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date: 27 February 2021

The Idea of Black Religionfree

  • Jamil W. DrakeJamil W. DrakeFlorida State University


It is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of the idea of black religion; however, certain themes, tropes, and characteristics are typically associated with the “black” in black religion. These ideas are inseparable from the ideas of race in American history. The ideas of the religious differences (e.g., institutions, theologies, practices, or values) attributed to black people are not objective or neutral. Rather, these ideas about the differences of black religion are value-laden and shaped by larger debates about the moral and intellectual capabilities, social status, and/or political struggles of black folk in the United States. In this sense, the idea of black religion is inseparable from the larger discourse about black people and their place in the republic.

Arguably, black religion was not a formal object of inquiry until the late 19th century, yet it often includes statements about the paganism, idolatry, and/or fetishism used to define “religion of Africa” in the colonial period. By the antebellum period, a cadre of voluntary African associations continued the ideas of pagan Africa that posited a redemptive [African] race that simultaneously sought to purify American religion from slavery and to civilize Africa from the ideas of primitivism. Throughout the 20th century, early studies of “black religion” were associated with ideas of social and moral uplift; race heredity; economic stress; transmission of Africanisms; and protest and liberation. In the end, black religion is intrinsic to U.S. intellectual and cultural history.

“Pagan Rites, Idolatries, and Fetishes of African Heathens,” 1500s—1750s

The idea of “black religion” first began to circulate in the travel accounts of European explorers, traders, and missionaries who chronicled their encounters with African peoples in sub-Saharan Africa. Ideas of black religion were part of a vast landscape of maritime advancement, colonial settlement, commercial trade, and slave economies of the transatlantic world.1 Although the ideas associated with idolatry circulated during the Crusades, they took on a new meaning once Portugal, followed by Dutch, English, and French explorers and merchants, participated in the mass trafficking of 10 million African people to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The European chroniclers reduced the cosmologies and practices of West and West Central Africans to mere idolatries, fetishes, witchcraft, and pagan rites. The religion of Africa was partly a colonial idea that sanctioned European colonial expansion and confirmed African heathenism in the “New World.” In fact, many European explorers and merchants noted that the religion of Africa was “no religion” at all.

Venetian sailor Alvise da Cadamosto offered one of the earliest accounts of West Africa from his voyage to the Canary Islands in the 15th century. Under the jurisdiction of Prince Henry of Portugal, Cadamosto encountered what he called “idolators” with “their peculiar pagan practices” on three of the seven islands. He further stated that they “do not have any religion and do not recognize God.” Their “no religion” status was further evidenced by their “worshipping of the sun, … the moon, … and the planets.” Describing the commercial activity in Sierra Leone, Merchant Andre Donelha observed that followers of the Mandinka religion manufactured material objects such as pots and that they “fashion many idols of wood, in the form of men or monkeys or other animals … make idols for war, for rain, for sunshine, for famine or for whatever else they wish to undertake.”2 Prior to the 19th-century scientific study of religion, fetish (or belief in the power of an inanimate object) was a common idea used to represent the religion of the Africans. Contemporary religious scholar Sylvester A. Johnson argued, “Western Christians invested in anthropomorphism as a choice weapon to undermine or deride African materialities as manifested through so-called fetish religion.”3 Fetishism was directly attributed to African heathenism and consequently facilitated the process of racialization.4

Spanish, Dutch, English, and French colonists who participated in the slave trade also obscured the complexity of indigenous traditions through intellectual abstractions and taxonomies such as paganism or heathen rites. These European ideas about “African” religion reduced a range of natural and ancestral deities and divinations to superstitions, witchcraft, and demonic reveries.5 Under the auspices of the Dutch West Indian Company (est. 1621), merchant Willem Bosman (1672–1703) sailed to the Dutch fort of Elmina Castle on the Gold Coast. His descriptions of African divination reduced it to a kind of “religious madness.” In the mid-17th century, Anglican missionaries were dumbfounded when they witnessed “thousands of [enslaved] persons in a state of Pagan Darkness under a Christian Government” in Anglophone America.”6 These missionaries attributed the heathenism and paganism of the enslaved Africans to the apathetic British planters who apparently did not believe that the Christianization of the enslaved translated into more productive and docile laborers. In the late 17th century, Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn (1640–1686) complained that the enslaved continued to cling to their “heathen rites” by engaging in “[i]dolatrous [d]ances and [re]evels” to worship manufactured deities (“earthern potsherds”) to “procure rain” or seek protection.7

Godwyn and other Anglican ministers reported on the heathen rites of the enslaved contributed to the establishment of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in 1701. Once again, Christian and colonial prejudices shaped the ideas and meaning of black religion. Proselytizing the enslaved in Goose Creek, South Carolina, Francis Le Jau (1665–1717), a missionary of the SPG, complained about the lack of converts and their persistence in engaging in “profane and inhuman” practices. Prior to the American Revolution, other Anglican missionaries sent complaints to the Bishop of London that the enslaved adults were “accustom[ed] to their Pagan Rites and Idolatries of their own Country, particularly the Christian, as forbidding that licentiousness [e.g., polygamy] which is usually practis’d among the Heathen.”8

The idea of “African” religion said more about the rudimentary European Christian biases and prejudice than the variety and complexity of African religions. These biases overlooked the Indigenous “African deities” such as Vodun among the Fa of Dahomey, Orisha among the Yoruba, and simbi spirits of Kongolese people birthed Santeria, Voodoo, Candomble, Catholic, and Hoodoo among enslaved Africans in the broader Americas. Black religion also operated as an intellectual product among the colonists to govern and manage labor and colonial economies along racial differences. Beyond the colonial period, “Africa” continued have a significant impact on ideas about black religion throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. As religious scholar Charles Long states, “Africa” is an important symbolic image and methodological principle(s) in black and wider American religions.9

“Moral Purification of Religion and Redeeming Africa,” 1780s–1860s

The colonists achieved independence from the British Crown, but this freedom did not extend to black populations, who were excluded from “the people” in the U.S. Constitution. The approximately 700,000 enslaved persons, their many legal petitions, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 exposed the contradictions at the heart of democracy in the last three decades of the 18th century.10 Speculations by Thomas Jefferson, the “father of American Democracy,” that “observations,” the “anatomical knife,” “optical glasses,” “analysis by fire or by solvents” could determine whether black subjects were a separate species in mind and body were indicative of the times and launched the study of “race” into the natural sciences and ethnology that further shaped the idea(s) of black religion.11 With race ethnology, embryonic ideas of black religion also started to percolate in the 1780s and flourished in the 1820s and 1830s with the emergence of a black civil society in the form of benevolent societies, churches, lodges, schools, literary clubs, and newspapers. These free-African associations gave way to a bourgeoning yet vulnerable black intelligentsia for whom black religion became a part of the quest for self-determination and freedom. The formation of these associations prepared the stage for black religion as an object of inquiry, beginning with Negro Church studies in the late 19th century.

This cadre of writers and orators did not necessarily offer a robust idea of black religion per se. In fact, in their efforts to purify American religion from its racial transgressions, these Christian writers and orators understood themselves as the true arbiters of the “religion of Jesus.” Their critical reflections on the contradictions of American Protestantism and slavery compelled them to grapple with the moral and political differences that distinguished their religion from what was commonly called “white American Christianity” or the “slaveholders’ religion.” Critical reflections on the “shared black experience” allowed them to confront the possibilities of a unique black religion that signaled their “ambivalence with evangelical Christianity.” Religious philosopher Eddie Glaude noted that after “blacks had to come to terms with the historical fact that white Christianity was complicit with … white supremacy, [black evangelicals] developed a distinctive evangelical tradition in which they established identity for themselves as individuals and as a people.” Therefore, “they were Christians but with a difference.”12 This “Christianity with a difference” produced ideas about black religion to negotiate the racial politics of the republic. It was shaped by a commitment to the eradication of slavery, affirmation of black identity, and an assertion of moral superiority. These commitments influenced a distinct brand of evangelicalism that by the turn of the 20th century informed “Negro Church studies.”

Black Bostonian David Walker (d. 1830) articulated this distinction when he circulated his apocryphal pamphlet, Appeal of the Coloured Race in 1829. Walker was the owner of a used clothing store, the editor of the Freedom’s Journal (est. 1827), and a member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association. He articulated a different theological and political idea, one that depicted a wrathful “God” who championed black armed resistance (over and against acceptance and passivity) and consequentially, the destruction of white America if it refused to repent and turn away from its “avaricious” and “ungodly” ways. Walker asserted that white America’s “destruction was at hand.” In this distinct theological (and political) register, Walker, perceiving himself as a representative of the Holy Ghost, exclaimed, “[w]hen God almighty commences his battle on the continent of America for the oppression of his people, tyrants will wish they never born.” Walker challenged the contradictions of American Christianity and white supremacy designed to purify the religion from racial oppressions: “All persons who are acquainted with history, and particularly the Bible, who are not blinded by the God of this world, and are not actuated solely by avarice—who are able to lay aside prejudice long enough to view candidly and impartiality, things as they were, are, and probably will be—are willing to admit that God made man to serve Him alone, and that man should have no other Lord or Lords.”13 Walker’s jeremiad “did more than enable blacks to vent their righteous indignation; it placed black Christians in a stance of judgment over white Christians; it consolidated a position of moral superiority for the descendants of the African race.”14

