Black Hebrew Israelites (also called Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites, and Hebrew Israelites) are groups of Black Americans who believe that they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Judaism. They are not recognized as Jews by the greater Jewish community. Many choose to identify themselves as Hebrew Israelites or Black Hebrews rather than Jews in order to indicate their claimed historic connections.
Many Black Hebrew groups were founded in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from Kansas to New York City, by both African Americans and West Indian immigrants. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews (which is no longer operating) estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews; this estimate was based on a 1990 survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations. The exact number of Black Hebrews within that surveyed group remains unspecified.
Traditionally, Black Christians have identified themselves spiritually with the Children of Israel. In the late 19th century, some of them also began to claim that they were the biological descendants of the Israelites. This identification with the Israelites was a response to the sociopolitical realities of their situation in the United States, including slavery and racial discrimination. For African-Americans, appropriating Jewish history was part of a rebellion against the American racial hierarchy that deemed Africans inferior. It was also a means of fulfilling their desire to know their origins and regain their lost history.
One of the first groups of Black Hebrews, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, was founded in Kansas in 1896, but it retained elements of a messianic connection to Jesus. During the following decades, many more Black Hebrew congregations were established, and some of them had no connection to Christianity. After World War I, for example, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, an immigrant from Saint Kitts, founded a Black Hebrew congregation in Harlem, claiming descent from the ancient Israelites. He called it the Commandment Keepers of the Living God. Similar groups selected elements of Judaism and adapted them within a structure similar to that of the Black church. He incorporated it in 1930 and moved the congregation to Brooklyn, where he later founded the Israelite Rabbinical Seminary, where Black Hebrew rabbis have been educated and ordained.
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups:
Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals.
Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism.
Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.
Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black ("black Judaism"). Significantly, it does not depend on a documented lineage to Jewish ancestors nor does it require recognized Orthodox or Conservative conversions:
Black Judaism is ... a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews...in a manner that seems unacceptable to the "whites" of the world's Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus "Black Judaism," as defined here, stands distinctly apart from "black Judaism," or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world's Jewish community, such as conversion or birth from a recognized Jewish mother. "Black Judaism" has been a social movement; "black Judaism" has been an isolated social phenomenon.
Landing's definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of Black Hebrew organizations were established. In Harlem alone, at least eight such groups were founded between 1919 and 1931. The Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations is the oldest-known Black Hebrew group and the Church of God and Saints of Christ is one of the largest Black Hebrew organizations. The Commandment Keepers, founded by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in New York, are noted for their adherence to traditional Judaism.The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are widely known for having moved from the United States, primarily Chicago, to Israel in the late-20th century.
Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations
The oldest known Black Hebrew organization is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations. The group was founded by F. S. Cherry in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1886, and it later moved to Philadelphia. Theologically, the Church of the Living God mixed elements of Judaism and Christianity, counting the Bible — including the New Testament — and the Talmud as essential scriptures.
The rituals of Cherry’s flock incorporated many Jewish practices and prohibitions alongside some Christian traditions. For example, during prayer the men wore skullcaps and congregants faced east. In addition, members of the Church were not permitted to eat pork. Prayers were accompanied by musical instruments and gospel singing. After Cherry's death, members of the church believed that he had left temporarily and would soon reappear in spirit in order to lead the church through his son.
Church of God and Saints of Christ
Main article: Church of God and Saints of Christ
The former headquarters of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Washington, D.C. The building is now known as First Tabernacle Beth El and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ was established in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1896 by African-American William Saunders Crowdy. The group established its headquarters in Philadelphia in 1899, and Crowdy later relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1903. After Crowdy's death in 1908, the church continued to grow under the leadership of William Henry Plummer, who moved the organization's headquarters to its permanent location in Belleville, Virginia, in 1921.
In 1936, the Church of God and Saints of Christ had more than 200 "tabernacles" (congregations) and 37,000 members. Howard Zebulun Plummer succeeded his father and became head of the organization in 1931. His son, Levi Solomon Plummer, became the church's leader in 1975. The Church of God and Saints of Christ was led by Rabbi Jehu A. Crowdy, Jr., a great-grandson of William Saunders Crowdy, from 2001 until his death in 2016. Since 2016, it has been led by Phillip E. McNeil. As of 2005, the church had fifty tabernacles in the United States and dozens more in Africa.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism". Founded by American William Saunders Crowdy in Kansas in 1896, it teaches that all Jews were originally black, and that African Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent of Judaism and a prophet. They also consider William Saunders Crowdy, their founder in Kansas, to be a prophet.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ synthesizes rituals from both Judaism and Christianity. They have adopted rites drawn from both the Old and New Testaments. Its Old Testament observances include the use of the Jewish calendar, the celebration of Passover, the circumcision of infant males, the commemoration of the Sabbath on Saturday, and the wearing of yarmulkes. Its New Testament rites include baptism (immersion) and footwashing, both of which have Old Testament origins.