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Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans

Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans

by Gayraud S. Wilmore

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Since its first publication 25 years ago Black Religion and Black Radicalism has established itself as the classic treatment of African American religious history. Wilmore shows to what extent the history of African Americans can be told in terms of religion, and to what extent this religious history has been inseparably bound to the struggle for freedom and justice.


Since its first publication 25 years ago Black Religion and Black Radicalism has established itself as the classic treatment of African American religious history. Wilmore shows to what extent the history of African Americans can be told in terms of religion, and to what extent this religious history has been inseparably bound to the struggle for freedom and justice. From the story of the slave rebellions and emancipation, to the rise of Black nationalism and the freedom struggles of recent times, up through the development of Black, womanist, and Afrocentric theologies, Wilmore offers an essential interpretation of African American religious history.

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Chapter One

African Beginnings

Always Africa is giving us something new or some metempsychosis of a world-old thing. On its black bosom arose one of the earliest, if not the earliest self-protecting civilizations.... Nearly every human empire that has arisen in the world, material and spiritual, has found some of its greatest crises on this continent of Africa.... As Mommsen says, "It was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of the world."

W. E. B. Du Bois, 1915

    In 1973 the Abuna, or Patriarch, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Theophilus, visited Boston where he was the honored guest of the African Studies Program of Boston University. The African American clergy of the city were especially invited to attend one of the meetings at which he spoke, and about fifty of them came on campus to receive him warmly. In the course of his remarks the Abuna reminded the black ministers that the church he presided over in Addis Ababa was founded in the fourth century A.D. and was one of the oldest in Christendom. Since its establishment was second only to the Coptic Church of Egypt, it antedated all the Christian communions of Europe and America except the Church of Rome. For that reason, he said, not to mention others that had to do with the needs of black people on both sides of the Atlantic, African Americans ought to recognize Ethiopian Orthodoxy as the parent of all baptized Christians of Africandescent, "so come home to your Mother Church—she stands ready to welcome you!"

    The idea was neither novel nor unreasonable. For over a hundred years various gestures had been made suggesting that a union between the descendants of the African slaves and the ancient churches of Africa was not only appropriate in the eyes of many African Americans, but earnestly sought by Coptic and Ethiopian Christian leaders. The Confession of Alexandria, issued by the General Committee of the 114 member churches of the All African Conference of Churches in February 1976, recognizes the priority of the churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, a priority gratefully acknowledged by many African and African American Christians. References to "the God of Ethiopia" and Psalm 68:31 which, in the Authorized Version, prophesies that "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God," abound in the early writings and speeches of black leaders in North America and the Caribbean. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries African Americans closely identified with what was then the only independent black nation in their Motherland, with the exception of Liberia. They were jubilant when Emperor Menelik II turned back Italian arms at Adowa in March 1896 and angered by the refusal of the League of Nations and the U.S. government to come to the aid of Emperor Haile Selassie when fascist Italy unleashed its revenge on Abyssinia with the invasion of 1935.

    It was not surprising, therefore, that over the years some black Christians in North America and the Caribbean, whether wisely or unwisely, would dream about settling in Ethiopia and that some who elected not to emigrate would consider aligning their churches with either the Coptic Church of Egypt or the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. After the Garvey movement reawakened African American interest in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church freed itself from the control of the Alexandrian Patriarchy in 1948 and became a member of the World Council of Churches, almost every major city in the United States had at least one black preacher or self-styled prophet who organized what purported to be a branch of Ethiopian Orthodoxy in the black ghetto. So when the Abuna Theophilus addressed African American clergy in Boston in 1973 he had behind him a long and complex history of vague yearnings and aspirations, on the part of both Addis Ababa and a segment of independent African American churches, to forge some kind of ecclesiastical union among the black churches of the United States, Jamaica, and other islands of the Caribbean, and the ancient church of Ethiopia over which he was Patriarch.

    The event in Boston had no significant consequence for relations between African and African American Christians in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but it does serve to bracket the fourth century A.D., and the rise of Christianity in East Africa as a beginning point, at least in the minds of many people on both continents, for examining the history of black Christianity. It is no accident that African American spokespersons of the nineteenth century popularized the idea that the history of black religion, including Christianity, begins not among the slaves of pious whites in New England and Virginia, or on the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, but in Africa—with the religion of the ancient Egyptians, which had a powerful effect upon early Christianity and should be regarded as the most prominent of the African Traditional Religions that originated in the Nile Valley. Black scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to demonstrate tenuous connections between the first African Christian churches in North America, Egyptian religion prior to Christianity, and the ancient black churches of Ethiopia and Nubia. They did not have all the technical information and equipment that modern scholarship requires to unravel the mysteries of these putative connections, but neither do most of us today. In any case, they knew that the line of relationship did not run from the slave church in America to Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and Canterbury, as much as it did to Thebes, Axum, Meroe, and Accra.

