The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Einboden

Jefferson's Muslim Fugitives Cover PhotoJeffrey Einboden is Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor at Northern Illinois University. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, their Arabic Letters, and an American President (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives marks the culmination of an archival search spanning the past decade, during which I sought to recover Arabic writings by Muslims enslaved in early America. Crucial to my search’s first years was a 2011 NEH Fellowship, supporting my translation and teaching of such lost manuscripts by enslaved West Africans. To my surprise, I experienced best success in locating these rare and rich sources among the papers of some of the most prominent figures of the early Republic: professors, politicians, and ultimately a U.S. president. This ironic facet of my research process also shapes the book’s narrative, which not only reveals extraordinary acts of authorship by enslaved Muslims, but recounts the improbable dissemination of their Arabic writings, ascending to even the highest halls of U.S. power.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives uncovers the astonishing story that surrounds a date now wholly lost to U.S. history: October 4, 1807–the day that Thomas Jefferson was handed Arabic writings penned by two African Muslims resisting captivity in rural Kentucky. Straddling borders of race, religion and region, the book argues that these Arabic manuscripts formed a vital part of the President’s life-long engagement with Islam, while embodying a broader tradition of literary exchange between enslaved Muslims and the early American elite that has remained largely hidden for two centuries.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Accessible in style and narrative in structure, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives reveals for the first time a range of historic sources that hold urgent contemporary relevance. Straddling polarities–America and Islam; captive West Africans and a U.S. President; the history of slavery and Arabic literacy–the book sheds new light on the fraught legacies of a Founding Father, while also uncovering lost witnesses to a profound heritage of African American authorship. Interweaving manuscript images into its readable account, the book offers direct access to its landmark findings, exhibiting the Arabic sources circulated by Jefferson and his contemporaries, including a previously unseen document from 1788 Georgia, which I identify as the earliest surviving instance of Muslim slave writings in the newly-formed United States.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JE: Looking back, my journey to the field of American History now seems somewhat unlikely. My fascination with the national past was fostered internationally, first sparked during my undergraduate years in Toronto, Canada, and deepened during my graduate work in Cambridge, England. I was most drawn to the field not by traditional topics, but by what seemed lacking in accounts of early America, especially the pivotal but overlooked role played by Middle Eastern languages and literatures in the life of the young Republic. Ironically, it was my early language learning–studying Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian during my degree programs–that proved most decisive for my later pursuit of American historiography, permitting recovery of crucial archival sources that have gone unnoticed precisely due to their Middle Eastern idioms.

JF: What is your next project?

JE: I’m currently working on two books, each of which form differing sequels to Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives. The first is a study of Jefferson and Native American languages, revealing the critical role played by Orientalism in shaping Indigenous philology, as well as the Middle Eastern interests that infuse the first Cherokee and Dakota newspapers during the decades following Jefferson’s death. The second book is a history of Islam’s startling impact on Civil War-era rhetoric, with Muslim idioms and identities helping to define Lincoln’s own life and legacy specifically. Recovering neglected Arabic manuscripts and military records, the book interweaves Civil War memorials of Muslim slaves and soldiers together with the Orientalist portraits of President Lincoln which pervaded U.S. newsprint at the very height of the nation’s defining struggle.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

An African-American Pastor Guides His Congregation Through the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Grinke

Francis J. Grimké (1850-1937) pastored the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., an African-American congregation, for nearly fifty years.  He was an active member of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Niagara Movement and was involved in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Church historian Louis Weeks has published a short introduction to Grimké at the website of the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Throughout his ministry, Francis Grimké stood for equal rights and the end of racism against black Americans. He eloquently demonstrated this during his sermons and lectures, such as his address at the Union Thanksgiving Service at Plymouth Congregational Church, Washington, D.C., in 1919: “On an occasion such as this, it is well for us to ask ourselves the question, What reason or reasons have we, as an oppressed, aggrieved, circumscribed class in this country, in the midst of this great white population, to be thankful during this past year?” He answered the question with the Bible, specifically the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule of Jesus. He went on to appeal to Reformed teachings about respect and citizenship, condemned lynchings and pervasive racism, and lauded black leadership “no longer to submit quietly to the acts of violence that a certain class of whites have felt free to inflict upon (us).”

