It’s Easter Week! What better time to write about the Gullah Geechee faith?
Gullah religious systems and beliefs are derived from African tradition and the Christianity practiced by their former white plantation owners. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance.
The place –
While traveling throughout the coastal south, you may have come across small, whitewashed shacks in varying degrees of preservation or disrepair. These are known as praise houses. During the antebellum period, slaves were not permitted to worship in white churches, nor were they allowed to congregate in large groups for fear of rebellion. Small praise houses were purposely built to have an unthreatening presence. These whitewashed shacks once provided a place where blacks could worship, celebrate, and hold community meetings.
The sermon –
Many traditional African American churches are known for incorporating singing, dancing, and shouting into their worship services. Gullah Geechee services share this quality, which is derived from slave services where the congregation was unable to read. Most praise houses only had one Bible or hymnal, and being literate was a rarity. To address this, the congregation developed a call-response type of service, where the leader would loudly deliver the sermon, passages, or hymn, and the congregation would learn by verbally repeating it back. Additionally, the groups might clap or stomp to set a beat for the call-response. From this developed the performance of a Gullah Geechee ring shout, which is usually set for special occasions such as holidays or funerals.
A somewhat famous, but lesser understood feature of Gullah-Geechee faith is the blending of traditional African beliefs of hoodoo, wudu, or juju. In contrast to voodoo, this is a “lighter” form of folk magic that relies on an intimate relationship with the earth as an ancestral or parental relationship. Hoodoo heavily involves the use of herbs and roots for medicinal purposes, and from these practices, you may have heard of individuals known as "Root Doctors."
Until the 20th century, many lowcountry communities had their own root doctor. Dr. Buzzard, Dr. Bug, Dr. Snake, Dr. Crow. Just as people now keep lawyers on retainer, locals (both black and white) paid regular visits to their spiritual “doctor.” During the WWII, lines of visitors went down the street to pay a visit to Dr. Bug, who sold charms laced with arsenic causing heart palpitations for men who wanted to avoid the draft.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!