    The first eleven chapters of George Washington Williams's monumental A History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880, deal with the presence of black people in the Bible, the achievements of the Hamitic race, which belie the spurious curse of Noah in Genesis 9:25-27, and the origin of black Christianity in ancient Africa. Others before and since have refused to accept the assumption of many white scholars that the place to commence any discussion about black Americans is their debarkation on the quays of Jamestown, Charleston, and New Orleans. William Jacob Walls, the forty-second bishop and scholarly historiographer of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, begins his history of the denomination with a discussion of African civilization and religion—particularly with Africa as the true place of origin of black Christianity in the Western world. During the apogee of black consciousness and the rise of the black studies movement in the 1960s and 1970s, numerous scholars who wrote articles and books about black culture and religion returned to the earlier practice of commencing the black story with the African story. Although some of their conclusions may have been hyperpolemic and based on less than exhaustive research, their contributions corrected the gross misconceptions of black history by others, and opened up the rich vein of African-African American cross-cultural exchanges and relationships previously overlooked or disparaged.

    Thus, this interpretation of African American religion, with its checkered implications for radical political and cultural action, begins appropriately with a brief discussion of religion in Africa. My purpose is to illustrate the continuities and discontinuities which continue to influence and reshape the worship styles, spirituality, and belief structures of black Christians in America. I return to this subject in Chapter 2 where the discussion proceeds essentially along the lines followed in the two previous editions of this book. But here I want to trace the evolution of Christianity in Africa, its encounter with African Traditional Religions, Judaism, and Islam (not to mention other ancient and more recent religions whose impact upon modern Africa we cannot explore in this volume). We are about, therefore, to reconnoiter the fertile terrain of religiosity which all of these ways of behaving and believing created in the areas whence the majority of slaves came to populate the New World and eventually to found the African American churches we have today.


    African Traditional Religions (ATR) is the term used to designate the primal, basically monotheistic if operationally polytheistic and heterogeneous religions of Africa that stretch backward into the dim reaches of prehistory and forward, in many localized forms and languages, into modern Africa. It is the worship of God and gods, closely identified with primordial ancestors, tribal histories, and founders of ethnic groups and civilizations, that exists in all parts of the continent. Despite wide variations, ATR seem to hold in common, nevertheless, some values, beliefs, and practices across the more than five-thousand-mile stretch from Dakar in Senegal to Ras Hafun, at the easternmost tip of Somalia.

    Generally speaking, these religions have no sacred scriptures, single founder, central temple or sanctuary, schools of prophets, ecclesiastical organization, or sacerdotal officialdom in the sense that we understand these things in the West. They are family- and clan-centered religions, pragmatic in their relation to and effect upon the totality of daily existence, and firmly ecological and anthropocentric in their ontology. African Traditional Religionists regard God, natural phenomena, and the ancestors as intrinsically related to each other, and the traditionalist's primary interest in them is not philosophical, but practical, that is, how they together affect the lives of human beings.

    Since Egypt is definitely in Africa and over the centuries both contributed to and borrowed from the religions of black people in the Upper Nile Valley, we are obliged to regard Egyptian religion as an early example of ATR under the special ecological and sociopolitical conditions of the Delta, between roughly 6000 and 3200 B.C. Little is known of the evolving Egyptian civilization during that early period, but it is certain that the people were racially mixed, with both Caucasoid and Negroid characteristics, intermingled, separated, and varied in intensity from time to time and place to place according to migrations from both the North and the South.

    The field is fraught with uncertainties and speculations, but according to such scholars of early Egyptian religion as E. A. Wallis Budge, Norman Lockyer, and John G. Jackson, astronomy and religion were closely intertwined in Kemet, or predynastic Egypt, and worship of the moon and stars preceded the deification of the sun and the institution of sacred kingship which also developed in other parts of Africa. We are skirting the borders of an extremely complex area of study that cannot be thoroughly explored here, but two main points stand out: first, that in addition to the divinity of the kings or pharaohs of Egypt, the great sun god, Ra or Re, who personified the physical sun, was the central figure of this Nilotic ATR, and the legends that surround him cannot help but remind Christians of the Holy Trinity, which was to be deified almost two millennia later. Concerning the influence of ancient Egyptians upon Christianity much later, Noel Q. King writes of Egyptian Christianity:

A study of the history of Coptic art reveals yet other glories of this church. She was not afraid to take over motifs from the old Egyptian religion and from Hellenism. The ideal statue-form of the Holy Mother Isis in her blue robe, and her divine infant Horus, became a standard Christian nativity setting. The ankh, the hieroglyph for life, was combined with the cross in iconography to be a symbol of resurrection after death.

