Black Jews


    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.

    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.