Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | June 28, 2013

African American Religious History and Historiography

JOARThe library at Florida State University recently got access to the new Journal of Africana Religions (Penn State Press page here). I sent three inquiries to the library since early this year and unsuccessfully tried to ILL the first issue, so it goes without saying that I’m thrilled to finally get to read the articles. The first two issues have so much going for them. In Issue 2, Quincy D. Newell edits and introduces the primary sources written by Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a free black woman in Connecticut who converted to Mormonism in the 1840s. Newell’s piece will be valuable asset for any undergraduate course on African American religious history and American religious history more broadly. Elizabeth Pérez’s article in the same issue, “Willful Spirits and Weakened Flesh: Historicizing the Initiation Narrative in Afro-Cuban Religions” offers both methodological critique as well as a new analytical lens for discussing ritual practice in Africana religions. The issue that sticks out more for me, though, has to be the inaugural issue. Editors Sylvester Johnson and Edward E. Curtis IV brought together an amazing group of scholars to open the Journal of Africana Religions, including David Chidester, Michael Gomez, Tracy HucksDianne Stewart Diakité, Charles Long, Anthony Pinn, and Judith Weisenfeld. I have been an avid admirer of Charles Long since I first became interested in African American religions (one need only revisit his essay “New Orleans as an American City” in New Territories, New Perspectives or remember his 2008 plenary address at the AAR on cargo cults to see why). The essay that really resonated with me in this batch was Weisenfeld’s “Invisible Women: On Women and Gender in the Study of African American Religious History.”

In many ways her article does for African American religious history what Ann Braude’s essay, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” sought to do for American religious history. Braude dismantled the “influential motifs” of “declension, feminization, and secularization,” by foregrounding women. In response, Weisenfeld’s essay addresses how the three themes related to “politics, theology, and definitions of the religious” have largely “shaped the historiography of African American religion.” And so, Weisenfeld offers new “ways in which examining African American women’s religious experiences” that also seek to open up “rich areas for research and new ways of conceiving the very shape of the field.” These insights gained from focusing on women’s experiences can bring fresh eyes to the way we study African American religions more broadly. And I’m on board.

First, she notes how the emphasis on institutions and denominations, and thus male clergy, as sites of political activity often blind historians and cause para-church organizations and local secular groups to be ignored. The recent work on secularism done by Tracy Fessenden and John Lardas Modern illustrate how the secular is never simply that; rather the worldviews, religious commitments, and beliefs of people mold, reshape, and can be subsumed into the secular. This can shift the focus from the clergy to the laity and everyday life as key locations for investigating African American religions. Second, instead of simply identifying the theological insights of women—which is in and of itself a necessary point of investigation—Weisenfeld suggests that we also turn to the nontextual sources (material culture, like folk art) of “theological discourse in which women have "The Colored Sisters of the Holy Family": New Orleans Nunstended to participate more actively.” This can then “broaden[s] our sense of how theologies are produced and lived in everyday life.” Finally, conceptions of what is religious for African Americans has largely been steered by the numerical dominance of black Protestantisms in American religious history which is why when scholars look for African American religions, they often look inside Protestant churches. In response, Weisenfeld calls for more work on “the histories of black figures who do not conform easily to the parameters of orthodox black Protestantism and yet who brought spiritual sensibilities or critiques of religion to their work as public figures.” Additionally, if Marla Frederick’s Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith demonstrated anything, it was that the “depth of religious engagement” in women’s experiences often happened outside church walls. Also, Weisenfeld encourages more scholars to examine midwifery and healing traditions as additional modes to interrogate “women’s embodied spirituality.”

All of Weisenfeld’s suggestions should be reflected upon by scholars and historians of African American religions. These can help us continue to break beyond the “burden of black religion,” the image of the “perpetual primitive,” and the “anti-African sentiment deeply embedded in black Christianity.” As a historian of American religions focusing on religion and race, I have often wrestled with these historiographical quandaries and sought to push past them. Weisenfeld’s essay offers a more eloquent way for me to think about my work’s possible contributions and justification for the topics I research.