Walker’s colleague and friend, Maria Stewart (1803–1879) also reflected on black experiences serving to purify and elevate Christianity over and against the racial oppression that restricted both blacks and women in the Republic. A member of Boston’s Afric-American Female Intelligence Society (est. 1832), Stewart was one of the few pioneering black women to disrupt the “public space” by addressing audiences composed of women and men, black and white, for abolition and social organizations.15 Her speeches were printed in William L. Garrison’s Liberator (est. 1831). With her expansive biblical and classical knowledge along with her piety, Stewart understood the cause of God as inseparable from the cause of freedom.16 In similar jeremiad fashion, Stewart also used Christianity as a critical platform to highlight the destruction of America. After comparing America to “the great city of Babylon” in her address at the African Masonic Hall in Boston, Stewart exclaimed that “our cries shall have reached the ears of the Most High, it will be a tremendous day for the people of this [American] land, for strong is the hand of the Lord God Almighty.”17 In another address, she stated, “O ye great and mighty men of America, ye rich and powerful ones, many of you will call for the rocks and mountains to fall upon you.”18 Unlike her contemporaries, her distinct evangelicalism also challenged patriarchy within the black community and emboldened women to “strive by their example both in public and private, to assist those who are endeavoring to stop the strong current of prejudice that flows so profusely against us at present.”19

Ex-slave Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) purified Christianity with his category of the “religion of Jesus” versus the “religion of the land” (or “slaveholders’ religion”). He underscored the moral superiority of African enslaved people. Creator of North Star newspaper (est. 1847) and popular orator, Douglass witnessed how the “religion of the land” fused “[r]evivals of religion and revivals in slave trade.” In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass asserted, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”20 A range of African-American writers and orators such as Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), Absalom Jones (1746–1818), Prince Hall (1738–1807), Hosea Easton (1798–1837), Samuel Cornish (1795–1858), and Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837–1914) projected theological, ethnological, and ethical ideas that disclosed “evangelical Christianity with a difference.”

By the 1780s, voluntary emigration had become a social and political option for people of African descent. Voluntary emigration sprung from the intellectual work of free blacks in reinterpreting the Hamitic narrative to claim a “glorious African past” that repositioned blacks as God’s chosen people and as agents in providential history. By the eve of the Civil War, the intellectual discourse of “emigration” and “colonization” had a significant impact on the idea of black religion. To make sense of the historical contradictions of slavery, especially in the case of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and Dred Scott verdict (1857), black intellectuals rationalized that “God endowed Christian people of African descent with a sacred and moral mission to redeem and civilize Africa.” In short, Christianity gave them the moral platform to “vindicate the race.” Invigorated by Psalm 68:31 (“Princes will leave Egypt and Ethiopia will stretch forth her hands”), this redemptive narrative circumscribed the idea of black religion within the desire for black self-governance and settlement.

As a precursor to 20th-century black nationalism, emigration ideas of black religion were supported by the logic of the “redeemer race or a people who had once led the world and were destined to lead it again.”21 At the forefront of the intellectual discourse of emigration was West Indian native Edward W. Blyden (1832–1912). Ordained as a Presbyterian minister (which he later renounced), Blyden, despite his association with the American Colonization Society (est. 1816), thought seriously about West African Islam and its contribution to Pan-African nationalism—meaning pure-African governance, especially in Liberia. He published a series of articles entitled, Islam, Christianity, and the Negro Race in major British and American journals. While traveling to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1850s, Blyden was impressed with Islam’s ability to syncretize or amalgamate local African traditions and institutions with new cultural trends that led to the “Africa for the Africans” movement. According to Blyden, the Arab missionaries brought Mohammedanism in a “quie[t] and unobtrusive[e]” fashion to West and Central Africa to accentuate the choice and conviction of Negroes. In his “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race (1875),” Blyden noted, “There are numerous Negro Mohammedan communities and states in Africa which are self-reliant, productive, independent and dominant, supporting, without the countenance or patronage of the parent country, Arabia, whence they derived them, their political, literary, and ecclesiastical institutions.”22 Mohammedan aesthetics affirmed black skin through pictorial representations of a Negro God and exceptional Negro dignitaries. From Blyden’s perspective, Christianity had become so tied to Western culture that its modus operandi was designed solely to cultivate European superiority and consequently encourage black subservience. Blyden noted, “Wherever the Negro is found in Christian lands, his leading trait is not docility, as has been alleged, but servility.”23 Western Christianity projects images of God antithetical to the very being of the Christian Negro. Yet, Blyden’s support of Islam in its cultivation of pure-African independence was paradoxically tied to “civilizationism” or “the doctrine of uplift which assumed that [African] people were, as a whole, backward.”24 The influence of civilizationism on the idea of black religion reflected Blyden’s privileging of Islam’s discipline, scholarship over and against the wild dancing of traditional African cultures to sustain a modern African nation-state.25

Blyden’s colleague, Alexandar Crummell (1819–1898), also contributed to the idea of black religion within a proto-black nationalistic framework. Educated at Yale Divinity School and Queen’s College, Cambridge, Crummell emigrated to Liberia, where he served as a Christian missionary, educator, and farmer for 20 years. An ordained Episcopalian priest, Crummell championed the spiritual and material progress of an African civilization. Interestingly, Crummell’s idea of black religion was inspired by his adoption of 19th-century romantic nationalism. Influenced by Johann Gottfried Herder’s view of Kultur, Crummell believed that races and/or nations were endowed with certain natural characteristics and talents. Regarding black religion, Crummell felt that blacks were naturally susceptible to religion and in time, black Christians would penetrate the Christianity lurking underneath their indigenous pagan traditions and secure a civilization that could interact and deal with other civilizations. The consequence of Crummell’s “civilizationism” was a total disregard for indigenous African traditions.26 In this sense, the idea of black religion coalesced with the divine gifts and natural traits of exceptional black folk who would put African on a forward historical trajectory. After the Civil War, this black emigration continued in the thought of Crummell’s longtime friend, Henry Highland Garnett (1815–1882), as well as Martin Delany (1812–1885), and Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915).

Martin Delany extended his Protestantism to secure a regenerated and noble African race who would utilize their “moral and intellectual grandeur in spearheading the progress of civilization.”27 By the 1850s, Delany had deviated from the Garrisonian abolitionism for emigration while serving as coeditor of the North Star with Frederick Douglass. Because of the laws enacted in the 1850s and the protest of white students against admitting persons of color to the program, Delany was forced to quit his studies at Harvard Medical School. In deliberate contrast to the Colored National Convention in Rochester, New York in 1853, Delany called on all colored men in favor of emigration to congregate in Cleveland for the National Emigration Convention of Colored Men in August of 1854.28 As President of the Convention, Delany’s keynote address began by noting the delusions of freedom and liberty for blacks in the American political economy. African-Americans could never achieve the privileges of citizenship and freedom because they lacked the necessary sovereignty or authority to determine their own political destiny. Because freedom was unavailable to the disenfranchised, Delany posited that Central and South America and the West Indies were viable societies where the black man could exercise his inherent rights to be a “ruling element of the body-politic.” More importantly, racial exceptionalism undergirded Delaney’s support of emigration. He said that the colored race had the highest traits of civilization: civility, peaceableness, and religiosity. These traits demonstrated that because of the “true principles of morals, correctness of thought, religion, and law or civil government, there is no doubt but the black race will yet instruct the world.” Although he would eventually change his goal of black emigration from the Americas to Africa (specifically Liberia) during Reconstruction, his Protestant interpretation of the Hebrew Bible animated his persistent racial exceptionalism.

Against the towering figures of the American School of Ethnology, Delany published his Principia of Ethnology in 1879.29 Merging science and religion, Delany reserved the physiological process of race differences to God’s (or divine) sovereignty. Linking divine racial difference to Noah and his three sons, Ham, Japheth, and Shem, Delany noted that Ham represented the origins of black people in that he dispersed to Africa. Africa, he said, has a unique divine mission in God’s providential plan, as evidenced by the “Cyrene, Simon” (Simon means black) who held Jesus’s cross as well, as by the ambassador of the Queen of Ethiopia who was sent to be baptized in the Christian faith. Delany noted, “Being made the protectors of the infant Son of God, to assist in the plan of salvation; and, lastly, to promulgate the precepts of redemption taught by the ascended Savior, certainly points to a higher and holier mission designed for that race than has yet been developed in the progress of civilization.”

Henry McNeal Turner also became disillusioned by Reconstruction and supported the cause of voluntary emigration to Liberia. In a column, he stated that he “almost despise[d] the land of [his] birth.” Turner’s support of the cause of emigration was inseparable from the resurgence of African-American Protestant missionary associations/societies in the late 19th century. In this sense, Turner promoted the establishment of what he called a “respectable civil and Christian nation.” While he expressed anger for the persistence of black persecution in America, he nevertheless attributed the lack of freedom to God’s will to have blacks turn their attention to the “fatherland.” In addition to his missionary impulse, Turner’s support of emigration was also a way to strengthen racial pride and aspirations. In the AME Christian Recorder (est. 1852), Turner questioned Benjamin Tanner’s criticism of emigration by situating Africa as a place to induce ambition and self-reliance. The African-American community would observe “black men Christianize Africa to shine a spotlight on the destiny of the race for the entire world to witness.” For Turner, emigration would project blacks occupying a “seat of power, respected, honored, beloved, feared, hated, and reverenced.”30 His peculiar Christianity tried to inspire racial patriotism in the hearts and minds of blacks. He believed that Africa would reveal the privileged status of blacks worldwide.