    Second, Budge and many black and white scholars have been convinced for a long time that these ancient Egyptians belonged to the African race,

and especially [to] that portion of it which lived in the great tract of country which extends from ocean to ocean, right across Africa, and is commonly known as the Sudan, i.e., the country par excellence of the Blacks.

    The rich mythology of Egyptian religion involves many twists and turns in the story of Osiris who, in a later version reported by Plutarch, after marrying his sister, Isis, is slain by his evil brother Set. The widowed queen-Goddess, Isis, gives birth to a son, Horus, and after bringing Osiris back to life, sees Horus become a king and rule the earth as the third person of the new Egyptian trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. The myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris, as well as the fascination of the ancient Egyptians with the idea of life after death, has been thought by many to have been related to the death of every setting sun and its rising again in the new dawn.

    The great religious reformer of dynastic Egypt was the Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaton (1367-1350). Akhenaton spurned the polytheism of his predecessors and restored an earlier monotheism with the worship of "Aten, the Solar Disk." His attempt to reform Egyptian religion failed, however, and the gods of Nubia, the territory south of the first cataract on the Nile which had made a large contribution to the culture of the Delta, became even more influential in dynastic Egypt.


    Some would argue that Judaism is almost as indigenous to ancient Africa as African Traditional Religion. Certainly from the descent of the Jacob family into Egypt (Genesis 46:1) there must have been an intimate relationship between the religion of Israel and the religions of Lower and Upper Egypt. Given the henotheistic climate in which the Torah took shape, we are able to hypothesize the ferocity of the struggle that ensued for centuries between Yahweh and foreign deities. Nor is it always clear who won. Borrowings went on incessantly between the peoples of that time, and there is no reason to assume that the religions of the Hyksos invaders and African Traditional Religions, particularly Egyptian religion, did not infiltrate Judaism to become part and parcel of the religion of the ethnically mixed slaves whom Moses led out of bondage sometime between 1290 and 1224 B.C.

    Ethiopian history, steeped in an impressive biblical tradition, records that the Queen of Sheba, Makeda, came away from her visit to Solomon (I Kings 10:1-13) with more than royal bounty. A son born to them, called Menelik, became the first Emperor of Ethiopia, the "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah," the ancestor, in unbroken line, of Haile Selassie. Although the birth of Menelik is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and reposes in the cloudy atmosphere of legend, the idea that Judaism was introduced to Ethiopia through this union and the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Makeda's home, in what later became the Ethiopian province of Tigre, has been believed by millions of Ethiopians for centuries and rests upon no more flimsy a foundation than some of the "historical facts" that European and American Christians take for granted. It is unquestionable that a strong Judaic presence infused the ATR that lies behind Ethiopian Christianity and strengthens the contention that Judaism is semi-indigenous to Africa.

    Prior to the refuge Mary and Joseph sought for the baby Jesus in the Jewish ghetto of what is today Cairo, millions of Jews were scattered all over the ancient world—from the borders of Nubia southeast across the Arabian peninsula and northwest across Roman Africa to what is now Mauritania. The Ethiopians, therefore, had a long-standing relationship with Judaism and other Semitic religions. Some authorities who may be dubious about the story of Menelik will, nonetheless, give the early date of 300 B.C. for the emergence of the Falasha, or Black Jews of Ethiopia, who practiced an eccentric form of Judaism and possessed an apocryphal literature in the sacred language of Ge'ez. The world was suddenly awakened to the existence of the Falasha when the Israelis finally recognized their existence as black Jews in 1975 and began airlifting them to Israel for settlement. By 1990 approximately 1,200 had been resettled through the efforts of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.


    Christianity may be regarded as the third major religion, after African Traditional Religions and Judaism, to be so intimately identified with Africa in its first century as to be practically indigenous, or as in the case of Judaism, at least semi-indigenous to the continent. The gospel made its first appearance in Africa not in the Delta region, but in the Upper Nile Valley through Judich, the "Ethiopian" eunuch who was baptized at an oasis on a desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza by Philip, the Evangelist (Acts 8:26-40). The ancient Greeks knew all of Africa south of the First Cataract as either Ethiopia or Kush. Actually Judich came from the kingdom of Meroë, in what was later called Nubia, or in modern times, the Sudan.

    We know nothing about his missionizing efforts after he returned home, praising God for sending Messiah Jesus as his Savior, for evidently no church took root in Nubia before A.D. 600. But it is very unlikely that Judich was silent once he returned to the court of the Candace, or queen. The eunuch, barren as the desert in which Philip found him, may well have fertilized the religious soil of the Upper Nile Valley and opened the way for ATR in that area to assimilate Byzantine Christianity when it finally came. But that can only be conjecture.