In my efforts to think historically and Christianly about our current coronavirus pandemic, I stumbled across Grimké’s November 3, 1918 address, “Some Reflections, Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City.” Here is how he begins the address:

We know now, perhaps, as we have never known before the meaning of the terms pestilence, plague, epidemic, since we have been passing through this terrible scourge of Spanish influenza, with its enormous death rate and its consequent wretchedness and misery.  Every part of the land has felt its deadly touch–North, South, East and West–in the Army, in the Navy, among civilians, among all classes and conditions, rich and poor, high and low, white and black. Over the land it has thrown a gloom, and has stricken down such large numbers that it has been difficult to care for them properly, overcrowding all of our hospitals–and it has proven fatal in so many cases that it has been difficult at times to dig graves fast enough in which to bury them. Our own beautiful city has suffered terribly from it, making it necessary, as a precautionary measure, to close the schools, theaters, churches, and to forbid all public gathering within the doors as well as outdoors. At last, however, the scourge has been stayed, and we are permitted again to resume the public worship of God, and to open again the schools of our city.

Now that the worst is over, I have been thinking, as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing–thinking of the large numbers that have been sick–the large numbers that have died, the many, many homes that have been made desolate–the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind, and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all? What ought it to mean to us? Is it to come and go and we be no wiser, or better for it? Surely God has a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit for it.

Grimké offered his congregation several lessons about the meaning of the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed over 675,000 Americans and over 2800 in Washington D.C.:

1. Humility. Humans are at the mercy of viruses and diseases. It reminds us that there are some things that we cannot control. Grimké writes, “How easy it would be for God to wipe out the whole human race, in this way, if he wanted to; for these terrible epidemics, plagues, the mighty forces of nature, all are at His command, are all His agents. At any moment, if He willed it, in this way, vast populations or portions of populations could be destroyed.” This was Grimké’s Calvinism at work. He believed in a providential God who sometimes brought suffering to his people. He referenced the Book of Job and Psalm 91 on this front.  God’s ways are mysterious.

2. Follow the advice and instructions of experts. In their attempts to curb the influenza and “safeguard” the general public, Washington D.C.’s public health commissioners closed theaters, schools, churches, and large public gatherings. Not everyone was happy about this. Grimké writes, “There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being.” The local government’s exercise of power in this moment was indeed “extraordinary” and would “not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances,” but the circumstances in Washington D.C. and the nation during the epidemic were far from “ordinary.” Grimké warned his congregation not to “needlessly run into danger, and expect God to protect us.” He added that, “All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.” Listen to the experts. Self-quarantine an practice social distancing.

3. Influenza does not discriminate based on race. Grimké has a message to his white neighbors: “during this epidemic scourge, if he gave any thought to the matter, if a particle of sense remained in him, he must have seen the folly of counting upon a white skin. Did the whiteness of his skin protect him? Did the epidemic pause to see whether his skin was white or black before smiting him?” Grimké believed that God was bringing this epidemic, at least in part, “to beat a little sense into the white man’s head” and “show him the folly of the empty conceit of his vaunted race superiority.” For once, he added, “a white skin counted for nothing in the way of securing better treatment–in the way of obtaining for its possessor considerations denied to those of darker hue.” Grimké was not very optimistic that his white neighbors would learn this lesson from the epidemic.

4. When churches close, the life of the faithful and the larger community is weaker.  Grimké called attention to “the sincere regrets that I have heard expressed all over the city by numbers of people at the closing of the churches.” He used these sentiments to encourage people to start attending church on a more regular basis now that the doors of congregations were open once again.

5. The possibility of death is always before us and we should live accordingly.  The 1918 epidemic, in Grimké’s words, “kept the thought of death and of eternity constantly before the people.” Grimké used this reality to preach the Gospel: “You who are not Christians, who have not yet repented of your sins, who have not yet surrendered yourselves to the guidance of Jesus Christ, if you allow these repeated warnings that you have had, day by day, week by week, to go uneeded…God has opened the way for your salvation, through the gift of His only begotten Son, who died that you might have the opportunity of making your peace with God….”

6. We should not fear because God is with us in the midst of life’s storms.  Here is Grimké: “While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would–whether we were smitten or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed.”

Will Pete Buttigieg Get Any Traction in South Carolina?