Negro Church Studies, 1900–1930

By the first half of the 20th century, “black religion” was an established object of inquiry within the academic and social trends of the industrial period after American Reconstruction. The idea of black religion coalesced alongside the professionalization of knowledge, particularly with the rise of the human and behavioral sciences such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology beginning in the late 19th century. This stream of thought moved religion into the scientific and evolutionary studies of distinct race traits and consciousness.

In addition to the professionalization of knowledge, black religion also developed within an emerging professional class of black academicians who started to rise through the ranks of institutions of higher learning in the human sciences after the 1877 Hayes-Tifton Compromise. Richard Wright, Jr. (1855–1947), Monroe Work (1866–1945), W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), George Hayes (1880–1960), Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), and Benjamin Mays (1894–1984) were part of a broader network of sociologists, historians, theologically trained ministers and social workers. They pioneered a variety of scientific and historical methodologies and research sources such as interviews, statistics, graphs, census reports, denominational meetings, budget/debt assessments, leadership structure and social functions of black churches and denominations.

While these scientific studies objectively investigated different Protestant churches and denominations, they also downplayed theological and creedal particularities to challenge and mobilize mainline black churches and denominations. They challenged churches to utilize “resources to uplift black communities and their fight against racial, economic, and political oppression.”31 Behind the scientific studies of the Negro church was a subjective goal to bring religious and principally Protestant institutions into the struggle against the social and material ills experienced by people of African descent in U.S. segregation. In this sense, the Negro Church was more than a descriptive idea that carved out a diverse Protestant landscape of black people. Instead, it was more of an aspirational ideal, impacting the ideological parameters of the idea of black religion through social protest, social welfare, and moral uplift in the face of de facto and de jure segregation laws and codes. The Negro Church rubric became a proscriptive device to strengthen and mobilize a professional and socially engaged black male leadership. It was undergirded by the notion of “the talented tenth” where “the best of this [black race would] guide the masses away from contamination and death of the worst in their own and other races.”32

The pioneer of this rubric was W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), with his sociological and ethnological studies of black communities and his articles and addresses on the religion of the Negro beginning in the late 19th century. The first African-American doctoral graduate of Harvard, Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899) pioneered empirical sociology in race and religion in the United States in opposition to the “conjectured, speculative, and racist theories” of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Franklin Giddings (1855–1931), and other first-generation Anglophone social scientists.33 Like the evolutionary model of one of the first black historians, George Williams, Jr. (1849–1891), Du Bois situated the uniqueness of black religion within a 19th-century historical and cultural evolutionary model derived from African primitivism with “nature worship and strong belief in [Obeah] sorcery (witchcraft).”34 In this model, the three distinct characteristics of black religion, “the preacher, frenzy, and music,” were part of the antecedents of African indigenous traditions in the form of the “witch doctor,” “obeah,” and “jungle tunes.”35

However, Du Bois’s evolutionary framework was more attentive than other social scientists to the role of race and slavery in the formation of black religion and its place in the history of black people. The Negro Church was the first and foremost African-American institution due to the persistence of racism that restricted the movement and opportunities of black folk in American history. The Church was a social force by historical accident or default, according to Du Bois. A common theme that united Du Bois’s wide and expansive corpus was his ethical view of what the “Negro Church” ought to be in the social lives of people of African descent. Minimizing Christian theology in Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois asserted that the “Negro church was a social institution first and religious afterwards.”36 In 1902, Du Bois organized the eighth Atlanta University Conference where he taught. It exhibited his clearest proscriptive statement on the Negro Church.

Du Bois’s argument was part of a wider chorus that included other prominent scholars and reformers such as Kelley Miller (1863–1939), Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), H. H. Proctor (1868–1933), and Washington Gladden (1836–1918). In the aftermath of the conference, Du Bois, along with Miller and Terrill, stressed the need for the Negro Church to “cleanse and purge itself of its dross … so it can be the moral and social development of Americans of Negro blood.”37 For Du Bois, the Negro church determined “good religion” by its ability to strengthen moral leadership and establish programs geared toward improving the material needs as well as the moral standards of the wider black “masses.”

Howard University’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, Kelley Miller, echoed Du Bois’s sentiment when he asserted that the progress of the Negro Church was contingent on the educated elites or what he called the talented tenth. As a social aspiration, the “Negro Church” was a mechanism that sought to excoriate the emotionalism, other-worldliness, and unethical leadership of smaller or unconventional churches, usually outside of mainstream denominations. In short, the Negro Church was product and challenge of the wider “black and white” social gospel movement in the progressive era.38

Du Bois attributed the pervasive emotionalism and otherworldliness of the black Church to a combination of Africanism and American slavery and called for reform. Conversely, social scientists Howard W. Odum (1884–1954), Frederick M. Davenport (1866–1956), and others attributed distinct characteristics of emotionalism and otherworldliness in black religion to inherited racial traits that determined the social and psychological behaviors and actions of black people. Black religion became a product of the social and biological theories that sought to determine the racial behavioral process in the first half of the 20th century. Early “racial romantic” abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and Thomas Wentworth. Higginson (1823–1911) championed the emotional traits in “slave religion” in contrast to the crass materialism sparked by industrialization.39 This school of social scientists viewed the emotionalism in black religion as a reflection of a degenerate and primal race closer to the ancestral past of “animals, children, and foreign savages.” For these scientists, black religion demonstrated that blacks were a problem due to their distinct characteristics and traits that did not complement the modern values of American industrial capitalism. This idea of black religion supported the racial policies of Jim Crow.

Social psychologist and Georgia native Howard W. Odum (1884–1954) was one of many social scientists who championed the idea that black religion, especially that of the independent Southern Negro Church, revealed the traits and characteristics unique to people of African descent in the Southern environment. Unlike Du Bois, Odum did not feel that the Negro church developed from historical and social context or political goals. Rather, Odum concluded that the Negro church was the result of shared natural traits and like-mindedness.

After collecting spirituals and other oral expressions in Negro churches throughout the South, Odum decided to use religious data (e.g., songs, prayers, sermons, and other oral expressions) to research topics on the development of social and mental traits of black people to complete his two dissertations in 1909 and 1910. In his first dissertation, Odum attributed the distinct emotional, spontaneous, and rhythmic hymns, spiritual tunes, and sermon styles experienced in religious services to what he called the “folk soul” or the inherited and uncontrollable instincts and impulses unique to black people. He asserted that the “revelation of emotions which the Negro shows in his songs manifested the reality of his religion.”40 According to Odum, these “song-inflected” sermons, prayers, and spirituals helped relieve the “psychophysical child-like cravings” that constituted the black mind.

Odum extended his concentration on religious oral expressions to wider research on the social and mental characteristics of blacks in America. The emotional and imaginative religious impulse in black religion did not correctly cultivate moral subjects among black folk, from Odum’s perspective. In hopes of reforming race relations and with the belief that blacks were a problem for modern America, he surmised that autonomous black churches and other independent associations needed to interact with the white race and with quality black folk such as race leaders and elites. Such interactions would alter the negative traits and characteristics that impeded progress. Odum deplored autonomous and independent black associations because he thought that they perpetuated degenerative racial traits that jeopardized blacks, the Southern economy, and the wider industrial nation.41

At Columbia University, Odum’s colleague Frederick Davenport (1866–1965) also contributed to the study of racial behaviors through his research on black religion. In his “Religion of the Negro” (1905), Davenport attributed what he deemed to be premodern esoteric beliefs, visions, and trances to the racial impulsive traits of black people.42 While Odum was quite vague on the exact origin of these racial impulses, Davenport attributed the unique religious behaviors of black folk to the tropical environment of the “African jungle … beneath the sun.”43 Applying behavioral evolutionism, Davenport attributed the physiological delusions and muscular contradictions that triggered visions and trances in black religious expression to the “historical fact” that blacks were “only one or two hundred years” removed from the primal African jungle. He asserted, “A century or two is not a long period in the social [and mental] evolution of a people.”

Similar to Odum, the primal traits that constituted black religion did not instill morality, the basis of U.S. citizenship in Davenport’s analysis. Emotionalism over “immorality” caused a “colored house girl … [to] abstract a pound of butter from the day’s churning of her employer … without a glimmering of the real nature of her act.”44 Such analysis is similar to what contemporary historian Khalil G. Muhammad described as the criminalization of blackness in the early 20th-century United States.45

A budding progressive thinker, Davenport argued that the industrial education of Hampton and Tuskegee and their promotion of the “Protestant work ethic” created an environment that would alter the traits and impulses of black folk in a way more fitting to modern America. Influenced by the American school of ethnology, other scientists perpetuated the myth of racial traits that supposedly constituted the distinct beliefs and practices of people of African descent. These studies contributed to the idea of black religion.

After World War I, African American historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) perpetuated the Negro Church rubric as constituted by Du Bois and other human scientists and reformers at the eighth Atlanta University Conference. Similar to Du Bois, Woodson also understood the importance of the Negro Church to social experiences of black folk in America. Matriculating through the University of Chicago and Harvard University (becoming the second African American to secure a doctorate in history at Harvard) after working on his family’s farm in Virginia, Woodson organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (est. 1915) with the deliberate intent of exhibiting the best images and representations of black people.

