Alternative religious movements have played a significant role in American history. There is no easy definition for these types of groups; their ideas and practices vary. One clear commonality, though, is their development on the sociocultural margins. Thus, inherent in alternative religious movements is a critique of dominant culture, and this offers a powerful means of engaging issues of race in America. Other groups, however, choose to echo prevailing racial ideas as a means of making themselves mainstream. The typical narrative of American religious history is white and Protestant, and alternative religious movements have provided both criticism and approval of that story. While a close look at every alternative religious movement would be impossible, even an abbreviated exploration is revealing. During the antebellum period the question of slavery and the white supremacy that supported it prompted alternative religious movements to ask questions about equality. While many Shakers and Spiritualists recognized value in all, other groups, like the Mormons, encoded contemporary racial assumptions in their early theology. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, African Americans and Native Americans criticized white supremacy by offering alternative explanations of humanity’s history and destiny. The 1890s Ghost Dance movement envisioned an Indian paradise devoid of whites, and in the early 20th century black alternative movements in northern cities emphasized the religious significance of their blackness. Though these groups criticized the white supremacy surrounding them, others continued to emphasize the superiority of whiteness. In the latter part of the 20th century, many Americans associated racialized alternative religious movements, such as the Nation of Islam, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the Peoples Temple, with fear or brainwashing. In examining how alternative religious movements engage racial assumptions, articulate racial discourse, or create religio-racial identities, a study of these movements illuminates the interplay between religion and culture in American history.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Walter C. Rucker
The Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora refer to overlapping geographic and historical concepts each representing a complex series of dispersals, connections and reconnections, interactions, engagements and disengagements, and conflicts. As a geographic, spatial, and historical subset of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic refers to the sustained contacts and connections among the peoples of Atlantic Africa, Europe, and the Americas beginning with the “Age of Reconnaissance” (1306–1484) and the “Age of Contact” (1482–1621) and extending into the present. One of the first acts in the creation of the Black Atlantic can be located within the story of Mansa Qu, Islamic emperor and explorer from the western Sudanic empire of Mali, who commissioned two oceanic voyages to discover the western extent of the Atlantic between 1307 and 1311. Reconnaissance expeditions of this sort, launched by both Atlantic Africans and later by Iberians in the 14th and 15th centuries, helped create knowledge networks and webs of interconnections that would become critical to the later formation of the Black Atlantic. At the core of many of these earlier efforts to explore the world around them were the religious pursuits and goals—both Christian and Islamic—on the part of Atlantic Africans and Iberians. Delegations of Christian monks and pilgrims from Ethiopia visited the Italian peninsula, Iberia, and other parts of Europe beginning in 1306 seeking pan-Christian alliances against common Muslim foes. These early delegations fueled later Iberian imaginations about the existence of Prester John—an eastern defender of Christendom believed by the early 15th century to preside over an East African kingdom. In part, the protracted search for the mythical Prester John in Africa by the Portuguese after 1415 set in motion sustained contacts between Iberia and Atlantic Africa highlighted by the creation of Iberian-African settlements along the Atlantic African coast and in the Atlantic Islands, the transfer of enslaved labor to the Americas via the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the beginnings of sugar plantations and slave societies in the Caribbean and Brazil by the mid-16th century. Centuries of sustained contact of this nature spawned a range of cultural formations, the processes of ethnogenesis, and the creation of new transnational identities in the littoral regions and beyond of the four continents that frame the Atlantic Ocean. Creolization, the unique confluence of Atlantic cultures, served as the foundation for reinvented peoples across the Western Hemisphere who remembered, activated, and re-created “Africa” while attending to New World realities of racial slavery and hierarchy. This process of creolization created a range of ethnocultural permutations, from Atlantic Creoles to a wide array of neo-African ethnic groups in the Americas (e.g., Eboes, Coromantees, Congos, Nâgos, and Lucumís). Within this diverse cultural matrix and the processes of cultural mixing, religious and spiritual worldviews were among the most significant articulations of Black Atlantic and creole cultures. Indeed, there is no other way to decode the intricacies of Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voudou, New Orleans Hoodoo, Jamaican Myalism, or Obeah without framing them in the context of the cultural negotiations among many Atlantic African peoples made necessary by the suffocating confines of racial slavery and more recent socio-racial hierarchies embedded within Western Hemisphere colonialism, Jim Crow in the United States, and other manifestations of white supremacy
Gender and spirituality are both terms that signify alterity, especially a critique of established social conventions, including conventions of disciplining personhood on the basis of gender classifications and according to doctrinal and ritual patterns of organized religion. To be aware of gender as a hierarchical system is a modern phenomenon; “spirituality” has a much longer history of use and was generated from within organized religion, though its evolution increasingly marked it as a perspective distinct from, and necessitating the evaluative intervention of, official religious channels. Developing through a confluence of interest in Western esotericism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, the German Romantics, and Asian traditions in the early 20th century, spirituality as a cultural concept and practice was poised to respond to widespread late modern questioning of received social modes, especially in terms of defining oneself. Contesting theoretical predictions of society’s secularization but supporting those of the “subjective turn,” late modern spirituality groups, especially those inspired by feminism, civil rights, and gay rights, valorized marginalized bodies and their distinctive experiences, creating new paths of spiritual expression in which personal experience in the context of group affirmation was foregrounded. Postmodern ideas on the fluidity of gender further contributed to the voices of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) people who critiqued residual gender binaries operative in some New Age spiritualities and provided new arguments for social inclusivity in spirituality groups and in the wider society. What characterizes spirituality into the 21st century is the “turn to holism,” in which a wide variety of methods are promoted as leading to a holistic sense of the well-being of body and spirit. Diverse practices include Kirlian aura photography, Johrei Fellowship healing, tarot cards, shiatsu massage, acupressure, aromatherapy, kinesiology, and yoga, leading some scholars to critique the spirituality climate as a neoliberal capitalist “spiritual marketplace.” Others view it as a generative opportunity for seeking and bricolage construction of the self that has transformative potential for both self and society.
Patrick Q. Mason
Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). The movement splintered following the death of Smith, with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) becoming by far the largest institutional manifestation of Mormonism today. Mormonism claims to be a restoration of ancient Christianity, following a period of apostasy after the death of Christ’s original apostles. The movement began with a series of revelations to Smith in the 1820s in which God called him to be a prophet and then an angel directed him to a buried ancient record written on golden plates. Smith translated this record “by the gift and power of God” and published it as the Book of Mormon, which is one of four books considered by Mormons to be scripture (along with the Christian Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price). Mormons believe that God leads their church through living prophets and continuing revelation, and that ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are performed only through the priesthood that was restored to Smith and passed on to the church today. Mormons prioritize family relationships, which they believe can be maintained after death through marriage ceremonies conducted in Mormon temples. Heavily persecuted in the 19th century for their practices of polygamy and theocracy, today Mormons are fully integrated into society even while maintaining a distinctive theology and group identity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates an ambitious proselytizing campaign around the globe and continues to enjoy steady worldwide growth, with the majority of its members now residing outside the United States. Though strongly influenced by its origins in a modern American context, as it nears the beginning of its third century Mormonism is emerging as an increasingly mature global religion.