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Black Jews/Hebrews


Many African Americans have rejected the Christianity they associate with slaveowners in favor of religions with more distinctively black identities. Beginning in the early nineteenth century some individual African Americans became legends as regular worshipers at local synagogues. To this day, and in growing numbers, there are Black members of predominantly white Jewish congregations.

A second source of Black Judaism was the West Indies, where some blacks converted to Judaism under the influence of Jewish plantation owners. In the late nineteenth century, some of these Jamaican Jews migrated to the United States and became the source for the first all-Black synagogues.

For centuries a legend existed that Black Jews, descendants of the Queen of Sheba, had lived in Ethiopia but had long ago disappeared. The rediscovery in the late nineteenth century of the Falashas, the Black Jews of Ethiopia, by French explorer Joseph Halevy, spurred some Black people to elect Judaism as an alternative to Christianity.

The first African American Jewish denomination was started by William Saunders Crowdy, a black cook for the Santa Fe railroad. In 1893, Crowdy had a vision from God calling him to lead his people to the true religion. He started preaching on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas in 1896. Crowdy preached that Africans were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and thus the true surviving Jews. By 1899, Crowdy had founded churches in 29 Kansas towns. He called his denomination The Church of God and Saints of Christ, which, despite its Christian-sounding name, had from the start an identification with Judaism. The Christ of the church's name refers to the still-awaited Messiah. Crowdy purchased land in Belleville, Virginia just after the turn of the century. For many years the core members of the church lived there communally. The headquarters of the church were moved to Belleville in 1917.

As it evolved, the doctrine of the Church of God and Saints of Christ became a mixture of Jewish, Christian and black nationalist precepts. The Jewish elements include observance of the Jewish Sabbath and the use of Jewish terminology to describe leaders, buildings and observances. A key theme is the Exodus, the liberation of people in bondage. The year culminates in Passover, a week-long homecoming in Belleville with a ceremonial Seder. There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 members in over 200 churches.

In 1900 charismatic black leader Warren Roberson founded the Temple of the Gospel of the Kingdom in Virginia. Members learned Yiddish and adopted Jewish cultural patterns. By 1917 the group had moved its headquarters to Harlem. There it established a communal household, called a kingdom, for members. Another kingdom near Atlantic City, New Jersey aroused controversy when media reports came out saying that it was actually a baby farm where women bore Roberson's children. Roberson was charged with transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes in 1926. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in the Atlanta Penitentiary. The movement collapsed at that point.

In 1915, Prophet F. S. Cherry established the Church of God in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cherry was influenced by both The Church of God and Saints of Christ and the Temple of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Cherry taught that God, who is black, originally created black humans, the descendants of Jacob. The first white person, Gehazi, became that way as the result of a curse. The church teaches that Jesus was a black man. Prophet Cherry's followers believe that they are the true Jews and that white Jews are impostors. The church does not use the term synagogue, the place of worship of the white Jews. Cherry read both Hebrew and Yiddish and based his teachings on the old testament and the Talmud. The church has a Saturday Sabbath and a liturgical year which focuses on Passover. The church has prohibitions against eating pork, divorce, taking photographs and observing Christian holidays.

Arnold Josiah Ford was a self-proclaimed Ethiopian Jew and the choirmaster for Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Coming from the West Indies, Marcus Garvey instilled within his followers and admirers a dream of a Black nation where Black men would rule. Ford tried to get Garvey to accept Judaism, but he refused. Marcus Garvey expelled Ford in 1923 and Ford soon founded the Beth B'nai Abraham congregation. The Beth B'nai Abraham congregation suffered financial problems and collapsed in 1930, whereupon Ford turned the membership over to Rabbi Wentworth Matthew. Ford then went to Ethiopia where he spent the rest of his life.

Arthur Wentworth Mathew was born in Lagos, West Africa, and lived for a time in St. Kitts, British West Indies before coming to New York. Matthew had been a minister in the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, a black pentecostal church which had endorsed the Universal Negro Improvement Association founded by Marcus Garvey. In 1919 Matthew and eight other men organized the Commandment Keepers: Holy Church of the Living God. In Harlem, he had met white Jews for the first time and in the 1920s came to know Arnold Josiah Ford. Matthew began to learn Orthodox Judaism and Hebrew and acquire ritual materials from Ford. Ford and Matthew learned of the Falashas, the black Jews of Ethiopia, and began to identify with them. When Ford's congregation ran into financial trouble in 1930, the membership was put into Matthew's care and Ford moved to Ethiopia. In 1935, when Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, Matthew declared his group the Falashas in American and claimed credentials from Haile Selassie.