In 1921, he published the first comprehensive history of the Negro Church in the United States. The narrative traced black Protestantism from the 18th century to the second half of the 20th century. It expounded the controversies of slave conversion, the liberal evangelical Protestant movement among the enslaved, the rise of black ministers, independent churches and denominations, northern missionaries and religious education during Reconstruction, the educational and political involvement of black ministers, and the tensions between black Progressive and Conservative strands in the history of black Protestantism. Woodson’s historical narrative did not shy away from detailing his observations of what made the Negro church a uniquely “race institution.” Similar to Du Bois, Woodson’s work privileged the educated and politically engaged male clergyman and their religious institutions during and after Reconstruction. With the rise of Wilberforce University (est. 1856), the progressive wing of the educated and politically astute clergymen assisted the “socialized church”—where the “church was a social force in the life of the race.”46 Woodson noted:

After emancipation, the church developed a social atmosphere which somewhat strengthened its hold on the youth … [N]ot only education found its basis in the church, but fraternal associations developed therefrom. Business enterprises accepted the church as an ally, and professional men to some extent often became dependent thereupon. Most [social] movements among the Negroes … have owned their success to the leadership of Negroes prominent in the church.”47

Attempting to corral a young, educated, and moral class of ministers, Woodson used his progressive history of black religion as a stage to privilege the Negro church’s role in administering social welfare.48 “[T]he [Negro] church … is no longer the voice of one man crying in the wilderness, but a spiritual organization at last becoming alive to the needs of a people handicapped by social distinctions of which the race must gradually free itself to do here in this life.” He called attention to rampant levels of poverty among black folk after World War I. He championed the cause of churches hiring social workers to propose clear vision and plans to meet the social needs of the black communities using the day nursery, kindergarten, gymnasium, employment bureaus, Sunday schools, and parish homes for working young women. With no hope in the two-party electoral system or the Communist Party, Woodson’s view of social welfare complemented his proto-nationalistic sentiment by implanting a cooperative, self-determining, and independent spirit among black folk in America. He noted, “The Negro churchman of today realizes that the hope of blacks lies not in politics from without but in race uplift from within the form of social amelioration and economic development.”49 For Woodson and others, the Negro church was a “race institution” under Negro control that addressed the community’s material needs.

Benjamin Mays (1884–1984) and Joseph Nicholson extended Du Bois’s sociological study of the Negro Church with their in-depth quantitative and qualitative study of 609 urban and 185 rural churches in their publication The Negro Church. Both Mays and Nicholson were part of an emerging Christian ministerial and intellectual contingent in the 1930s and 1940s that included Howard Thurman (1899–1981), Mordecai Johnson (1890–1976), and George Kelsey (1910–1996).50 These intellectuals translated their moral vision of the Negro Church by training young black male ministers through Howard University, Morehouse College, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC). To be sure, the desire to cultivate an educated and social engaged male leadership also animated Mays’s ethnographic study of the Negro Church. Particularly in The Negro’s Church, as well as The Negro’s God, Mays revealed the importance of a young male clergy class that was practical, socially engaged and resisted the “otherworldly and compensatory sermonizing,” especially with the social ills stemming from the Depression of the 1930s. He extended the critique in The Negro Church to his The Negro’s God (1938), where he furthered shunned the compensatory sermon “that encourage[d] one to feel and believe that even though things [were] not right here and will not be made right in this world, they will be made right in heaven.”51 Under the auspices of the Rockefeller Institute of Social and Religious Research, Nicholson and May’s The Negro Church sought to “increase the effectiveness for good of the social and religious forces of the world, especially those of Protestant Christianity … through the scientific inquiry, accurate knowledge, and broad horizons.”52 Yet the ideas of black religion in their sociological study also confronted the larger debate of the purportedly “over-churched” Negro. Against the racial and natural traits hypotheses, both Mays and Nicholson said that the Negro Church was the result of the historical eddies of American racial politics. History provided the racial differentials of black religion. Following Carter Woodson’s comprehensive history, they defined the formation of the Negro Church through five historical epochs: slavery, civil war, post-civil war/Reconstruction, New Century, and migration periods. Despite the “over-churched” culture, with the small church movement, they posited that the “genius” or “soul” of the Negro Church was that it cultivated the spirit of democracy by furthering black religious expression and by challenging societal barriers in human life.

Similar to Du Bois and Woodson, Mays and Nicholson also argued that the “church was the first community or public organization that the Negro actually owned and completely controlled.”53 The importance of this institution was directly linked to the constraints on opportunities faced in other spheres of public life. Because of their ministerial backgrounds, both Mays and Nicholson extended the social instrumentality of the Negro Church, noting its affective and psychological values in black life. In this sense, the genius of the Negro Church was that it supplied the universal human need for recognition and feeling appreciated.54 No other institution in black life provided an opportunity where a “truck driver of average or more than ordinary qualities becomes the chairman of the Deacon Board.”55 Most of all, a democratic spirit cultivated interracial and interclass fellowship in challenges to various forms of racial and class discrimination.

Ideas of Class and Culture in Sects and Cults, 1933–1941

Mays and Nicholson’s The Negro Church was a response to the “over-churched Negro.” This debate must be historically situated within the larger impact of the Great Migration on religious culture in urban America. The Great Migration was inseparable from the establishment of the independent or “small church movement” outside of mainstream denominationalism. Mays and Nicholson asserted, “[t]he writers do not adhere to this view, because there are too many of the store-front churches for them to be completely ignored; and contrary to current opinion, the house and store-front churches are necessarily short-lived.”56 In their study, both Mays and Nicholson noted that the storefront and houses churches were typically part of Spiritualist, Holiness, and independent Baptist denominations.57 In addition to the independent Protestant organizations such as Holiness and Pentecostal movements, the cities created a space where black religion extended beyond evangelical Protestantism to emerging “sects and cults” during Southern and Caribbean migrations.

The migration coalesced with the emergence of charismatic personalities such as Maryland native Father Divine (1876–1965), Georgia native Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975), and Virginia native Noble Drew Ali (1886–1929), which led to the establishment of Peace Mission, the Nation of Islam, and the Moorish Science Temple of America, respectively. In addition to Southern migrants, Caribbean natives Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892–1973), Josiah Arnold (1877–1935) (United Negro Improvement Association), and the Hebrew Israelites contributed to the new religious landscape of urban America. The celebrity ministries of Lucy Smith (1875–1952) and Rosa Horn (1880–1933) highlighted women’s impact on the broader religious landscape in urban America.58 The movements shaped the ideas of black religion by moving from racial to ethnic or ancestral origins. A cadre of second-generation sociologists framed their understanding of the “sects and cults” within class stratification caused by urbanization. These sociologists explained the idea of religion through the economic hardships of migrants who became the emerging unskilled and semiskilled working-class in de facto segregated cities. Resisting the role of Africa in the shaping of the sects and cults in particular, and of black religion as a whole, these social scientists attempted to downplay “race” (as a biological category) and focus on the effects of economic environmentalism in black religion.

The Chicago School of Sociology enrolled emerging black [and white] sociologists who would have a significant impact on the study of African-American religion in urban America: Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962), Guy B. Johnson (1901–1991), John Dollard (1900–1980), and John Gibbs St. Clair Drake (1911–1990). Mays completed his doctoral degree at the University of Chicago (Divinity School) in 1935. By World War I, the University of Chicago was the major epicenter of the study of race relations in urban America. Completing his doctorate in sociology there in 1931, E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962) paid close attention to the impact of migration on the religious and social life of African Americans. Inspired partly by renowned sociologist Robert E. Park’s “race relations cycle theory,” Frazier contended that it was impossible to understand the rise of sects and cults disconnected from the psychological and material interruption that urbanization (or secularization) had on rural Southern migrants. In many ways, the class and occupational differentiation caused by the secular cities shaped the religious expressions and affiliations of blacks. The rise of the house or storefront church movement, Frazier noted, was the result of Southern (meaning rural) migrants’ attempt to “reestablish a type of church in the [“cold and impersonal”] urban environment to which they [were] accustomed.”59 While the middle-class bourgeois churches became a secularized “social club,” the popularity of the cults (different from traditional religion) functioned as a form of “escape from the hard conditions under which the Negro lives in the cities and to find a meaning for living.”60 Likewise, other sociologists like Guy Johnson, Edward Palmer, and Gunnar Myrdal attributed the religious hysteria (shouting, fainting spells, and dancing), especially of black, “middle-aged,” female domestic workers (purportedly “single” or with absent husbands), to their socioeconomic plights induced by the “cities of destruction.” The attention sociologists gave to economics made black religion a subculture of larger American religion and politics in general. Some of these sociologists inaugurated what Curtis Evans dubbed as the “end of [a distinctly] black religion” by making similar comparisons to the religious pathologies of poor whites in remote regions of the United States.

In his “Let Us Prey” (1926), the Industrial Secretary of the New York Urban League Ira De A. Reid (1901–1908) framed what he called the “small-church movement” and particularly the emerging Spiritualist churches, in the socioeconomic conditions of blacks inhabiting the cities. Privileging mainline Protestantism and its social import, Reid explained spiritualism in a pejorative light as a religion in which “charlatans and exploiters” “preyed” on the desperate conditions of the black poor—particularly “semiskilled and unskilled laborers.” Reid stated that the black lower class was susceptible to the self-proclaimed healing powers and prophetic powers of con-men spiritualists.

