Driving by an African Methodist Church in Florida yesterday with a parking lot full of cars and music spilling out onto the highway I was reminded of the praise houses we saw on a historical tour of a South Carolina Island. We visited one of the few praise houses that are still in existence. It was an old white washed wooden hut. Plantation owners used to build praise houses as places where their slaves could meet to worship. Praise houses were always small since slavery laws forbid large gatherings of African Americans.
It was to these praise houses that the slaves came to pray about their joys and sorrows, to read the Bible and to sing. It was at these small gatherings that many spirituals were born. Popular traditional spirituals like Michael Row Your Boat and Motherless Child were first sung in a praise house.
Since some slave owners forbid the use of drums the slaves used their hands, their feet and walking sticks to keep the beat as they sang.
Praise houses were known for a kind of worship form called The Ring Shout. Participants began to sing slowly, moving in a circle, shuffling their feet and clapping their hands. Gradually the tempo of their movements and the volume of their voices would increase till it reached such a high pitch the participants would sometimes fall down from exhaustion.
Some people are advocating for the preservation of praise houses as a way to foster spirituality in a new generation and remind them of the faith of their ancestors. Others say praise houses are only a reminder of the way slave owners used Christianity as a tool to keep their slaves in line by distorting the Biblical message so their slaves would believe they were sinning if they disobeyed their masters.