As Weisenfeld states in her second point, the arts and material culture are rich sites for theological creativity and cultural production. In my forthcoming essay “New World, New Jerusalem, New Orleans: The Apocalyptic Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan” (accepted and scheduled for publication in 2014 in Louisiana History), I use Morgan’s visual art (and music) to investigate Morgan as a folk theologian. While the concept of folk religion possesses a Book of Revelationproblematic past,[1] I have no interest in distinguishing between institutional religion and popular or folk religion. Rather, I like the term folk theologian as a means to highlight the similarities between Morgan’s artistic style and her theological understanding. Similar to the manner in which folk artists use their immediate resources, both in terms of physical materials and skill-set, Morgan used her surroundings, her life story, and her personal revelations to construct her religious worldview and her understanding of the end times. Morgan’s art is the key to understanding her theology. In this article, I argue that through integrating her life and the city of New Orleans into the biblical narrative, Morgan sought to make the city sacred. By adapting elements from her social and cultural surroundings to the needs of her ministry and message, Morgan transformed New Orleans into her own sacred and biblical world. Her adopted city became the template for the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, and furthermore, she often hinted that the world was currently in the book of Revelation’s apocalyptic story. In short, New Jerusalem would look like New Orleans, and Morgan was the new prophet John.

Moorish Body-Builder and Blood Purifier, circa nowMoving beyond institutions and denominations (point 1 in Weisenfeld’s essay) and widening the scope of African American religious history to better include non-Protestants (point 3) is a historiographical argument after my own academic heart. My previous research on the Moorish Science Temple focused on the group’s healing practices and material culture in order to better conceptualize Noble Drew Ali’s dedication to keeping the Moors racially distinct and religiously clean and pure. Furthermore, his vision of the Moorish nation and its material culture reflected larger trends in health, consumerism, and theological expression within American religious history demonstrating how the Moorish Science Temple is hardly a peripheral group in African American religious history. Additionally, my own forthcoming contribution to the Journal of Africana Religions (participation on a roundtable on black Catholicism) encourages scholars of African American religions to look beyond the nation’s Anglo-American past and trouble the assumed naturalness of Protestantism and the peculiarity of Catholicism. For my own contribution to this discussion, I examine how black opposition to Archbishop Francis Janssens’s plan to create a black national parish in 1890s New Orleans draws our attention to the ethnicizing capacity of religion and illuminates how the tradition of Catholicism (not simply Protestantism) is significant to black religious cultures.

My dissertation on Afro-creole Spiritualism in mid-nineteenth century New Orleans continues this trajectory. These converts to Spiritualism came from Afro-creole Catholic backgrounds, rather than the northeastern Anglo-American Protestants we typically associate with Spiritualism. Their practice took place in private homes or their places of business rather than a formal institution. While many of the messages they transcribed and the spirits they were ascribed to possessed a political edge (the séance records point to democratic republicanism as the ideal, with spirits like Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and Montesquieu offering guidance), the messages also provide visions of proper social interactions, godly virtues, and the ultimate goals and destiny of humanity. Though this particular circle was composed primarily of men, women did join them at the séance table and their voices could be heard from beyond in messages from “a devoted sister,” mothers of the mediums, and a former séance leader. In some of the messages were instructions for gender dynamics, being good mothers, and proper husbandly behaviors. While women’s experiences may be harder to uncover in this project than men’s, the significance of gender to the practice of Afro-creole Spiritualism cannot be ignored.

Bravo Journal of Africana Religions for beginning such a necessary forum for discussing Africana religions. And thank you Judith Weisenfeld for providing me an articulate and eloquent historiographical model to parse out the contributions of my work. (My job cover letters this fall will be the better for it.)


[1] Folklorist Leonard Primiano has noted that the term “folk religion” often implies a distinction between “official” religion and the unofficial religion of the folk in “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife,” Western Folklore 54 (Jan. 1995): pp. 37-56.

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