Anthropologist Arthur Fauset’s (1899–1983) Black Gods of the Metropolis was the first scholarly treatment of the “new religious movements.” Arising out of his dissertation research while in the anthropology department at the University Pennsylvania, Fauset (younger half-brother of writer, Jesse Fauset) resisted the idea that black people were naturally religious and noted that the popularity of the cults was due to the instrumental or functional value in satisfying the sociopolitical needs of black working-class communities in urban environments. His Malinowski-inspired functionalism was a theoretical framework meant to account for the attraction of the lower-class to charismatic leaders such as Ida Robinson, Father Divine, Daddy Grace, and Noble Drew Ali. His functionalist approach moved black religion away from natural (and African) traits and an apolitical compensatory orientation of African-American urban community, as posited by Melville Herskovits (1895–1963) and Robert E. Park (1864–1944).61

In contrast to the Chicago-trained sociologists, a cadre of anthropologists and folklorists, particularly those affiliated with Franz Boas (1858–1942) at Columbia University and the American Folklore Society, contributed to the idea of black religion by highlighting what contemporary religious scholar Josef Sorrett dubbed the “ancestral spirit,” particularly in the Southern regions of the United States. While Frazier saw the destruction of “[African] household gods” and “social heritage,” Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits argued in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) that West African survivals (which he later called reinterpretations) partly shaped religious expressions and cultures in the Lower Country as well as the Gulf states. With Herskovits’s extensive fieldwork in Suriname, Benin, Ghana, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, he founded the African Studies Department at Northwestern University in 1948. In the Myth of the Negro Past, Herskovits mentioned the continuation of African cultural patterns (particularly the water cults of Nigeria and Dahomey) in the baptism rituals among Afro-American Baptists in the American south. The distinctive African “motor behavior” also inspired the shouting and spiritual possession in Afro-American Protestantism. His attention to the significance of Africa in the formation of black Protestantism contested sociological accounts that looked to the impact of Europe, especially Scotch-Irish cultural patterns in the Second Great Awakening.

Yet, Herskovits was indebted to the ethnographic research of Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) to bolster his claim about the influence of African-derived cultural patterns, particularly in “regions that lay west of the Mississippi River, especially Louisiana.”62 After finishing her work in the Columbia University Anthropology Department, Hurston’s ethnographic work affirmed that the spiritual practice of hoodoo and conjure had seen its highest development on the Gulf Coast. While doing fieldwork among hoodoo doctors and conjurers in New Orleans in the late 1920s, Hurston wrote to her friend Langston Hughes that the “Negroes had reverted to [African] paganism due to their revolt against the sterile rituals of the Protestant Church.” The worldview of nature as well as interaction with the dead of these hoodoo doctors and conjurers were patterns that she eventually witnessed in the Bahamas and Haiti, where she became a Voodoo priestess.

For Hurston, the uniqueness of black religion lay in the oral and bodily expressions that were linked to the broader African diaspora. Other anthropologists like Elsie Clews Parson (1875–1941), Ruth Landes (1908–1991), Katherine Dunham (1909–2006), George E. Simpson (1904–1998), and Maya Daren (1917–1971) used ethnography as a window into the indigenous patterns and ancestral spirit that contributed to the idea of black religion in the broader diaspora.63 The idea of black religion was shaped by the debates between sociologists and anthropologists about the transmittance of culture and acculturation in the 1930s and 1940s.

Black Religion as Liberation, 1969–1982

The modern Civil Rights Movement had a significant impact on the idea of black religion in the latter half of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the social movement, black religion and political protest were synonymous. In his Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity (1966), Joseph R. Washington concluded that the modern Civil Rights Movement revealed that “black religion” (particularly Black Protestantism) was a “quasi-religion” due to its “secular faith” in racial justice and nonviolence philosophy. Armed with an essential idea of Christianity, Washington reasoned that black religion, as seen through Martin Luther King (1929–1968), operated more as a political philosophy and did not contribute anything distinctly religious (or Protestant). This religious contribution meant that black Christians “lacked a doctrinal understanding of the Christian faith.”64

Yet, the emergence of Black Nationalism posed a real challenge to the idea of black religion. The legacy of Malcolm X (1925–1965) initially inspired the 1966 “secular rants of Black Power” from Student Non-Violent Coordinating Council’s Willie Ricks and Stokley Carmichael that eventually made ideas of blackness, radical politics, and Christianity irreconcilable in the face of deindustrialization and race riots in American cities and anticolonialist struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.65 The challenge of “Black Power” inspired the Benjamin Payton-led National Committee of Negro Churchmen to reflect on the intersections of black power and religion and to publicly release a formal statement that “Negroes need power in order to participate more effectively at all levels of the life of our nation.”66

In 1969, James H. Cone (b. 1938), as newly appointed systematic theological professor at Union Theological Seminary, confronted the challenge of SNCC, Organization US (est. 1965) and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (est. 1966) on theological reflection and black religion. In his Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Cone wrestled with the “burning theological question [of] how to reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of nonviolence and Malcolm X’s by any means necessary philosophy.”67 He sought to disentangle Christian theology and the Church from white, Eurocentric values in his own vocation to “speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses.” Cone had to contend with the “more militant youth [who] often saw Christianity and capitalism as the twin screws of white oppression.”68

In a sense, black theology reflected on the meaning of Christian symbols considering the oppressive experiences of African Americans to restore their dignity and struggle to destroy racism. The way in which Cone reconciled Black Power and Christianity (“Black Power … is, rather, Christ’s central message”) was through the concept of freedom and/or liberation from the grip of white power:69 “[I]f Christ is present today actively risking all for the freedom of man, he must be acting through the most radical elements of Black Power.”70

Liberation was the organizing principle that defined black theology and consequently, other black religions, particularly the Nation of Islam. Cone echoed this sentiment in his outline of black theology at the Theological Commission of NCBC: “Black Theology is the Theology of Liberation.” His friend and colleague, historian Gayraud S. Wilmore (b. 1921) argued that the late 20th century witnessed a deradicalization of black religion that needed restoration to revert to the radical roots of black religion. Wilmore’s revalorization of the radicalism that constituted black religion was inspired, in part, by his interpretation of the prophetic ministries of King and Malcolm X.

By the 1980s, the rise of womanist theologians Jacqueline Grant (b. 1948), Katie G. Cannon (b. 1950), and Delores Williams (b. 1937) challenged the patriarchal concept of liberation used to organize the meaning of black theology and religion. Jacqueline Grant, professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center and former student of Cone, argued that the concept of liberation remained mired in domination due to the silence on the power of sexism furthering the oppression of “the most oppressed,” black women. In addition to recognizing the relationship of racism, class, and gender, the inclusion or visibility of “black woman theologians and leaders would really make black theology … a theology of divine liberation.”71 Black women’s experiences and rituals were sites for theological reflection and reinterpretation of liberation.

In addition to womanist theology, the 1980s also saw religious scholars challenging the motif of liberation and radical politics/or protest of black religion, particularly the “Black Church.” Stemming from close conversations with James Cone and the late James Melvin Washington (1948–1997) while at Union Theological Seminary, philosopher Cornel West (b. 1953) added to the concept of liberation by challenging Black Liberation Theology to consider capitalism as part of its critique of race in America. Stressing the need for a dialogue between Marxist and Black Liberation Theology thinkers in Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christian (1982), West noted the latter’s failure to link the “existing system of production and social structure to black oppression and exploitation.”72 This approach truncated liberation to a neoliberal pursuit of access to a “piece of the American pie” without challenging the underlying unequal distribution of wealth and income. West challenged theologians to include a robust social analysis in their theological reflections on race and religious symbols. The problems with liberation in the post-civil rights era, according to Adolph Reed, were reflected in what he called the “Jesse Jackson Phenomena.” Marxist-oriented political theorist Reed (b. 1947) argued that the claims of the centrality of the Negro Church to leadership and representation of African Americans were grossly exaggerated and historically ill-informed. He noted that “[black] churches did not lead, but were led by activist networks in the modern civil rights movement.”73 Dispelling the myth of the “Black Church” as the “elemental” or organic site of political leadership and mobilization, as promoted in Jackson’s campaign, Reed argued that church-based custodial or authoritarian politics that lifted up the divinely “called” ministerial leader as the “political spokesman” actually constrained democratic participation. The authoritarian leadership model and religious authority (not shared by the other groups in the community) was commensurate with the trends of a liberal bourgeois society. In his magisterial Slave Religion, Albert J. Raboteau (b. 1943) also implicitly challenged how the liberation motif (and black radicalism more broadly!) overlooked the history of spiritual agency (such as conversion) among the enslaved Africans in the antebellum period.

Review of the Literature

In the last decade of the 21st century, religious scholarship has demonstrated that black religion is not necessarily a neutral or objective category simply meant to describe the theologies, practices, and institutions of people of African descent. Rather, scholarship shows how the moniker “black” (or African or Negro) used as a cultural device to account for the religions of people of African descent is value-laden and conveys judgments about the capacities, social status, or political ideologies of African Americans in the United States. Black religion (and its semantic resemblances—Negro Church or Religion of the African) as a proscriptive category shows the relational and institutional mechanisms that shaped its meaning and operation in the nexus of social, economic, and political realities. While recent studies are not necessarily attempting to provide a definitive idea of black religion, they nevertheless offer a history of how certain characteristics, themes, and tropes became associated with “black religion”: its purported emotionality, ethical pursuit of democratic republicanism and/or Negro Church uplift and radical liberation. These critical histories highlight the proscriptive underpinnings of certain themes, characteristics, and tropes normally associated with black religion and point to the need for new avenues to move beyond conventions.

