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Even before the emergence of the civil rights movement with black churches at its center, African American religion and progressive politics were assumed to be inextricably intertwined. In her revelatory book, Barbara Savage counters this assumption with the story of a highly diversified religious community whose debates over engagement in the struggle for racial equality were as vigorous as they were persistent. Rather than inevitable allies, black churches and political activists have been uneasy and contentious partners.
From the 1920s on, some of the best African American minds—W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles S. Johnson, and others—argued tirelessly about the churches’ responsibility in the quest for racial justice. Could they be a liberal force, or would they be a constraint on progress? There was no single, unified black church but rather many churches marked by enormous intellectual, theological, and political differences and independence. Yet, confronted by racial discrimination and poverty, churches were called upon again and again to come together as savior institutions for black communities.
The tension between faith and political activism in black churches testifies to the difficult and unpredictable project of coupling religion and politics in the twentieth century. By retrieving the people, the polemics, and the power of the spiritual that animated African American political life, Savage has dramatically demonstrated the challenge to all religious institutions seeking political change in our time.
With the recent controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, much attention has been recently paid to the topic of the black church in America. Yet historian Savage shows in her book that "there is no such thing as the 'black church.'A " Countering the image of a monolithic institution, Savage instead portrays the theological, economic and social diversity within black churches. Through biographical vignettes, Savage spans the 20th-century black religious experience, focusing on the ever-present question African-Americans asked about the role their churches should play in the politics for racial justice. Savage's greatest contribution is her restoration of black women to a central place in black religious experience. Though women formed the vast majority of those in the pews, most historians have focused on the male ministers who led the congregations. Savage argues for the importance of Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among others. A concluding chapter on Barack Obama and Wright smartly observes how Wright himself downplayed black religious diversity to make his defense of the black church. (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In this meticulously researched tome, Savage (history, Univ. of Pennsylvania) recounts the circuitous journey along which black religious sentiment and political ideology have conflicted, converged, and sometimes melded throughout the 20th century. She presents this sociohistorical study chiefly through an engaging series of portraits of individuals who combined African American religious and political sensibilities in innovative ways, including W.E.B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, Benjamin Mays, E. Franklin Frazier, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Nannie Helen Burroughs. The author focuses primarily on the period leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, as this era has not been as comprehensively treated historically or sociologically. Savage also tackles complicated issues, such as the ambivalent role of black ministers, the unsung epic of black women as the backbone of black churches, and the circumspect dismissal of the "Black Church" as a monolithic entity. While the author offers intimations concerning the dichotomy between the rural South and the urban North, she rarely presents any direct contrast between these sociological worlds. Recommended nonetheless to all libraries.
Here is a book that couldn't be more topical...[Savage] examines in detail the history and implications of black church development as a political force in America. Her work is readable and thought-provoking, bringing us up to the minute with its brief but telling examination of the relationship between Barack Obama and his own church, and its by-now famous pastor Jeremiah Wright.
— Barbara Bamberger Scott
The debate about the role and relevance of religion in the social and political lives of African Americans has raged since the days of slavery. Historian Savage focuses on the period from the turn of the twentieth century, a time of tension between science and faith as more and more black Americans sought education and as racial inequalities and exploitation left black Americans as much in need of spiritual succor as ever. As black Americans adjusted to life in urban areas, and to the attendant racial discrimination and segregation, the black church became the only indigenous institution with the stability and influence to effect change within and outside the community, giving rise to the notion of "the black church" despite what was actually a great diversity of religious institutions. Savage focuses on diverse figures from the early 1900s through the current day, including Marcus Garvey, sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, and activist Marian Wright Edelman. She explores changes in how religion has been viewed and how it has been used as a political and social engine as much as for spiritual uplift.
— Vanessa Bush
1 The Reformation of the "Negro Church" 20
2 Illusions of Black Religion 68
3 In Pursuit of Pentecost 121
4 The Advent to Civil Rights 163
5 Southern Black Liberal Protestantism 205
6 A Religious Rebellion 238
Reconcilable Differences 270