Black churches in the North swelled with new members during the Great Migration. Searching for community and comfort, southerners set up storefront churches in black neighborhoods and joined established religious institutions. Between 1915 and 1920, for example, the congregation of Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church doubled. By the late 1930s, the membership of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which Lawrence began attending when he arrived in the city, exceeded ten thousand, making it the largest Protestant congregation in the country. Black urban churches not only catered to the spiritual needs of migrant parishioners, but became charitable relief stations, community meeting houses, daycare centers, and even employment offices. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who headed the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s relief efforts before replacing his father as pastor in 1937, founded a credit union, ran a soup kitchen, opened the church’s community center to the homeless, and hired hundreds of deprived workers to clean and maintain church premises.
Viewed across the pews of a church, the man and woman closest to the aisle bow their heads reverently; a figure in the front row stares ahead attentively, perhaps listening to the sermon; the two men behind him, visible only by the tops of their heads, genially turn to one another. On the wall beyond the congregants is a three-part mural depicting the cross, Christ’s emergence from the tomb, and the Virgin Mary grieving. Such themes of persecution, transformation, and loss resonated with the migrant experience.
In Chicago, the charismatic Elder Lucy Smith, who hailed from Georgia, helmed the All Nations Pentecostal Church, which spread gospel music throughout the country on the radio. The new gospel style that she helped popularize was a hybrid form, born of the Migration, that blended the church tradition of a cappella praise music, as heard in her early recording “There Was No Room at the Hotel,” with the rhythms of jazz and blues. Smith’s South Side ministry, formed as a small prayer group in 1916, numbered in the thousands by the 1930s; in 1933 it became the first black church to broadcast live worship services via its Glorious Church of the Air show. The Afro-American contended in its 1952 obituary that Smith “did as much as anyone to popularize gospel singing and clapping to rhythmic music in colored churches.”
In contrast with Lawrence’s image of reserved devotion, the New Orleans-born artist Archibald J. Motley Jr., known for his scenes of boisterous nightlife on Chicago’s South Side during the Jazz Age, provides an image of lively worship in Tongues (Holy Rollers).