Colonialism and Slave Religion

Curtis Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion (2008) demonstrates the proscriptive aspect of black religion. A historian of American Religion, Evans poignantly argued that the history of black religion uncovered a set of conversations organized around the natural or innate religiosity of black people from the antebellum period to the latter half of the 20th century. Beginning in the antebellum period, romantic racialists, partly comprised of Northern whites, referenced innate religiosity as a way of conveying the “gift of black folk” to the American Republic. This gift displayed in the enslaved Africans religious orientation allegedly unveiled black people’s innate sentimental and emotional nature that the rational, materialistic, and industrious Anglo-Saxon lacked. The religious gift of black folk defined “slave religion” within the context where “many Americans turned for guidance to the emotions over the intellect, identifying the moral sense more with feeling than with rational thought.”74 The meaning of slave religion was the product of what Anne Douglass dubbed the “feminization of American Culture” where white Northern romantic racialists posited that enslaved persons had “the feelings of the heart that sentimentalized [white] women and children.”75 By the 19th century, Evans showed how black thinkers used the allegedly naturally religious temperament of black folk to “vindicate the race,” secure their humanity, and display their contribution to advancing the world.

The naturally or innately religious category was not static and changed in relation to the social, political, and economic situations of blacks. By the late 19th century, the category took on a pejorative connotation emphasizing limited or lower mental capacities of blacks and consequently, their natural “unfitness” for the modern republic. Purported mental incapacities entangled in the naturally religious category also negatively impacted “black religion.” Typically, at the forefront of these assertions about the behavioral degeneration of African Americans were leading white psychologists and sociologists engaged in the study of the “Negro problem” amid the bourgeoning new sciences in the American academy.76 The innately religious category would also have dire consequences for modern Negro Church studies and its privileging of the social over the religious dimension of black life in the 20th century.

Evans’s narrative was mainly a Protestant story, yet he hinted at how the naturally religious category, used to describe black racial traits, was inseparable from the symbol of “Africa” in black and wider North American religion and politics. He pointed to how “African ancestry of American blacks” as early social scientist Joseph Alexandar Tillinghast called it, “accounted for their degradation.”77 With “Africa” and the transatlantic slave trade as a point of departure for thinking about the idea and meaning of blackness, religious philosopher Sylvester A. Johnson extended his critical history of “African-American Religions” to the age of colonial exploration and conquest in the larger diaspora. In his African-American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, Johnson used the “Atlantic world” as a reference point to conditions of possibility for African American Religions within the history of white settler colonies.78 The “Atlantic world” painstakingly demonstrated the entanglement of “African-American religion” and empire from the 15th to the 21st centuries.

In this sense, black religion is a microcosm of the larger history of how imperialism and empire structured the horizons and possibilities of religious data.79 Beginning with the commercial and trade relationships between Portuguese and West African elites and merchants, Johnson elucidated how African-American religions developed within the nexus of white colonial settlement, which classified and governed human populations through the process of racialization for the sake of constraining black self-determination and agency. This process of racialization was contingent on the excoriation of indigenous African religions and national anti-imperialist movements such as Donna Beatriz and the Antonion movement that posed a threat to the Portuguese Catholic order in the 7th century.

The most devastating impact of identifying African-American religion within the history of white colonial settlement is that it underscores how black religious agents, especially 19th-century emigrationists, actually reified the colonial discourse and racialization that they sought to abolish. In the case of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the possibilities of a “black settler colony” were grounded in a Christian missionary impulse that sought to obliterate indigenous African traditions to transform or civilize Africa into a liberal democratic nation-state. Within “internal colonialism,” the collective pursuit of “democracy and freedom” that certainly influenced the idea of black religion were no longer a sacred ideal. Rather, freedom and democracy, especially after the American Revolution, were institutionalized and were the result of white colonialism that racialized religious and political movements (especially anticolonial struggles after World War II) outside its jurisdiction. Racial colonialism was not an aberration but a constitutive part of democracy and freedom.

To be sure, imperialism or empire had implications for freedom movements of the 20th century, such as Marcus Garvey’s reification of colonialism in his “Africa for Africans.” From Johnson’s vantage point, the idea of African-American religions highlighted the material and relational mechanisms that structured and organized its meaning. In this sense, African-American religions were impacted by the broader “imperial sciences” that formed the scientific study of religion in Europe and North America by the late 19th century.

Another implication of the critical history of black religion in the broader Atlantic world for the idea of black religion was the work of scholars who sought to decenter Europe as a “privileged epistemic site.” According to religion scholars Dianne Stewart and Tracy Hucks, the privileging of Europe reduced the “epistemic and ethical pluriversality” that the “Atlanticized Africa” could offer to the idea of black religion.80 In short, new studies in African religions elevated the idea of black religion by “positioning African peoples as knowledge producers, creators of meaning structures, multi-lingual communicates of self-authorized specialists.”81 Two secular historians, Jason Young and Ras Michael Brown, have made significant headway in positioning African people as knowledge producers by attending to the significance of Kongolese epistemologies in forging worldviews and orientations in the Sea Islands in the colonial and antebellum periods. Highlighting the predominance of central Africans in the low country beginning in the 18th century, Kongolese epistemologies and technologies such as the simbi and other nature spirits informed the enslaved understanding that nature (even in the low country) was pregnant with “invisible physical forces” that mitigated the “involuntary presence” of the enslaved population in British America, and consequently resisted slavery.

Several other religious scholars continued to push back against the “Death of the African Gods” by exploring different world views and technologies to open new possibilities for ideas about black religion. These scholars called into question the Christian, and particularly Protestant, metanarrative that has dominated ideas about black religion since the Frazier and Herskovits debate of the 1940s.82

The Idea of Negro Church and Black Liberation

Scholars have also made inroads into unpacking the history of Negro Church Studies of the first half of the 20th century. According to Evans, the Negro Church rubric was a reaction to the premodern religious category (“naturally or inherently religious idea”) that Du Bois and other social scientists sought to dismantle in their research. Their preoccupation with validating the instrumental social value of the Negro Church through themes and tropes such as uplift, social or moral development, and social welfare arose out of their efforts to modernize black religion from its Southern and ancestral past of otherworldliness and frenetic behaviorism.

In Passing Down of the Sacred Past, historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp (2010) argued that the “secular studies” of the Negro Church of the 20th century partly ignored the significance of sacred collective stories used to forge a collective African-American identity in the 19th century. African Americans used sacred communal stories to recapitulate their racial origins and identity in the face of American ethnology. Prior to Du Bois, Woodson, and May’s Negro Church studies, a range of folk intellectuals and race leaders merged providential and scientific history to show the divine origins of black people and their vocational work. What these sacred stories revealed was the importance of Protestant identity (and denominational affiliations) in forging a communal racial identity that Du Bois and other social scientists reduced or ignored for the sake of political expediency and mobilization. Protestantism was a cognitive practice and consequently important in fashioning an intellectual world of black identity. Protestantism as a cognitive technology allowed Maffly-Kipp to recover the female “public voices” of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1925–1911), Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879), Anne J. Cooper (1858–1964), and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935), who added to the “race histories” that contributed to a collective black identity (and to ideas about black religion) through devotions, tracts, plays, poetry, etc.83

In Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, Barbara Savage pointed out the contentious relationship between black religion and politics in Negro Church studies of the 20th century.84 Her attention to the Negro Church (and the illusions of black religion) challenged scholarly projects that treat the modern Civil Rights Movement (an oversimplified interpretation that posits a natural relationship between black religion and progressive politics) as a natural progression of black religion in U.S. history. For such a view, she said, obscures the ways in which “Negro Church studies,” in particular, treated African-American religion with despair and disdain.85 Examining the works of Du Bois, Woodson, and Mays, Savage demonstrated that their scientific studies of the Negro Church were a call or challenge to the churches themselves to accentuate their resources to uplift black communities and to fight against racial, economic, and political oppression. The driving question of their research was whether the typical Protestant institution was an impediment to or implementer of advancing black social, political, and economic development. Their criticisms of otherworldly beliefs and sermons, the emotional frenzy, and Christian dogma revealed their frustrations and concerns that the institution was actually blocking black progress and freedom.

Savage also revealed the class and gender conflict that drove assumptions about the critical and aspirational qualities of Negro Church studies. Class and gender tensions contributed to the tenuous relationship of black religion and progressive politics into the modern Civil Rights Era and beyond. Scholars of the “Negro Church” opposed the rising number small churches with uneducated clergy in the scholars’ effort to mobilize a young, educated black male leadership class to “control and harness the [masses],” which were “overwhelmingly aimed at working black women.” While many black women leaders endorsed a socially engaged Negro Church and disparaged “corrupt black male leadership,” their critiques oftentimes showed nuance in that they allowed that “emotional styles of worship could coexist with community engagement.”86 The national and international work of Nannie Burroughs (1879–1961), Mary McCloud Bethune (1875–1955), and Sadie Mays (1900–1969) mobilized women’s leadership and critiqued of college-educated black male leadership posed a serious challenge to the patriarchy and classism of Negro church studies and the “long Civil Rights Movement.”87

Savage’s history reveals the contentious relationship between black religion and politics before, during, and after the modern Civil Rights Movement. This insight has had implications for the liberal motif in the Black Theological Project and other discourses that have overlooked the complexity of African American religious history. Many scholars have sought to transcend the Negro/and Black Church and the Protest/Liberation motif to shed light on the varieties of religions and politics in black religion.

