Blog Post

The Future of the African American Religious Past

Paul Harvey

“Among our people generally the church is the Alpha and Omega of all things,” the black intellectual, abolitionist, and nationalist Martin Delany wrote in The North Star in 1849. “It is their only source of information—their only acknowledged public body—their state legislature . . . their only acknowledged advisor.” Were Delany (not to mention W. E. B. Du Bois) alive today, they surely would have been shocked to read that “The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead,” as the African American religious historian and scholar Eddie Glaude (Princeton Univ.), and participant on this panel, expressed it in an online polemic a few years ago. Glaude concluded, “the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.”

For this panel, Glaude put the point in a somewhat more scholarly way, calling for a “thick description of what is going on in the religious life of this diverse and complicated community.” If the category “African American religion helps us in doing that work,” he noted, then it is still useful, but “if the category blocks the way to a fuller understanding of religion and race in the United States because it is an outmoded description, then it is time we got rid of it.” Of course, it is no easy thing to get rid of something as deeply ingrained in language as a term such as “the black church,” still the go-to cliché for media stories on, say, the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The thesis of the conference panel “What Is African American Religion” may be summarized as follows: The future of scholarship on African American religion lies in an expanded vision of the African American past. And the other panels at this conference, the Future of the African American Past, point the way there.

Connecting the session with others at the conference, that vision would certainly include (among other things) an internationalization and diversification of subject matter; a capacious notion of Bible (and extrabiblical) politics; a sensitivity to what gets defined as “African American religion” versus what African Americans do that gets defined as “religion;” a close examination of African American religious responses to American capitalism (including American slavery, one particularly virulently powerful form of that capitalism); an urgent sense of memory and reckoning that should send archivists and historians out to preserve rapidly disappearing records; and a renewed robust vision of African American religious history as American history. In short this panel encompassed discussion of nearly all the topics running through the sessions of this conference.

The panel also highlighted some of the significant debates about the future of the field—debates that are affecting all of American religious history really. To put the matter bluntly, here is one major question: should the focus remain on “Bible politics” (as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Harvard Univ.) put it in her paper demonstrating how for centuries now biblical conceptions of justice have shaped African American political ideas for social transformation), or should the focus shift outward—to non-Christian African American religious expressions, for example? That division came up even during the discussion period: one audience member sought more on African American conservatism, another urged attention to African American religious connections to Native American practices, and another stated simply a desire for more discussion of those not raised Christian (but as, in her case, a Muslim). All these certainly present a challenge for those who want to point the way for the scholarly future of this subject.

Historically, at least since the mid-19th century, African American religious organizations have overwhelmingly been Christian (mostly Protestant), and that remains the case today. But historically as well, African Americans have come from, and themselves created, diverse religious expressions, including non-Christian groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. (The former is a major focus of panelist Judith Weisenfeld’s (Princeton Univ.) innovatively researched forthcoming new book New World A-Coming). And what about the significant influence of African American “nones,” humanists, and atheists, of whom, for example, the scholar Anthony Pinn has written so well? And what of the complexity of an intellectual such as Du Bois, a self-proclaimed atheist who was also, as Edward J. Blum has expressed it, an American Prophet who composed prayers, jeremiads, and fictional stories of Jesus in America.

If the focus will remain on African American Christianity, then what of the vast influence of, for example, Kongolese Christianity during the years of the slave trade especially to the lowcountry South—a tradition that led directly the Stono Rebellion of 1739? Or of Pentecostalism, which panelist Anthea Butler (Univ. of Pennsylvania) insists should be seen as a different category altogether than Protestantism? And what of African Christian traditions which have more recently come to the United States, including Ethiopians from Eastern Orthodox churches, Nigerian Pentecostals, or Brazilian varieties of Afro-Catholicism?

The fact that such questions proliferate, and coursed through this panel, suggest more than just the difficulty of charting the future of the subject. More importantly, they highlight the excitement of it. For historians, perhaps the most important comment came in Anthea Butler’s reference to the long-germinating but still uncompleted African American Religion: A Documentary History Project. Surely there could be no greater service to this field in particular, and African American history in general, than for this massive project of compilation to be resurrected and completed. Ultimately, it’s that kind of historical spadework, exactly of the kind accomplished in each of the panelists’ own outstanding (and pioneering) works of history and religious studies, which renews the soil for fresh plantings and, in the future, even richer reapings.


Paul Harvey is professor of history and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.


SESSION 5: What is African American Religion?