Buttigieg 2

Mayor Pete won Iowa. He finished second in New Hampshire. He finished third in Nevada. But he is not doing very well in South Carolina largely because he does not appeal to African-American voters in the state.  Over at Religion & Politics, Myriam Renaud wonders why.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The majority of black Americans—almost eight in ten, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report—identify as Christian and three out of four say religion is “very important in their lives.” In one sense, Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, should appeal to these voters. Of all the Democratic candidates, he is perhaps the most fluent in the language of faith. He calls climate change a sin, telling Stephen Colbert that, because it harms today’s and tomorrow’s generations, “I don’t imagine that God is going to let us off the hook.” He also told Colbert that Christianity says “that we are obliged to serve the poor and heal the sick and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.” During a Democratic debate question on immigration and the border, he accused Republicans of hypocrisy because they associate their party with Christianity and yet “suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents.”

Multiple factors affect how Buttigieg is seen by black voters, including religious ones; these include his tense relationship with parts of South Bend’s black community, especially after a black man was killed by a white police officer last June. The now 38-year-old candidate has also stirred controversy with comments he made in 2011 about the lack of role models who value education for low-income minority students, and by comparing his struggles as a gay man with those of African Americans. Also, his campaign’s Douglass Plan for Black America received negative publicity when an accompanying image turned out to be a stock photo of a woman from Kenya and when several African Americans described as endorsing the plan said their views were misrepresented.

The conventional campaign wisdom is also that his identity as a gay, married man is at least partly responsible for his low levels of support among black South Carolinians—a belief that has some merit but that also reinforces racist stereotypes. Most black churches embrace progressive views on a range of issues but many hold conservative attitudes toward same-sex relationships. A 2019 Pew Research Center study shows that only 44 percent of black Protestants are in favor of same-sex marriage. Sociologist Samuel Perry’s research reports that, over the past decade, the majority of twelve sociological studies exploring a possible link between religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage identified black Protestants, along with white evangelicals, as the least supportive religious group. And yet, Pew also found that the majority (65 percent) of black Protestants support laws “protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.”

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

African Americans and Faith in the Age of Revolutions

Jubilee-celebration-1863

An 1863 Jubilee celebration

Did African Americans have faith in 18th-century revolutions?  Did African American religious faith have anything to do with their support of these revolutions?  Over at the Age of Revolutions blog, James Sidbury, a historian at Rice University, tries to sort it all out.

Here is a taste:

If any answer to a question about black people’s faith in revolution during the Age of Revolution hinges on contingencies—which black people? when? where?—questions about the role of faith in black people’s responses to the Age of Revolution are even less susceptible to generalization. The late eighteenth century was famously the time when evangelical Christian movements first sought black converts in English-speaking North America. Baptist and Methodist churches engaged in the most successful outreach to the enslaved. Many black Christians were drawn to Old Testament stories of a vengeful God’s complicated relationships with his enslaved Chosen People; their faith held that God would deliver his newly Chosen from bondage just as he had delivered Israelites from Pharaoh. This could and did inspire both a revolutionary commitment to bring God’s justice to Earth, and a quietist conviction that the enslaved must wait for divine deliverance. When black Virginians debated a planned uprising in 1800, both cases were made. One conspirator argued for delaying the insurrection until “God had blessed them with an Angel” like the one he sent when “the Israelites . . . were carried away [from Egypt] by Moses.” He was answered with a passage drawn from Leviticus in which God promised that “five of you shall conquer an hundred and a hundred, a thousand . . . enemies.” The potential conspirators’ faith was integral to the way they thought about revolution, but faith did not create lines separating those who rebelled from those who did not. Instead, it offered narrative tools the enslaved could use to think about the daunting problems that revolution posed.

Faith created communities of people who could trust one another enough to risk the collective resistance necessary for revolution. An unusually clear illustration of this dynamic can be seen in a little-known 1800 uprising in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown was a British colony that had been organized by the Sierra Leone Company and settled by black Loyalists about a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. Most of the settlers had been slaves in North America. Whether in Nova Scotia, where they were first taken after the War, or in Freetown, they organized themselves into tight-knit religious communities. Some were Baptists, others Wesleyan Methodists, and still others Huntingtonian Methodists. All chose to migrate to Africa within congregations, and all lived and organized themselves in Africa as congregational communities. From their arrival in 1793 until the uprising in 1800 they grew increasingly unhappy about the political and religious authority claimed by the white Governors sent by the Company. The settlers had seen their passage to Africa in explicitly religious terms, celebrating their arrival by hailing the “Year of Jubilee” when “ransomed sinners” returned “home.” Soon after their arrival, they petitioned the Company in the name of “Preachers of the Gospel” and the “Setlers in this Place.” In later complaints, they compared themselves to the “Children of Esaral” seeking “the promise land.” These black settlers living in Africa conceived of their mission in explicitly spiritual terms, and their understanding of their churches as gathered communities allowed them to organize an uprising to fight the Company for the right to live as autonomous black communities. When they rose to that fight, they concluded the document in which they asserted their right to live under their own laws by declaring that document, and by extension their community, to be “just before God and Man.”