In his Islam and the Blackamerican (2005), Islamic scholar Sherman A. Jackson (b. 1956) examines the relationship between “Black religion” and Islam, particularly in the aftermath of 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which opened the imaginative national boundaries to Muslim immigrants from Africa and southeast Asia. Positing a declension narrative after the transition from Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam in the post Elijah Muhammad era, Jackson claims that “Blackamerican Islam” has surrendered its religious authority to “sources, authorities, and interpretative methodologies of historical Islam.” For Jackson, the history of Blackamerican Islam prior to 1965 arose out of the American phenomenon of black religion or “an instrument of holy protest against white supremacy and its material and psychological effects.”88 After 1965, Blackamerican Islam was suspended between the illusionary universals of white supremacy and “Immigrant Islam” that simultaneously threatens Blackamericans’ race and religion.

Prior to 1965, both Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad helped to tie Islam to the spontaneous orientation of Black Religion or the “cosmic no” to white supremacy. For the connection between Islam and black religion to occur, it could not replicate the Moorish Science Temple or Nation of Islam of the 20th century. Instead, Jackson called Blackamerican Muslims to revisit classical Sunni theological and legal tradition to reclaim their religious authority and consequently appropriate it to their racial context of America. Islamic tradition affords “[blacks] the right to define, interpret, and tailor it according to one’s own psychological and existential needs, with little or no deference to how the original owners or their heirs might have gone about the enterprise.”89 By deconstructing the “false universals” of “Immigrant Islam” in particular (as well as white supremacy), Sunni Islamic tradition and black American religion are engaged in an endless and ongoing conversation to affirm the religious authority of black American Islam.90

In conclusion, these new trends added to the ideas about black religion in a myriad of ways. Scholars should continue to interrogate ideas of black religion by expanding the pool of “religious and racial thinkers,” especially beyond conventional theological doctrines and religious settings in U.S. history. In his Spirit of the Dark, Josef Sorrett expands the pool of “religious thinkers” by investigating African-American aestheticians from the New Negro Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement of the 20th century.91 He argues that religion was an important modality for typically “secular” African-American artists (e.g., Alain Locke, Nancy Cunard, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay) who attempted to locate a distinct black culture or spirit in the United States. These efforts revealed their close but tenuous relationship with Afro-American Protestantism. Expanding the pool of religious thinkers to black artists, Sorrett challenges the religious and secular binaries of American religion. Contemporary historian, Judith Wesienfeld also has contributed to the idea of black religion with her recent study of black Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants in the religious movements of urban life after the 20th century.92 By exploring the lived “theologies, practices, community formations, and politics,” Weisenfeld shows how migrants and immigrant communities were agents in “constructing, revising, and rejecting” racial identity through their affiliations with the Peace Missions movement, Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, and Hebrew Israelites. Beyond the economic deprivation narratives that framed the study of “cults” of the 1930s and 1940s, Weisenfeld demonstrates that religion was a powerful resource that helped people of African descent forge a true and divine racial identity and history in their daily interactions with the state. The idea of black religion contributes to the histories of race and religion in broader America.

Additionally, the field of black religion should continue to mine sources that reflect the wider relational and material mechanisms that animate the meaning and operation of black religion in U.S. history. Exploring state bureaucracies and private organizations pushes the idea of black religion beyond insularity and into histories of citizenship and surveillance, eugenics and science, labor and health, social welfare and family, urban renewal and international relations. These histories are instrumental in the maintenance of racial hierarchy and its contestation in U.S. history. Ideas of black religion represent a commentary not simply on black people, but the larger values, discourses, and themes of what constitutes American religion and culture.

Primary Sources

For ideas of black religion in the antebellum period, the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the South is an excellent digital resource. Both Milton Sernett’s African-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness and Philip S. Foner and Robert Branhim’s Life Every Voice: African-American Oratory, 1789–1900 are good edited volumes that offer the religious thoughts of early black authors and writers in the 19th century. African-American denominational newspapers also disclose the abundance of primary sources for thinking about the idea of black religion. It is not difficult to find an edited volume on black intellectuals and free associations in the 19th century. Online databases of newspapers and journals provide a wealth of knowledge about the meaning of black religion in the emerging human sciences in American life. The 19th-century American periodicals and academic journals allow the researcher to access articles on the religion of the Negro such as The Atlantic and Journal of American Folklore. To delve into the social scientific histories of black religion in the 20th century, the special collections at University of Chicago, University of North Carolina, American Philosophical Society, Northwestern University, Howard University, Clark-Atlanta University, and several others are noteworthy. These universities had thriving sociological and anthropological research institutions that tackled pertinent issues related to black religion in the first half of the 20th century. Additionally, black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Norfolk Journal and Guide have been invaluable especially on religious life and culture in urban cities after World War I. For information on the study of black religion and art, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life is a great resource to expand the study of black religion beyond conventional theological and church settings. Special Collections at Emory University, Yale University, and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture also are invaluable in the domain of race, religion, artistic production, and the modern Civil Rights era.

Further Reading

  • Blum, Edward. W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Chidester, David. Religion of Empire: Imperialism and Comparative Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Curtis, Edward, IV, and Danielle B. Sigler, eds. The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
  • Evans, Curtis. The Burden of Black Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Glaude, Eddie. Exodus! Race, Religion, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Hart, William. Afro-Eccentricity: Beyond the Standard of Narrative of Black Religion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Books, 2011.
  • Johnson, Sylvester. African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.
  • Savage, Barbara. Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008.
  • Sorrett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Wesienfeld, Judith. New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
  • West, Cornel, and Glaude, Eddie. African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.


  • 1. See Sylvester A. Johnson, African-American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015). In the first section of his book, he understands African-American religions as a series of state and commercial networks forged to institute colonial governance. Also, see David Chidester, Empire of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2014).

  • 2. Andre Donelha, “Relations Between the Coastal Peoples of Upper Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands,” in The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415–1670: A Documentary History, ed. Malyn Newitt (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 81.

  • 3. Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, 57–102.

  • 4. For more on the relationship between religion, “heathenism,” and racialization, see Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 83–106, and Daniel Murphee, “Race and Religion on the Periphery: Disappointment and Missionization in the Spanish Floridas, 1566–1763,” in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas, eds. Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 35–60.

  • 5. For works on African diasporic religions, see Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), chapters 4 and 9; Jason Young, Resistance of Rituals: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and The Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); and Ras Michael Brown, Afro-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012). For a theoretical challenge to the field of African religious studies on African-derived religion in the Atlantic world, see Dianne Stewart and Tracy Hucks, “Africana Religious Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field,” Journal of Africana Religions 1.1 (2013): 28–77.

  • 6. David Humphreys, An Account of the Endeavours Used by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, To Instruct the Negroe Slaves in New York (Philadelphia, PA, 1730), 1.

  • 7. Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 46. For information on description of the religion of enslaved Africans by Anglican missionaries in British America, see: Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004 [updated ed.]), 152–210.

  • 8. Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, 68.

  • 9. Charles H. Long, “Perspectives for the Study of African-American Religion in the United States,” History of Religions 11.1 (August, 1971): 56–58. The wider American religion has been inserted into Long’s quotation.

  • 10. Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000, 163.

  • 11. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 438–439.

  • 12. Eddie S. Glaude, Exodus! Race, Religion, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 33–34.

  • 13. David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressively, to Those of the United States of America (Boston: September, 1829), Electronic Edition from Documenting the American South.

  • 14. Albert J. Raboteau, “Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands,” in African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology, eds. Cornel West, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 408.

  • 15. Carla L. Peterson, “Doers of the World:” Theorizing African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the Antebellum North” in African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology, 383.

  • 16. Maria Stewart, “An Address Delivered Before The African-American Female Intelligence Society of America,” Spring of 1832 in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 52. Stewart extolled, “I am a strong advocate for the cause of God and for the cause of freedom.”

  • 17. Maria Stewart, “An Address Delivered At The African Masonic Hall,” Boston, February 27, 1833, in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, 63.

  • 18. Maria Stewart, , “Religion and The Pure Principles of Morality, The Sure Foundation On Which We Must Build,” originally published in the Liberator in October 8, 1931, in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, 39.

  • 19. Maria Stewart, “Mrs. Stewart’s Farewell Address to her Friends in the City of Boston,” Sept. 21, 1833, in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, 69.

  • 20. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Signet Classics, 2002), 430–431. Douglass also noted, “For all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists” [398–399].

  • 21. Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 41.

  • 22. Edward W. Blyden, “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race,” in Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1887), 10.

  • 23. Edward W. Blyden, “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race,” 12.

  • 24. Wilson Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 23.

  • 25. Wilson further notes on the paradox of Black Nationalism in Blyden’s “proposal to the British government that it establish a protectorate extend outward from Sierra Leone to encompass all of West Africa” [43–44]. For more on the contradictions of Blyden’s Orientalist perspective (and inconsistency) on Islam and civilization, see Edward E. Curtis, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002), 21–43.

  • 26. “Civilizationism” is borrowed from Moses, chapter 1 in The Golden Age of Black Nationalism. Civilizationism entailed both independent and assimilation strain in the desire for Pan-African unity/autonomy yet simultaneously was subject to the whims of assimilation that mirrored European views of modern (Christian) civilization.

  • 27. Martin Delany, “Principia of Ethnology,” in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, ed. Robert S. Levine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 483.

  • 28. Martin Delany, “Call for a National Emigration Convention of Colored Men to Be Held in Cleveland, Ohio on the 24th, 25th, and 26th of August 1854,” in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, 240.

  • 29. The full title of Delany’s ethnology is Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization, from Years of Careful Examination and Enquiry.