    African Christianity took root first in Egypt. That much is clear to people in that part of the world and should be graciously accepted by the rest of us. Records which are solid to Eastern Christians, though generally unknown and if known, uncertain, to most European and American Christians, report that John Mark, the author of the Second Gospel, a Cyrenian Jew and erstwhile companion of the Apostle Paul, established the first African Christian church that we know about as early as A.D. 42. In the year 68 when St. Mark was martyred in Alexandria, the first person he had converted, a cobbler named Anianos, had already been made a bishop. It was from their joint ministrations that Christianity blossomed in the Delta and Upper Egypt before the end of the second century. By the time of the episcopate of Demetrius of Alexandria (189-232), Christianity was well on its way among the Copts, the native Egyptian population which had adhered to the worship of Osiris, and the story of its tortured expansion through the next three centuries involves many Nubian and other black African converts whose martyred blood enriched the soil of the Egyptian desert.

    Blacks from Africa served in the Roman army in the first years of the Christian era, and many were evidently converted to Christianity. Black Roman Catholics today like to recall that St. Maurice was a black African general who, while his legion was stationed in Switzerland in the latter part of the third century, refused to lead it against the Bagaudae, after discovering that the fierce white Gallic tribesmen were also Christians. Maurice and his men were executed by Augustus Maximilian for their insubordination to the Roman's command to slaughter the Bagaudae and for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. After that part of Switzerland became Christian, a basilica, later the center of the monastery of St. Maurice-en-Valais, was built on the site of the martyrdom. This St. Maurice (not to be confused with St. Maurice of Apomea, immortalized in the El Greco painting) has always been portrayed in many European cathedrals and churches with black African features. He is still the patron saint of infantry soldiers and swordsmiths in Savoy, Sardinia, and Cracow, Poland.


    In Egypt and the rest of the Graeco-Roman world Christianity was confined to the lower levels of society for three centuries. Just the opposite happened in Ethiopia. There, according to the contemporary church historian, Rufinus, it was introduced to the royal court by two young men of Tyre who fell into the hands of hostile Axumites when their vessel put ashore for provisions on the way to India. The entire crew and accompanying travelers were put to death, but the young men, Frumentius and Aedesius, were taken to the king who befriended them and appointed Aedesius, the younger, to be his cupbearer and Frumentius his private secretary. When the king died, the queen-mother prevailed upon the two youths to remain in Axum and assist in administering the kingdom and raising her son, destined to become Ezana, king of Axum, the first Christian ruler in Africa—the African Constantine.

    When they were free to depart the kingdom, Aedesius returned to Tyre, but Frumentius remained to help establish a small Christian community at court and among a few traders along the coast. Sometime later he reported its existence to Bishop Athanasius in Alexandria and was consecrated bishop himself between 341 and 346 by Athanasius and sent back to Axum to continue the evangelization of the Ethiopians. The date of Ezana's conversion is given by most scholars as 330. There seems to be little doubt that the king adopted the Christian faith and brought his entire kingdom into the church. A Greek inscription belonging to him has been discovered. It begins: "In the faith of God and the power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." Also, coins that were minted in the early part of Ezana's reign bear the pagan symbol of the crescent and disk, while those minted later in his reign carry the sign of the Cross. Thus did Christianity become the state religion of a black kingdom, Ethiopia, a mere four centuries after the birth of Christ.

    Not without a struggle with paganism the Christian faith finally replaced the cults of the Sabaeans and other immigrants in Ethiopia during the next two centuries. Real resistance was encountered from the Agaw section of the population, some of whom worshiped water, trees, and certain idols, and from another segment which had been drawn to Judaism; but the faith spread rapidly in both Ethiopia and Yemen. One group of ancient chronicles speaks of the propagation of Christianity as the work of certain monks such as Abba Yohannes, who founded the monastery of Debra-Sina, or Abba Libanos, who is said to have been sent to Ethiopia at the instigation of St. Pachomius, with whom he had been associated in Upper Egypt. Libanos was only one of many Ethiopian hermit monks who withdrew from the world to almost inaccessible monasteries and churches hewn out of the high cliffs in the wastelands of Ethiopia where they subsisted on a meager fare, including bitter herbs and unripe bananas. Early monasticism in both Egypt and Ethiopia involved many black Christians who upheld the new faith in Messiah Jesus with a fervor and dedication unmatched in the history of the church outside of Africa. A rivalry even grew up between various monasteries, each vying with the other for the greater holiness, recounted in a series of biographies of the so-called Nine Saints, to whom is attributed the later development of the Ge'ez liturgy and literature. The Nine Saints were anti-Chalcedonians from Constantinople and Syria who had been persecuted by the Roman Emperor, harried to the Egyptian desert, and thence to Ethiopia where they undertook the massive task of Christianizing the populace by producing the Ethiopic version of the Bible from a Syrio-Greek text, probably in the sixth century.


Excerpted from Black Religion and Black Radicalism by Gayraud S. Wilmore. Copyright © 1998 by Gayraud S. Wilmore. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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