Read the entire piece here.

American Exceptionalisms

American Exceptionalism

Gutacker (left) and Foley (right) respond to questions at the panel on Race, Religion, and American Exceptionalism

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

The interplay between race, religion and American exceptionalisms was the theme of a panel in the second round of papers at day one of the ASCH in New York city. The panel sits squarely in the center of the conference’s overall theme: Whose América: New Perspectives Contours and Connections in Church Histories.

The plural exceptionalisms was a key note sounded, particularly in the papers by Malcolm Foley (Baylor University) and Nichole Renèe Phillips (Emory University) which discussed how African American conceptualizations of American exceptionalism could critique America’s oppressive and violent racial attitudes while simultaneously affirming that the American experiment was indeed built on unique ideals. In fact, such endorsement of American exceptionalism was often used to call white Americans to reform. This suggests that American exceptionalism is not always a cipher of bellicose ethno-nationalism, but can also act as a sternly prophetic voice. Indeed, I was left pondering how severe critique of the nation’s sins can still be a form of implicit nationalism, since the very act of chastisement for sin tacitly accepts the normative status of national claims to uniqueness and special importance.

I was particularly intrigued by Foley’s presentation of Black Presbyterian Pastor Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Foley showed how Grimké was troubled by an apparent contradiction between African American experiences of inequality and violence in America and the foundational commitment and loyalty to the country that he witnessed among many African Americans. Yet, according to Foley, Grimké himself displayed some of this same ambiguity, castigating and critiquing, yet never able to quite give up on the America of the mind.

Meanwhile Paul Gutacker explored the way in which church history could be used by Americans of both European and African descent in the nineteenth century. European Americans drew on the broader myth of Protestant freedom and Anglo-Saxon liberty to envision America as the arena wherein the story of the English people would find its climax, the result of America’s victorious disaggregation of church and state. Gutacker focused part African American Christian leaders, by contrast, stretched further back to emphasize that the early church Bible belt was in North Africa, and that the most revered of all theologians, even among Protestants, Saint Augustine, was, of course, African. Interestingly, both African and European Americans could plug into the dominant anti-Catholicism of the era. Black theologians perpetuated a narrative that held the Catholic church as responsible for slavery, while European leaders saw anti-Catholicism as the great unifying creed of freeborn American Christians.

Anti-Catholicism, which was to some extent a proxy for nationalism in the nineteenth century in both Britain and the United States, will recur as a theme at ASCH in a panel on Sunday with papers from John Wolffe, Geraldine Vaughan and John Maiden. Prof. Wolffe told me in conversation after today’s panel that he sees anti-Catholicism scholarship making a resurgence. This is an intriguing fact given current hostility to immigrants and outsiders at work in American (and British) society at the moment. I am reminded of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s comment that prejudice against Catholics is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”

Pew Studies 50,000 Christian Sermons

Pu;pit

There is so much here to work through and interpret.

A few quick findings of note:

  • The average sermon is 37 minutes long.
  • The average evangelical sermon is 39 minutes long.
  • The average sermon in an African American church is 54 minutes long.
  • The average sermon in a mainline Protestant church is 25 minutes long
  • The average sermon in a Catholic church is 14 minutes long.

 

  • The most common words in Christian sermons are “say,” “people,” “come,” “know,” “life,” “like,” “God,” “thing,” and “day.”
  • Words associated with evangelicals such as “hell,” “salvation,” “sin, and “heaven” do not appear in evangelical sermons as much as one might think they do.
  • Sermons in historically black churches are distinguished by words related to celebration and praise.
  • Sermons in evangelical and historically black churches quote scripture more than sermons in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches

Read the report here.