The Commandment Keepers believe that they are the lineal descendants of the ancient Hebrews by way of the Ethiopian Jews, who, although cut off from the rest of Judaism thousands of years ago, still used the Torah and claimed as their ancestors King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They believe the biblical patriarchs to have been black. Matthew taught that the temporary ascendancy of whites was nearly over and that the end of white domination and the restoration of the true Israelites would come with a devastating atomic war in the year 2000. The Commandment Keepers maintain some contact with the mainstream Jewish community in New York City and observe a version of the kosher diet. The group's program includes study of Hebrew. Services are held on the Jewish Sabbath. Men wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls. Jewish holidays are observed with Passover being the most important. Some elements of Christianity are retained, including footwashing, healing and the gospel hymns, but the loud emotionalism of the holiness groups is rejected.

The Original Hebrew Israelite Nation, or Black Israelites, emerged in Chicago in the 1960s around Ben Ammi Carter (born G. Parker) and Shaleah Ben-Israel. Carter and Ben-Israel were proponents of Black Zionism whose purpose was a return to the Holy Land by their members. Beginning in the late 1960s, they made attempts to migrate to Africa and then to Israel. The group moved first to Liberia. Soon after their arrival, they approached the Israeli ambassador about a further move to Israel, but were unable to successfully negotiate the move. In 1968, Carter and 38 Black Israelites flew directly from Chicago to Israel. The group from Liberia was then given temporary sanction and work permits, and joined them in Israel. Over 300 members of the group had migrated to Israel by 1971, when strict immigration restrictions were imposed on them. Other members of the group continued to arrive using tourist visas. By 1980, between 1,500 and 2,000 had settled in four different colonies in Israel.

The Black Israelites feel they are descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel and thus Jews by birth. They celebrate the Jewish rituals and keep the Sabbath. However, they are polygamous, with a maximum of seven wives allowed. In Israel, the group lives communally. Due to a lack of legal status, the group in Israel lives under harsh conditions and the continual threat of mass deportation. They have been unable obtain necessary additional housing for those members who immigrated illegally and the children are not allowed to attend public schools. There are approximately 3,000 members of the Black Israelites remaining in the United States.

The House of Judah is a small Black Israelite group founded in 1965 by Prophet William A. Lewis. Lewis was converted to his black Jewish beliefs by a street preacher in Chicago in the 1960s. Lewis opened a small storefront on the southside and in 1971 moved his group to a twenty-two acre tract of land near Grand Junction, Michigan. The group lived quietly until 1983 when a young boy in the group was beaten to death and media attention resulted. The mother of the boy was sentenced to prison for manslaughter. By 1985 the group had moved to Alabama. The House of Judah teaches that Jacob and Judah and their descendants were black. They believe that Jerusalem, not Africa, is the black man's land. They believe that the white Jew is the devil who occupies the black man's land but will soon be driven out. Adherents believe that God will send a deliverer, a second Moses, to lead his people, the blacks, from the United States to the promised land of Jerusalem. The group consists of about 80 people living communally.

The Nation of Yahweh, also called the Hebrew Israelites or the Followers of Yahweh, was founded in 1970s by Yahweh ben Yahweh, who was born Hulon Mitchell, Jr. Yahweh ben Yahweh was the son of a Pentecostal minister and at one point joined the Nation of Islam. Yahweh ben Yahweh teaches that there is one God, whose name is Yahweh, and who is black with woolly hair. Yahweh ben Yahweh says that he is the son of God, who has been sent to save and deliver the black people of America. Black people are considered to be the true lost tribe of Judah. Members, upon joining, renounce their slave names and take the surname Israel. Many members wear white robes as commanded in the Bible. They believe that all people who oppose God are devils, regardless of race or color. The Nation of Yahweh sees itself as establishing a united moral power to benefit the total community of America. It supports voter registration, education, business opportunities, scholarships for children, health education, better housing, strong family ties, and harmony among people regardless of race, creed or color. The corporate entity of the church is the Temple of Love, which has purchased several hotels and apartment buildings and more than 42 businesses which are used to support the organization and its members. In 1991, Yahweh ben Yahweh and 15 of his followers were arrested on a variety of charges including racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. At a trial in the spring of 1992, Yahweh ben Yahweh and seven of his co-defendants were convicted of the conspiracy charges, but were not convicted of racketeering. Yahweh ben Yahweh is in jail pending appeal.

The United Hebrew Congregation was a group of several congregations of black Jews which were centered upon the Ethiopian Hebrew Culture Center in Chicago in the mid-1970s. The group was headed by Rabbi Naphtali Ben Israel. These congregations adhered to the beief that Ham's sons, including the Hebrews of the Bible, were black. Sabbath services were held on Saturday. The group appears to be defunct. Other small black Jewish groups in the United States include the B'nai Zakin Sar Shalom, the Moorish Zionist Temple and Rabbi Ishi Kaufman's Gospel of the Kingdom Temple.

