local geography. Because slaves were not allowed to read by law (for fear of uprisings) rhetorical skills were developed and highly prized, and were a mark of the highly educated. The church became a mix of orally transmitted religious beliefs, prayer, music, song, dance, and storytelling, made into one cohesive whole. The slave culture, amazingly, managed to create fresh methods and means to make sense of their place in a new world.

Edisto Island AME Church

What is this?

Why does this version of faith feel so vibrant and alive, and how did this strong culture evolve in one so oppressed? Alicia De Rocke O’Brian, The Development of the Gullah Church, writes, “The combination of regional geographic isolationism, a strange Sea Island conditional independence from the prying eyes of the masters, the zeal of the missionaries, and the almost constant replenishment of Africans into their society created conditions ripe for inventive cultural linguistic and religious interpretation. The rich stories and songs and intricate rituals produced by growing and highly adaptable and creative society exemplified the vitality of this new expression of religion.”

I am pretty awed by the loyalty and the creativity of my fellow islanders. And by such a sense of community. As a member of a Presbyterian church, we don’t do much dancing in praise of God.

I have been reading about the Black Madonna of the Middle Ages, and learning to step into my own power as an older, wiser woman. Then to turn and see that darn if she is not in line in front of me in the Piggly Wiggly after church, standing all strong and proud and rooted to this earth, exuding an energy that feels like something from a Greek myth. The dark goddess herself. All dressed up like Christmas.

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in architecture, art, Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, music, religion, South Carolina History, spirituality
2 comments on “God. The Sea Island Gullah Church
  1. Cork Hutson says:

    Thank you Charlotte. Nice post. A couple of years ago, someone gave me the Authentic translation of the Gullah Nyew Testament. Recently, I began reading it along with the regular King James translation in the margin. Gullah is so descriptive and detailed in it’s written form. Even though I grew up hearing Gullah quite often, I had never read it until recently. Can almost read it fluently now!

  2. Jae says:

    I found this one fascinating. It reminded me of home and the 5 hour funeral I attended once. I still say, I must come down to South Carolina but I really fear I would never leave.

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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