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

Slave Bible 2

Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

The Author’s Corner with Randal Jelks

faith and struggle in the lives of four african americans

Randal Jelks is a Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at The University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: I wrote Faith and Struggle because I wanted to think through African American understandings of faiths, what their usages were, and how they reshaped the inner lives of these four historically interesting people.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: The argument of the book is quite simple. I argue that the inner lives of the personalities in this book are as consequential as their outer actions as they faced gendered racism and personal individual struggle.

JF: Why do we need to read Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: I want readers to read Faith and Struggle because I want them to think about their inner lives and how their inner sense of self speaks to the times we currently live in. There are valuable lessons to be learned from others. This is why my own personal narrative is a through line all throughout the book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RJ:  I was born in New Orleans. Above ground cemeteries forced me to always think about the interconnections between the past and the present. I decided on history as a methodology of inquiry as an undergraduate and have used it intellectually ever since. Professionally I became a historian when I decided to do a PhD in Comparative Black Histories at Michigan State University in 1989.

JF: What is your next project?

RJ: I am in the throes of finishing up a book titled ML: A Democratic Meditation. It is a collection of twelve essays about the current state of our polis as I think through the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are several more projects in the offing.  I am also an executive producer on a documentary on the writer Langston Hughes titled I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled (dreamdocumentary.org).

JF: Thanks, Randal!

Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

Black Evangelicals and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

Cake baker

We have done a few posts already on Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

According to a recent piece by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today, a 2016 Pew survey found that 35% of white evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while 44% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Only 22% of white evangelicals favor requiring businesses to serve same-sex weddings.  46% of black Protestants favor this.

Notice that the survey compares white EVANGELICALS with black PROTESTANTSso the comparison does not tell us as much as we think it does.  (Although it is also fair to say that a large number of black Protestants are evangelical in theology).  Nevertheless, it is clear that African-Americans are more than open to same sex marriage than are white evangelicals.

Shellnut asked four African-American Christian leaders to reflect on the Masterpiece case.  They are:

Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Lisa Robinson, editor of Kaleoscope blog

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas

Justin Giboney, founder of the AND Campaign

Here is Robinson:

As an African American woman, it might seem reasonable for me to have qualms about the recent ruling the Supreme Court delivered in support of a Christian baker. Jack Phillips’s refusal to serve these individuals smacks of the same kind of infringement that African Americans in this country experienced. However, three factors give me pause in this line of thinking and lead me to applaud the Supreme Court’s decision.

First, the case is not about discrimination, but religious conscience. The civil rights movement was started because a whole class of people were pervasively denied acceptance based on who they were biologically. Discrimination ensued because they weren’t deemed to be fit to share the same services, space, or civic obligations in a white society.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t about the people, but the ceremony. I think likening the two cases—discrimination against blacks and denial of cake-baking for a ceremony—undermines the cause of the civil rights movement, which was about affirming the dignity of personhood irrespective of lifestyle choices.

I can appreciate arguments that say whites believed upholding the purity of races was rooted in their Christian convictions; however, the racist line of thinking that prevailed for so long has no basis in Scripture (consider the marriages of Solomon and Moses), whereas endorsing same-sex marriage is explicitly prohibited.

Second, reliance on state-sanctioned intervention can have negative implications for how we value fellow image bearers apart from their choices. I confess that I have a love-hate perspective toward the governmental intervention needed to address discrimination against African Americans. Unfortunately, we ultimately had to rely the state to define discrimination rather than God himself and his requirements for what kind of activity his people should or should not support.

Lastly, equating refusal to participate in same-sex ceremonies with active discrimination against a class of people puts us in a precarious position of lending support to same-sex marriage because we don’t want to reject people. We ought to be free to distinguish between the value of persons and the values they espouse. At the end of the day, commitment to Christian convictions matters most.

Read the entire piece here.

African American Anglicans

Curry

In the wake of bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the recent royal wedding, Grant Shreve offers us a brief introduction, with scholarly links, to the African American experience in the Anglican Church.  Here is a taste of his piece at JSTOR Daily:

Curry’s message was made all the more urgent and vital by the fact that the history of the Anglican Church in America—which came to be called the Protestant Episcopal Church here—is marred by centuries of complicity and neglect on matters of race. Indeed, as historian Robert A. Bennett has argued, black Episcopalians have had to struggle mightily to maintain their “ethnic-racial identity in a larger Church body which has not readily acknowledged [their] presence.”

