“There is a God and we believe in Him. He is not a person, nor a physical being. He is spirit and He is Universal Intelligence.” – Marcus Garvey
Religion has always been an important part of Garvey’s life. From childhood, when he attended the St. Ann’s Bay Methodist Church, Garvey recognized the importance of The Trinity: God, the Father, God, the Son and God, the Holy Spirit. He was a staunch Christian, so, it is no surprise that he made religion an important part of the work of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). However, Garvey saw the grave need to rewrite the theology that existed and make it relevant to the Black experience. He encouraged an African interpretation of Christianity, which dispelled the white/European interpretation. This he viewed as being a critical component to the uplifting of the Black race, as it would build moral.
Central to Garvey’s idea of religion was that God is black. He rejected the idea of God as white. “We negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia [a black God], the everlasting God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages”.At the 1924 UNIA Convention, Garvey formalized this belief by canonizing Jesus Christ as the “Black Man of Sorrows” and the Virgin Mary as the “Black Madonna”.
Though Garvey often denied that he was a religious leader, it seemed that he fashioned UNIA meetings to copy church services. Without a doubt, the UNIA was a religious group. This was evident as it had its own distinct set of rituals, beliefs, symbols and commemorations which were developed to instill and represent the deeply held beliefs that bounded the members together. Hymns were sung, scriptures recited and prayers offered. Garvey’s speeches were also often delivered in a sermon-like manner. It should however be noted, that though Garvey was Christian by denomination, he was insistent that the UNIA be inclusive and welcome black people of all denominations. In addition, non-Christians were also accommodated. Consequently, the movement was often described as a “Black Civil Religion”.
Garvey posited the need for black people to locate themselves within the redemptive graces of God. However, where his ideology differed from that of Christianity was the fact that he was convinced that their Black God would be sympathetic to the plight of Black people and provide solace and success in the present-life. Christianity, on the other hand, promoted hope for the afterlife. Garvey believed the afterlife would take care of itself. He was more concerned with the Black people being redeemed while alive, and he believed that any God they serve would provide this. Garvey used religion as a tool to motivate social, economic and political success of Black people. In his wisdom, he created a religious group that recognized the varying doctrines of its members whilst incorporating all of them in his overall vision of a black liberation theology, one of his main tenets. He sought to place the movement in the appropriate institutional form which he himself characterized as “one great Christian confraternity without regard to any particular denomination.”