Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews; this estimate was based on a 1990 survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations. The exact number of Black Hebrews within that surveyed group remains unspecified.
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.
Nevertheless, Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism):
Black Judaism is ... a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews...in a manner that seems unacceptable to the "whites" of the world's Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus "Black Judaism," as defined here, stands distinctly apart from "black Judaism," or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world's Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. "Black Judaism" has been a social movement; "black Judaism" has been an isolated social phenomenon.Landing's definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized,[1 but it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of Black Hebrew organizations were established. In Harlem alone, at least eight such groups were founded between 1919 and 1931. The Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations is the oldest known Black Hebrew group and the Church of God and Saints of Christ is one of the largest Black Hebrew organizations. The Commandment Keepers are noted for their adherence to traditional Judaism and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are widely known for having moved from the United States to Israel.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism". It teaches that all Jews had been black originally, and that African-Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent to Judaism and a prophet. They also consider William Saunders Crowdy to be a prophet.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ synthesizes rituals from both Judaism and Christianity. They have adopted rites drawn from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Its Jewish observances include circumcision of newborn boys, use of the Hebrew calendar, wearing of yarmulkes, observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, and celebration of Passover. Its New Testament rites include baptism (immersion) and footwashing, both of which have Old Testament origins.