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This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience
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This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience

by Juan Williams, Quinton Hosford Dixie, Quinton Dixie

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A companion to the PBS series, This Far by Faith isthe story of how religious faith inspired the greatest social movementin American history — the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Hailed upon publication as a beautiful, seminal book on the role of the church in the African American community as well as on the social history of America, This Far by Faith


A companion to the PBS series, This Far by Faith isthe story of how religious faith inspired the greatest social movementin American history — the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Hailed upon publication as a beautiful, seminal book on the role of the church in the African American community as well as on the social history of America, This Far by Faith reveals the deep religious conviction that empowered a people viewed as powerless to blaze a path to freedom and deliverance, to stand and be counted in this one nation under God. Here are the stories of politics, tent revivals, and the importance of black churches as touchstones for every step of the faith journey that became the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Using archival and contemporary photography, historical research, and modern-day interviews, This Far by Faith features messages from some of today's foremost religious leaders.

Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Tribune
“This Far by Faith is an important and powerful contribution to the historical archives of this country.”
“[An] enlightening book.”
“A learned, well-illustrated volume.”
New York Times Book Review
Boston Globe
“[This Far by Faith] skillfully combines written and oral sources with historical narrative.”
Black Issues Book Review
“This Far by Faith will go a long way in preserving stories about a significant aspect of our lives.”
Christian Science Monitor
“This Far by Faith is a must-read.”
This companion book to a six-part PBS series will appeal to anyone interested in African-American spirituality. Like the series, this handsome pictorial emphasizes the adversity that black American worshippers have confronted, and it celebrates the strong tradition of music and dance within African-American religious practice.
Publishers Weekly
Williams, who wrote the companion volume to the award-winning PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, and Dixie, an Indiana University professor, offer a well-illustrated companion volume to the upcoming PBS series "This Far by Faith." They follow the traditional contours of other studies of African-American religious history, beginning with slavery and following the tale through the emergence of free black churches; the nadir of the late 19th century; the Great Migration; the rise of black nationalism and urban religious traditions in the early 20th century; the civil rights movement; and the embrace of alternative religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and the Five Percenters in the 1970s through the 1990s. One particularly interesting segment discusses those mid-20th century black Christian leaders who adopted conservative stances on integration; Williams and Dixie have done a great service by presenting these ministers' views alongside the more familiar stories of civil rights leaders, demonstrating the ideological diversity of the African-American church. At times, the book's writing style can be abrupt and jerky, switching from one historical figure to the next, or between different cities, without transitions to help the reader. The prose is also overburdened with romantic language about heroes who laid their all at the altar of sacrifice, etc.-a device that may work well over six separate installments of a television series, but quickly becomes redundant in print. The real strength here is not the writing but the 76 memorable photographs and illustrations, which powerfully attest to the courage and religious convictions of generations of African Americans. (Feb.) Forecast: In the 1980s, the companion volume to the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize sold more than 200,000 copies. This book should also enjoy strong sales, especially during and after June, when the six-part documentary will be broadcast on many of the nation's 349 PBS stations.
In their companion volume to the PBS series This Far by Faith, Williams and Dixie document the African American religious experience and its impact on society. From slave leader Denmark Vesey, with his emphasis on the Old Testament, to Kirk Franklin and his modern-day "brand of hip-hop Christianity," these prominent figures come alive for the reader through photographs and firsthand accounts. The subject is managed in the format of eleven chapters. Each chapter covers a milestone in the religious development of the community and features biographies of the leaders of that movement. The separation of black Christians from white churches to create the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention is the focus of earlier chapters. Differing approaches to social change offered by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam-"It is not possible to love a man whose chief purpose in life is to humiliate you and still be considered a normal human being"-and Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-"I believe that love is a transforming power that can lift a whole community to new horizons of fair play, good will, and justice"-are the strengths of later chapters. Interspersed within all chapters are inserts dealing with subtopics such as "The Music of Protest." Although the amount of information contained in this book might be daunting for students, the readable narrative and the pictures and illustrations that enhance the text make it a valuable addition for high school libraries. Index. Illus. Photos. Source Notes. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to12; Adult and Young Adult). 2003, HarperCollins, 336p,
— Christine Sanderson
Library Journal
This pair of books both shows the breadth of African American religious experience and seeks to make sense of the ways that experience has functioned in black consciousness and American life. Public radio and television journalist Williams and Dixie (African American studies, Indiana Univ.) have teamed up to present This Far by Faith, a companion volume to a forthcoming PBS documentary series. They tell anew the stories of African Americans who have drawn on faith for the strength to challenge slavery, segregation, and racism. Clear, engaging narratives recount the stories of familiar and unfamiliar figures, from early slave rebellions to the 20th-century migration of thousands of Southern blacks to the cities of the North, from a Muslim slave's attempt to return to his native African tribe to Christian hip-hop music. The diversity of black religious experience is evident-including conjurers, Christians, Muslims, and a Buddhist pop star. Brief topical articles and captioned illustrations supplement the main text, creating a balanced, readable, and nuanced introduction to the power of faith to sustain the African American community. Making sense of how the heritage of slavery and racism has shaped African American identity, both personal and communal, is the task of Pinn (religious studies, Macalester Coll.; Varieties of African American Religious Experience). His book is more academic than This Far by Faith but no less compelling. First Pinn stresses two key rituals of terror that constituted black identity in American society: the slave auction and lynching. He then examines overt (black Christian) and covert (Nation of Islam) methods of "waging war," resisting pressures that construct black identity in racist terms. The most original portion of the book, however, is the third. Here the reader enters the contemporary conversation among African American religious scholars. In contrast to scholars who stress the dominant role of the black Christian church, Pinn argues that the religious fringes of black communities also play a significant role in shaping black religious identity, one that wrestles with dehumanization and seeks triumph over an oppressive past and present. Even in a crowded market niche, both of these books belong on every library's shelves.-Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.37(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

