Religious Practice and Traditions
Praise Houses served as community centers, places of worship, and historical centers for the plantation economy of the Gullah people during and then following slavery. In the Antebellum period, the Praise Houses separated men and women. They kept the structures and gatherings small because the slave masters feared that larger gatherings could mean secret insurrection plots. Praise Houses generally held services on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. They also functioned as centers of an informal legal system within the community, which allowed the Gullah people to interact minimally with the police.
Many Praise Houses on St. Helena have been demolished, but three remain standing: the Croft Plantation Praise House, the Mary Jenkins Praise House, and the Coffin Point Community Praise House, all built around 1900. Coffin Point and Mary Jenkins were recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, along with the now demolished Eddings Point Praise House. According to this page, members of Ebenezer Baptist Church still attend the Mary Jenkins Praise House. Coffin’s Point Praise House has remained the most intact and now serves as a museum. Mary Rivers Legree, who explains the Coffin Point Praise House’s history in this interview. Additionally, she discusses the general history of the Praise Houses here. There is also a video of the Praise House service, which includes many members of the Gullah community.
A good overview of the Praise House history on St. Helena, as well as information on the current structures, is found here.
More video references for Praise Houses:
The Gullah people celebrate their religion with a form of worship called the “ring shout” or “the shout.” Many interviews mention it, and it occurs in both Praise Houses and churches. The Shout, often performed during worship songs, makes up a specific type of dance. Protestantism originally banned any dance that involved crossing of legs. In part, the shout rose from this: the Gullah people created dances where they didn’t cross their legs, and moved counter-clock wise to the songs and rhythms of the church, eventually creating the the rules of the shout. In addition, these dances inspired the secular dances of the 1900s, including, most notably, the Charleston.
Younger generations of Gullah people shout less, and many of the older interviewees have expressed frustration with the youngest generation’s lack of interest in their cultural traditions. However, there is plenty of footage of The Shout on YouTube, as well as in this video, and the Gullah people have toured for shout competitions, which also functioned as social gatherings. Elsie Holmes Mollison discusses her tour experiences within this interview. In addition, some interviews that mention the shout are found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The Birth of Gospel
Many people believe that traditional Negro spiritual music was born on St. Helena from the Praise Houses and the Ring Shout. In fact, the Gullah people of St. Helena originated the Civil Rights Movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” although their version began as a religious shout called “We Will Overcome.”
Religion and Social Identity
At age 12 or 13, children who grow up in the church on St. Helena often have to participate in a practice called seeking. It involves a journey into the nearby woods, where the kids go on a vision journey, similar to Native American practices. They then report back to their pastor or church elder about what vision they have received. If they do not receive a vision, or the church elders believe that they have faked a vision, they are still allowed to attend church, but are often not officially considered a part of the church anymore. However, most children complete their seeking and receive a vision. Seeking both strengthens the island community and provides a coming-of-age ceremony.
The Justice System
As mentioned above, the Gullah people of St. Helena relied on the local Praise Houses as legal centers. If someone committed a transgression (personally or legally), residents would go to the church and community leaders before the police (especially because St. Helena has historically only had one policeman, a white mainland resident). This Praise House clip elaborates the process.
A local legend, Dr. Buzzard served as the medicine man on St. Helena. Both fear and mystery surround him, and many people from outside the St. Helena area ask locals questions about him. Dr. Buzzard deals in home remedies as well as more voodoo-oriented practices. Many of his cures revolve around fertility and marital trouble, including emotional issues as simple as fights or as complex as revenge for infidelity.
More on Dr. Buzzard here.
The Gullah people employ countless herbal remedies for a variety of ailments. Many of them involve spiritual symbolism, and nearly all of them utilize readily available ingredients, such as moss to lower cholesterol or salted meat to aid the healing of infection. Some interviewees even recall their parents giving them kerosene as cold medicine. Interestingly, many Gullah people also went on to nursing in other cities, such as Elsie Holmes Mollison in New York.
Church is an essential facet of life on St. Helena. There are at least thirty recorded churches on St. Helena. Some commonly mentioned churches include the following:
- Ebenezer Church: Often simply called “Ebenezer,” attended by many of the older members of the St. Helena community.
- First African Baptist Church
- New Life Deliverance Temple: Pastor and Mrs. Russell lead this church, which is very popular among the people of St. Helena. The Russells about their ministry in the 2011 interview “Pastor and Mrs. Russell.” They have a growing youth ministry and advocate for community involvement, and they also provide educational opportunities through the church.
- Scottsville Baptist Church
- Oaks True Holiness Church
Current Church Leaders:
- Reverend Joseph Bryant
- Reverend Leonard Ritter, Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church
- Charles Bolles, Deacon
- Pastor Chisholm
- Robert Bolles, Elder
- Pastor Russell, New Life Deliverance Temple
- Robert Middleton, Deacon
- Mary Rivers Legree, Historian
- Daniel F. Rivers, Pastor of Oaks True Holiness Church
Most churches on St. Helena align with Pentecostal beliefs, though the denominations often draw from their West African roots in preaching style as well as leadership structures and traditions.
St. Helena churches commonly express their Pentecostal beliefs by:
- believing in spiritual healing
- emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit
- believing that everyday people can see demons (More on seeing demons here.)
- speaking in tongues (glossolalia)
Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) draws a vague line between Pentecostalism and the holiness and charismatic movements: where Charismatics find speaking in tongues some, but not necessarily all, evidence of a Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals believe that it is evidence of a “second work of grace” by the Holy Spirit. However, people often use the terms “Pentecostal” and “Charismatic” interchangeably, or use one as a subcategory for another.