Black Preachers Who ‘Whoop’–Minstrels or Ministers?

John Blake, CNN, October 20, 2010

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Whooping is a celebratory style of black preaching that pastors typically use to close a sermon. Some church scholars compare it to opera; it’s that moment the sermon segues into song.

Whooping pastors use chanting, melody and call-and-response preaching to reach parishioners in a place where abstract preaching cannot penetrate, scholars say.

Whooping preachers aim “to wreck” a congregation by making people feel the sermon, not just hear it, says the Rev. Henry Mitchell, a scholar who identified the link between whooping and African oral traditions.

“The old folks used to say, ‘If you ain’t felt nothing, you ain’t got nothing,”‘ Mitchell says.

Yet the black church has long been ambivalent about whooping. Some scholars say contemporary black churches are abandoning whooping because they think it’s crass. But more white preachers are discovering it through YouTube and by sharing the pulpit with black preachers.

The most persistent debate over whooping revolves around its legitimacy. Is it fair to call it an art form? What’s so hard about a preacher screaming and sweating in the pulpit?

Those are the critics who say whoopers are minstrels, not ministers.

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Simmons says the best whoopers use their voices like instruments. They’re following rules of rhythm, tone and melody. All good whoppers have some “music” in their throat, says Simmons, editor of “Preaching with Sacred Fire,” an anthology of black sermons dating back to 1750.

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Earning the right to whoop

Whooping isn’t confined to vocal gymnastics. The greatest whoopers combined “learning and burning.” They are theologically sound, well-read and excellent storytellers, scholars say.

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Those whooping legends that blended theology with “whoopology” are people like the Rev. Caesar Arthur Walker Clark Sr., a diminutive man with a powerful voice that could sound like God’s trombone.

Contemporary whooping legends include the Rev. Charles Adams, dubbed the “Harvard Hooper” because of his Ivy League education, and the Rev. Jasper Williams, who teaches “whoopology” classes through a DVD series.

But the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of singer Aretha Franklin, is widely considered the greatest whooper. Many of Franklin’s sermons, like the classic, “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” and “Dry Bones in the Valley,” were sold as popular records during his lifetime.

Whoopers not only sound different; they preach different, says Mitchell, the preaching scholar and author of “Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art.”

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Mitchell says European culture tends to distrust emotion. That instinct, he says, goes as far back as the Greeks who frowned upon the exuberant worship of pagan religions.

Scholars quibble over the origin of whooping.

Most trace it back to West Africa griots, the dramatic storytellers who preserved a people’s oral tradition. Some trace it to the “tonal” nature of African languages, the drums of Africa; the need for the slave preacher to rouse the battered spirits of enslaved Africans.

“It’s in the DNA of our people,” Smith [The Rev. E. Dewey Smith Jr., whooping pastor of Greater Travelers Rest Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia] says. “When people were beaten and bruised, the slave preacher, with the intonation of the voice, was able to lift the spirits of the people.”

Can white people whoop?

If whooping is the soundtrack for the black church experience, some want to change the record.

More black megachurch pastors are classifying themselves as “teaching” or “word” ministers. Their sermons resemble lectures, complete with studious congregations taking notes.

Smith, the Atlanta pastor, says some of the discomfort blacks have with whooping springs from “self-hate.” They’re ashamed of an authentic expression of black culture.

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The Rev. Patrick Clayborn, an assistant professor of homiletics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, says some preachers treat whooping as mere entertainment.

Clayborn says he was once accompanying his brother-in-law, a church organist, to a Sunday morning service when the visiting preacher slipped in a quiet request before the service.

“He said make sure you’re in D-flat when I get to the end of my sermon,” Clayborn recalls.

Teresa L. Fry Brown, director of black church studies at Emory University in Atlanta, says people use to scoff at the itinerant “jackleg” preachers in the 1940s and 1950s who whooped their way through empty sermons, making up texts.

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Another debate in the whooping world revolves around race: Can white preachers whoop?

Some black preachers say yes, and point to white pastors such as the Rev. Paula White.

Featured at many of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ events, White says she doesn’t try to whoop. It’s simply an “authentic” expression of her preaching passion.

“Can I whoop? Yes,” White says. “It’s very natural for me. But I don’t try to be black. I don’t try to be white. All I know is to be me.”

Yet Clayborn, the homiletics professor in Ohio, says the fuel for the whoop grows out of the black perspective, the experience of being among “the least, the last and lost.”

“When I see a white preacher do it, it feels like they went and learned it, just like a parrot can imitate the human voice,” he says. “They’re like spiritual parrots.”

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