This Far by Faith
Stories from the African American Religious Experience

Chapter One

"God Has a Hand in It"

The God of Bethel heard her cries,
He let his power be seen;
He stopped the proud oppressor's frown,
And proved himself a king.
-- Richard Allen

Charleston, South Carolina, today is a coastal city best known for its colonial past. The city is filled with exquisite homes built in the 1700s for wealthy plantation owners, shipbuilders, and importers. Tourists come to Charleston to see these grand houses, with their large, leafy gardens, elegant fountains, and porches with grand white pillars, which hint at the fabulous society life that once thrived here. All around the city are churches established before America was a nation. And at the center of the city is the Slave Market, which is now part museum and part crafts fair. But that slave market was the economic lifeblood of Charleston in the 1700s. It is the place where three-quarters of all slaves entering the United States first set their feet in America.

In the late 1700s so many slaves were arriving that Charleston was a densely populated, mostly black city. Aristocratic whites were a small population who ruled over the black slaves, both on the enormous plantations toward the coast, which were the foundation of Charleston's economy, and in the heart of the city. Rice and cotton, the region's key cash crops, were labor-intensive and thus required a large number of field hands. So low country planters had been ignoring the 1808 United States ban on the international slave trade for years, and they continued to import Africans, whom they felt were familiar with rice cultivation or better suited for the backbreaking labor of cotton picking. From 1810 until 1900, South Carolina had a black majority, with its black population reaching nearly 60 percent on the eve of the Civil War. And in 1822, in the heart of this South Carolinian city, in a small home not far from the Slave Market that still exists, a group of thirty men huddled near the hearth, as one drew diagrams on the dirt floor, plotting a rebellion in urgent, hushed tones.

The room was hot and stuffy, and it had the thick smell of too many people who had been crowded in the humid summer heat for too long, bringing the sweat of their day's labor with them. The fear was palpable. Eyes darted around the room, someone stood by the door, and a lookout outside kept a close watch for inquisitive whites. One of the men, the governor's most trusted servant, had already offered to kill the governor and his family as they slept. Someone else was coordinating the distribution of weapons in the days before the uprising. The two men closest to the light, their faces dancing with shadows, were the leaders of the rebellion. The man next to the fire was Denmark Vesey, a class leader at the nearby church and the most outspoken black man in the city. And standing just behind him was the most powerful religious leader in Charleston's rural slave plantations, Gullah Jack Pritchard.

Vesey was over fifty-five: a life span longer than most blacks in South Carolina could expect. He was a tall, dark-skinned man with graying hair and missing teeth. His hands were leathery from a life of work as a carpenter. His strong physical presence, as well as his stature as a leader in Charleston's black church community, led many white people to label him a rabble-rouser who was best avoided. In fact, Vesey was known for refusing to yield the right-of-way to any white man as he walked on Charleston's narrow sidewalks. He even refrained from bowing to the white aristocracy. These small acts of defiance were just outward signs of Vesey's conviction that, regardless of his skin color, he was not to be treated as anything less than equal to any man in God's sight.

Denmark Vesey had had to live by his wits from a young age; his faith in God and his mind were all he had to steady him in the face of oppression and abuse. At age fourteen, he was sold to a sugar plantation in Haiti where enslaved Africans were expected to chop cane from sunup to sundown. To avoid work, the boy spent the bulk of his time sprawled on the ground, claiming to be a victim of epileptic seizures. White doctors in the town confirmed the boy's illness, and when the captain of Vesey's slave ship returned to Haiti three months later, he refunded the plantation owner's money and took custody of this sick slave boy. The captain assigned Vesey to be his personal assistant. Perhaps it was Divine Providence, or perhaps it was the sea air that miraculously cured Vesey of his ailments, but Denmark Vesey never again displayed signs of epilepsy.

The African Church was built after blacks withdrew from the biggest Methodist church in the city. In the early nineteenth century, African religions were an important thread in South Carolina's religious tapestry, particularly on the coast, the so-called low country. With new slaves arriving regularly, there was a constant source of renewal for these traditions. The relative isolation of rural plantations and the large slave populations enabled enslaved Africans to keep their own beliefs alive, and the potent spiritual powers that so many of them believed in stood as testaments to the resilience of African religious traditions. With so many religions available to them, blacks tended to borrow bits and pieces from various traditions, creating a religion unique to them. Even Christianity was a part of their fusion of faiths, and it was common for Charleston-area blacks in the 1820s to belong to one or more local faith communities.

It was in 1794 that the first independent black Methodist church came into being ...

This Far by Faith
Stories from the African American Religious Experience
. Copyright © by Juan Williams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Juan Williams is the author of the acclaimed PBS series companion volume Eyes on the Prize. He is a senior correspondent for NPR, political analyst for Fox News, and the host of America's Black Forum. Williams worked at the Washington Post for twenty-three years as a columnist, editorial writer, and White House correspondent. He has won an Emmy Award for his television documentary writing and has contributed features to Fortune, Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, GQ, New Republic, and Black Issues Book Review. He is a graduate of Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

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