Bibliography. A. H. Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis; H. M. Brotz, The Black Jews of Harlem; B. A. Carter, God, the Black Man, and Truth; I. J. Gerber, The Heritage Seekers; S. B. Yehuda, Black Hebrew Israelites from American to the Promised Land.

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Kay Holzinger

This article is reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions by James R. Lewis and appears here with the permission of Mr. Lewis. Copyright: James R. Lewis, 1998. Thanks also to Ms Holzinger who prepared the article for The Encyclopedia.


African American and African Caribbean Christianity had long developed a comparison of their experience in the New World with that of the Jews held in slavery in Egypt, particularly as regards the Book of Exodus. From the mid-eighteenth century a metaphorical embrace of a Hebrew identity was a major element of New World African spirituality. Thus in 1800 Gabriel's slave conspiracy in Virginia identified themselves with the Israelites of the Old Testament, as was Denmark Vesey's attempted rebellion of 1822. However it was not until later in the nineteenth century that an identification as ancient Hebrews developed from identification with them.

In 1915, Prophet F. S. Cherry established the Church of God in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cherry was influenced by both The Church of God and Saints of Christ and the Temple of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Cherry taught that God, who is black, originally created black humans, the descendants of Jacob. The first white person, Gehazi, became that way as the result of a curse. The church teaches that Jesus was a black man. Prophet Cherry's followers believe that they are the true Jews and that white Jews are impostors. The church does not use the term synagogue, the place of worship of the white Jews. Cherry read both Hebrew and Yiddish and based his teachings on the old testament and the Talmud. The church has a Saturday Sabbath and a liturgical year which focuses on Passover. The church has prohibitions against eating pork, divorce, taking photographs and observing Christian holidays.

History of the Black Hebrew/Jews

Biblical Hebrew Israelites

Christain hebrew Isaelite Network

African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

YHWH's Chosen People: The Hebrew Israelite Story

Black Hebrew Israelites - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Black Hebrews

Twelve Tribes

Black History from the Underground

Yahweh Ben Yahweh Nation of Yahweh

Church of God and Saints of Christ

Church of God and Saints of Christ -- Temple Beth El

Black Jews

International Israelite Board of Rabbis Community Forum

Moorish Science Temple

Noble Drew Ali (Timothy Drew) was born in 1886 and almost nothing was known about him until he formed the Moorish Science Temple in 1913 (with chapters in several states). The Temple of Moorish Science is a strange blend of Islamic and Buddhist study, Masonic ritual and black power, later adopted by Elijah Muhamed and his Nation of Islam (minus the Buddhism and Freemasonry). He mysteriously died in 1928.

Moorish Science Temple of America

Noble Drew Ali

Moorish Orthodox Church of America

Historical society of Islamism

Preachers of Salvation and Grassroots Movements

Marcus Garvey

...Garvey's pragmatic approach to religion was based on the argument that Christianity preached that man was made in the image and likeness of God; therefore, Black men should depict a God in their own image and likeness, which conclusively would be Black. The Black God concept for Garvey was incontrovertibly enmeshed with economic and political autonomy for the Black masses. It was also a means of dismantling the Caucasian image of God which psychologically impaired Black people. He insisted that if Negroes are in God's image and Negroes are Black, then God must be Black. He stated the following:

If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires... We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one's own spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles... We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God--God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.

Garvey loudly announced in Harlem at street rallies that A Black God is coming. Be ready when he cometh.

Marcus Garvery's Philosophy & Opinions

THE RASTAFARI CONCEPT
The philosophy of Marcus Garvey gave birth ...

Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association

NOI

Hon. Elijah Muhammad

Rejecting the Ku Klux Klan's Christian fundamentalism, Elijah Muhammad chose instead an Islamic brand of fundamentalism from the Middle East. His doctrine taught that blacks were the original people of the Earth and Universe who had been tricked out of their power and oppressed by whites: a genetically created race of troublemakers. Whatever its origins and the controversy of its dictates, this belief system spoke directly to many oppressed black people of the era. Some have deemed it an inevitable reaction to white racism. Elijah Muhammad took white supremacy and turned it on its head, returning what whites preached back to them. If whites said blacks were inferior, he would assert instead that whites were the inferior ones. If whites said blacks were cursed, he would state instead that whites were cursed. If whites said black was associated with bad, he would say instead white was associated with bad. Elijah Muhammad's ideologies were a denouncement of the white world and black inferiority taken to its logical extreme. They emphasized black pride, dignity and most of all, self-empowerment. These ideas spoke to many of the needs of a mentally and physically downtrodden community.

A Man who raised a nation

Hon. Elijah Muhammad

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The Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan
and Millions Mor Movement

Malcolm X

Malcolm X Project

Warith Deen Muhammad

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