  • 30. Henry McNeal Turner, “Emigration to Africa,” January 25, 1893, excerpts from his “Regeneration of Africa,” in African-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, ed. Milton Sernett (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 290.

  • 31. Barbara D. Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 21.

  • 32. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” republished in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Essays, ed. Nathum Dmitri Chandler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 209.

  • 33. Aldon D. Morris, Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 25–29. In Du Bois’s own words, see Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography Of A Race Concept (Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 51.

  • 34. “Primitivism” was a common term in British evolutionary anthropology. According to David Chidester, primitivism is a “temporal term designating the earliest or simplest stage of human development [xiii]. Although, … Du Bois, at times, was ambivalent about the meaning of primitivism in relationship to Africa and modern civilization. For instance, when talking about the “transplanting of African religions,” he categorized it as primitive, but not in the lower sense. See Du Bois, “Of the Faith of Our Fathers” in Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Classic Books, 1989 [first published in 1903]). Also, Chidester presented a complicated reading of Du Bois in relationship to the history of evolutionary scientists in the study of African religion, see Empire of Religion, 194–221. Chidester argues, “Du Bois’s embrace of evolutionary theory was not necessarily designed to make common cause with European theorists of religion; it was more immediately deployed against any link between fetishism and degeneration. Although he briefly deferred to an evolutionary theory of religion with the fetish as it origins, Du Bois seemed more concerned with countering this missionary account of Africa’s fetishistic degradation” [200].

  • 35. Du Bois first laid out these three characteristics in his essay entitled, “The Religion of the 4–American Negro” in A Quarterly Review of Religion, Ethics, and Theology 9 (Dec 1900): 613–625. He expanded this essay in his “Of the Faith of Our Fathers” in the classic Souls of Black Folk published in 1903.

  • 36. Du Bois, Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 25.

  • 37. The Negro Church: Report of a Social Study Made under the Direction of Atlanta University; Together with the Proceedings of the Eighth Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, Held at Atlanta University, May 26th, 1903, originally edited by Du Bois, 2003 eds. Phil Zuckerman, Sandra Barnes, and Daniel Cady (New York: Littlefield, 2003), 208.

  • 38. Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

  • 39. Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 17–63.

  • 40. Howard W. Odum, Social and Mental Traits of the Negro (New York: AMS Press, 1968), 54. This was Odum’s second dissertation, this one at Columbia University under Franklin Giddings in 1910, after completing his first dissertation at Clark University under G. Stanley Hall in 1909.

  • 41. Jamil Drake, To Know the Soul of Black Folk: The Field Study of the “Folk Negro” and the Making of Popular Religion in Modern America, 1924–1945 (PhD dissertation, Emory University, 2015), 16–50.

  • 42. F. M. Davenport, “Religion of the American Negro,” Electric Magazine of Foreign Literature (Dec. 1905). Davenport actually extended his research on black religion in his Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals: A Study in Mental and Social Evolution (New York: The Macmillan Company). In addition to his coverage of black religion, he extended the primitive traits in religion to include the “Indian Ghost Dance” and “Scotch-Irish Revivals” of the Second Great Awakening.

  • 43. Davenport. Climate played an important role in racialist theories of the 18th century before genetic traits came to the fore.

  • 44. Davenport made the distinction between “unmorality” and “immortality.” The black domestic worker (who was also “seeking religion”) who gave the butter to her “mother in the gospel” suffered from not knowing (unmorality) rather than immorality.

  • 45. Khalil G. Muhammad, Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). If we look at early social scientists, we can see a direct connection between claims about African-American “bad” religion (devoid of morality) and criminal nature.

  • 46. Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (Washington, DC: The Associated Press Publishers, 1921), 66.

  • 47. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 267.

  • 48. Woodson, 273. Interestingly, Woodson stated in his comparison between the white and black religious orientation: “The Negro in his religious development has not yet gone so far as the white man in divesting Christian duty of spiritual ministration and reducing it to a mere service for social uplift but he gradually realized the necessity for connecting the church more closely with the things of this world to make it a decent place to live in.”

  • 49. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 312.

  • 50. See Dennis Dickerson, “African-American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930–1955,” Church History 74.2 (June 2005): 217–235.

  • 51. Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (New York: Russell and Russell), 160.

  • 52. This quotation was taken from Gina Zurlo, “The Social Gospel, Ecumenical Movement, and Christian Sociology: The Institute of Social and Religious Research,” The American Sociologist 46.2 (June, 2015): 180.

  • 53. Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph Nicholson, The Negro Church (New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1933), 279.

  • 54. Mays and Nicholson, The Negro Church, 281. Also, they said it allows self-expression and the “freedom to relax from the “restraint, strain, and restriction of the daily grind,” p. 282.

  • 55. Mays and Nicholson, The Negro Church, 281.

  • 56. Mays and Nicholson, The Negro Church, 200.

  • 57. Mays and Nicholson attributed the over-churching of African Americans to socioeconomic factors, particularly noting that the “available church money [was] so thinly spread over so wide an area that the effectiveness of the church program is limited,” 224.

  • 58. Wallace Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), chapter 6.

  • 59. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 58. This view of the Southern migrants’ former life consisted of “social organization that represented an accommodation to conditions in the rural South and an accommodation to their segregated and inferior status in Southern society.” [53]. He described the “crisis” of migration and consequently the urbanization of the Southern Negro migrant to be a “shock of the disintegrating forces.” It is important to understand his view of rural social organization and the shock of urbanization in light of William Thomas’s (and coauthor, Florian Znaniecki’s) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1996), particularly volume 1 on “primary group organization.”

  • 60. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America, 71.

  • 61. Arthur Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), 87–106.

  • 62. Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, 245.

  • 63. See Tracy Hucks, “Perspectives in Lived History: Religion, Ethnography, and the Study of African Diasporic Religions,” Practical Matters (Spring 2010): 1–17.

  • 64. Joseph R. Washington, Jr., Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 1–29.

  • 65. Eddie S. Glaude, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and Politics of Black America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 69.

  • 66. “Statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen,” July 31, 1966, reprinted in Black Theology: A Documentary History: Volume 1: 1966–1979, eds. James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore (New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 19. While these clergymen support “Black Power,” Wilmore and others still felt that the statement had an “integrationist tone.”

  • 67. James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Orbis Books, 1969).

  • 68. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier, 154. In this sense, the Nation of Islam was seen as an “alternative” to the black community. One cannot understand the history of black theology without grappling with the influence of the Nation of Islam, particularly on James Cone. In Black Theology and Black Power, Cone remarked that Malcolm X, “shook me out of my theological complacency.” Therefore, Cone’s “between Malcolm and Martin” is the theological synthesis that led to black liberation theology.

  • 69. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier, Liberation is the organizing, systematic principle that grounds Black Liberation Theology. It also entails the challenge to liberate one’s self from the enslavement of whiteness. Cone: “Whites are thus enslaved to their own egos. Therefore, when blacks assert their freedom in self-determination, whites too are liberated,” 41.

  • 70. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier, 41.

  • 71. Jacqueline Grant, “Black Theology and Black Women” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, Vol. 1: 1966–1979, 335.

  • 72. Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982), 113. His attention to black theology is also a critical critique of classical Marxist tradition that ignores the centrality of race in its analysis of capitalism.

  • 73. Adolph L. Reed, Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 52.

  • 74. Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion, 34.

  • 75. Evans’s attention to the sentimentality of the innately black religious subject serves as a critique and corrective to William McLaughlin and others’ work on the “romantic evangelicalism” that overlooks the ways in which the enslaved were appropriated into it.

  • 76. The bad emotional qualities used to define the black in black religion were not only the work of white social scientists. By the nineteenth century, many black leaders deplored the “frenzy” associated with slave and African religions.

  • 77. Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion, 115.

  • 78. Sylvester A. Johnson extended his critical history of African-American religions to the age of colonial exploration and conquest in the larger diaspora in African-American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom.

  • 79. David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism & Comparative Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 20.

  • 80. Dianne Stewart and Tracy Hucks, “Africana Religious Studies,” Journal of Africana Religions 1.1 (January 2013): 28–77, see 40–44.

  • 81. Stewart and Hucks, “Africana Religious Studies,” 41–42.

  • 82. Both Stewart and Hucks revisit the Herskovits and Frazier debates to show their similarities and nuanced arguments. Both Stewart and Hucks argue that an oversimplification of the debates contributes to the Africana Religious Studies’ shortcomings in the study of African-derived religions.

  • 83. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past, chap. 6.

  • 84. Barbara Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us.

  • 85. Barbara Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Me, 3.

  • 86. Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, 31.

  • 87. Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, 95. For the “Long Civil Rights Movement” that extended to the 1930s and 1940s, see Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91.4 (March 2005): 1233–1263.

  • 88. Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 31. Jackson says that while “Black Religion” is hegemonic, it is just one aspect of several religious orientations among Blackamericans. For instance, the more internal reflex that aims a spiritual transformation was embodied in slave religion, Pentecostalism, and conjure practices. These aforementioned religious orientations among Blackamericans are not “Black Religion” or the external reflex of liberation over and against white supremacy and antiblack racism.

  • 89. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection, 28.

  • 90. My reading of Sherman A. Jackson is inspired by Sam Houston, “Sherman A. Jackson and the Possibility of a Blackamerican Muslim Prophetic Pragmatism,” Journal of Africana Religions 1.4 (2013): 488–512.

  • 91. Josef Sorrett, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • 92. Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2016).