This lamentable history began in the eighteenth century when the Anglican Church devised one of the first concerted efforts to evangelize to slaves. In 1701, it established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an organization whose mission was to spread the Christian gospel to non-Christian peoples across the globe—including American Indians and enslaved Africans. Although the message of its early missionaries did not fully distinguish between spiritual and political freedom, the SPG eventually caved to the demands of slaveholders and preached a theology maintaining that “conversion did not . . . imply manumission.”

Read the entire piece here.

“The born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks…”

latin evangelicals

According to a recent Gallup survey, the born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks, “who are overall the most religious racial and ethnic group in the United States.”  Gallup reports that 61% of blacks identify as “evangelical” or “born-again.”  38% of “non-Hispanic whites” claim the labels and 44% of Hispanics identify with the labels.

There is a lot more to unpack in this study.  Read it here.

Cushwa Center Seminar on Judith Weisenfeld’s *New World A-Coming*

Here is a taste of Ben Wetzel’s summary of the event:

The Seminar in American Religion convened on March 24, 2018, to discuss Judith Weisenfeld’s prize-winning book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2016). About 80 people attended the seminar, which was moderated by Thomas Kselman, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame.

Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor in the department of religion at Princeton University and has written several other major studies analyzing African American religious experiences in the early 20th century. The seminar’s commentators included Paul Harvey, distinguished professor and presidential teaching scholar in the department of history at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs; and Jennifer Jones, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

In 2017, New World A-Coming received the Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the best book in Africana religions. Raboteau (Weisenfeld’s colleague at Princeton, now emeritus), while studying most facets of African American religions, tended to focus on Protestant and Catholic Christianity. New World A-Coming, by contrast, highlights smaller religious groups like the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, the Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, and the Peace Mission of Father Divine. These movements merged religious and racial identity, offered stark contrasts to mainstream Christianity, provided hope and vision to their adherents, and flourished in the urban north during the Great Migration even while they remained on the margins of American religious life as a whole.

Read the entire piece here.

Randall Balmer on Bishop Michael Curry

Curry

This past weekend we did a quick post on Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding.  Yesterday at The Washington Post, American religious historian Randall Balmer offers a more extended take on the sermon.  Here is a taste:

Curry, a cradle Episcopalian (his father was an Episcopal priest), is often mistaken for a Baptist. His preaching style draws on the long and venerable tradition of black preachers dating to the days of slavery. At St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday, he opened his sermon in measured tones, beginning with a reading from the Song of Solomon. This was to be a sermon about love, one appropriate to the marrying couple, but also — and here Curry demonstrated his artistic mastery — to the gathered audience and to the world at large. “There is power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it.”

As he developed his argument, Curry drew from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, pointing out that Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets as love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself. And here, in the classic African American tradition of preaching, the bishop’s pace began to quicken; his tone grew more insistent and his gestures more expansive. Curry quoted King and Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and added his own touches of humor.

Markle, the bride, sat transfixed from the beginning; Harry’s expression suggested skepticism. The cutaways to the other royals suggested that they, too, were not sure why this stem-winding African American preacher had been invited to participate.

Read the entire piece here.

Reverend Michael Curry Stole the Show at Today’s Royal Wedding

I finally got a chance to watch Rev. Michael Curry‘s sermon at this morning’s royal wedding.  Wow!

The message itself was not particularly groundbreaking, but the occasion made it more powerful than it would have been if Curry preached the same sermon at his church in the United States.  I also thought Curry was pretty constrained when compared to what I know of the African-American prophetic preaching tradition. Having said that, an African-American preacher amid the royal family was amazing to watch.  And I am also glad that a billion people around the world got to hear a sermon about the redemptive power of love.

Quick thoughts:

  • Meghan Markle’s face said it all.  The ambassador for the evangelical relief agency World Vision clearly enjoyed Curry’s sermon.
  • Harry also seemed to enjoy the sermon, but his facial expression communicated something like: “I am OK with this, but I’d like it to be over soon.”
  • Many of the royals were clearly squirming as Curry preached.
  • Oprah was fully engaged with Curry’s message.
  • Kate seemed to secretly enjoy the fact that the royal family was squirming.

Curry stole the show with his authenticity in this setting.

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.