The Civil Writer Magazine

The practice of raising a finger when leaving the Sanctuary originated with slaves signifying they’d received permission from their masters to leave for a minute.

The Grio storytellers states that during the days of slavery when the masters took their slaves with them to public gatherings outside of the plantation, the slaves if left alone would get the attention of anyone whether it was another overseer or slaveholder signaling they were not escaping but excusing themselves for a moment.

When the slave had to go to the bathroom or wanted to be excused for any other reason, they would hold their hand up until someone gave them permission by eye contact or verbal to leave or in other words “excused them to leave”. After the slave was given permission to leave, they would hold up that one finger as they were leaving to inform anyone that saw them leave that they had been excused. So it means “My Master or someone has excused me”.

This is a practice that took place in mostly Southern Baptist churches which were predominantly worshipped in by white Southerners. Today it still exist with Black Baptist parishioners as a non-verbal way of saying excuse me to the church as they walk out.

That happy Baptist will do it at work or a concert to excuse themself by habit. It can also be used as a request for permission to briefly interrupt another, that is, as a non-verbal way of asking the group to yield the floor for the finger-raiser’s posing a brief query or to add a short observation.

The church finger can only be done in a Black church. White churches won't do it being they usually stay seated for the hour long service, but in a Black church it is a way of exiting after two or more hours. As to say, I will be back in “1” moment (symbolizing with the finger) but that “moment” ends up in the church parking lot.