Tag Archives: African-American Christianity

Theological reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of August Wilson‘s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. The play was intense, humorous, and profane. It surfaced the complex ways Christianity has become a part of the fabric of African-American culture–even for those who have found themselves responding to the church and its message with skepticism and rage, as “white man’s religion.” After the play, for the second time this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel of theologians after the performance (many thanks to United Theological Seminary president Mary McNamara’s hard work in arranging these panels).

Here are the reflections I shared on the play and the African American experience it portrayed:

First of all, I feel I’m standing on holy ground. Our playwright August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But it’s more than that. When, as a young man, he decided to become not a lawyer but a writer—a spiritual craft if there ever was one—he incurred the ire of his mother. As a church historian, I remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also decided to follow his own path and enter a spiritual profession—the monastic life—instead of becoming a lawyer. And he, too, provoked the wrath of his parent; his father. Continue reading

The King James Bible in African American Churches


Dr. Virgil Wood and his African American Jubilee Edition of the King James Bible

The following comes from the essay “The KJV’s Influence on African Americans and Their Churches,” by Cheryl J. Sanders, in Translation that Openeth the Window, ed. David Burke.

[On the KJV in American Churches generally, see here.]

Here is a scholarly African-American author who is also pastor of her Church of God assembly (a Pentecostal church) reflecting on when and why she chooses to use the KJV in worship services:

“When celebrating the Lord’s Supper or baptizing believers by immersion, we always tend to use the KJV language, even in paraphrase. We say, “This is my body, which is broken for you,” “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” and when we baptize, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Somehow, it seems that special dignity and grace are added to these symbolic rituals of the church when we use this language, especially for a church that does not have a book of discipline or a prescribed liturgy for these observances.” (144-145) Continue reading

Poor, black, and female: Amanda Berry Smith preached holiness in the teeth of racism


What follows is this week’s talk in the series I am doing at Messiah Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN, on people from my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns who model aspects of social justice:

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Christian revival kindled on the American frontier, drawing new strength through camp meetings and circuit riders. By the mid-1800s, however, the Victorian era was in full swing, and evangelical churches founded in the white heat of frontier enthusiasm were building lavish faux-gothic facades and enjoying the refined preaching of educated, citified ministers.

In reaction, many Victorian Americans yearned to experience again the fiery devotion of their parents and grandparents. Continue reading

“No respecter of persons”: Recession threatens historic black church and Crystal Cathedral alike


The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal C...

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church

This church is one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation.

It’s the Metropolitan AME Church, located on M Street between 15th and 16th streets in downtown Washington, DC.

According to a recent article in “DCist,”

The church hosted Frederick Douglass‘s and Rosa Park’s funeral, had President Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bishop Desmond Tutu as speakers, and held pre-inaugural prayer services for President Clinton. Continue reading

“Seek first the kingdom of God”; slaves built this church instead of buying their freedom


First African Baptist Church, Savannah (Chatha...

First African Baptist Church, Savannah (Chatham County, Georgia)

From an outstanding article (and check out the moving video) at CNN.com:

More than 150 years ago, slaves built this church by fire and moonlight. They raised the walls with clay and sand blocks known as Savannah Gray Brick, and a white ceiling patterned after a nine-patch quilt, a symbol of safety from slavery.

After the first Bible study of the day, Johnny McDonald explains this to a small tour group seated in the church’s curved oak pews. He was baptized in First African’s chilly pool at age 7 and began giving tours as a teen. He’s 22 now, one semester shy of graduation from Savannah State University. He learned the church’s history through a thousand sermons and older members’ memories. Several times a week, he leads tours of each level, and shares everything he knows.

He talks about the earliest church leaders, who were whipped and harassed by white residents who balked at the idea of a black preacher. Continue reading

Black women made the civil rights movement happen–no surprise here!


Here’s an exciting new book examining the social influence of black Christian women in 20th (and 19th) century America.Like other recent analyses of the black church in America, the author ends her account with on a sober assessment of recent disengagement and a plea for re-engagement.

I was immediately reminded of Nancy F. Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780 1835, which shows how women similarly laid the groundwork, through prayer, finances, and organization, for the Second Great Awakening, including the success of revivalist Charles G. Finney.

Bettye Collier-Thomas’ Jesus, Jobs and Justice is a tour de force for the study of women and religion.

It navigates within and beyond the walls of institutional religion to delineate the tremendous contributions of African American women of faith to the larger American project.

Collier-Thomas, professor of history at Temple University, makes the convincing argument that it was, indeed, the amazing networks of organizations that women developed in the 1920s and ’30s that laid the foundation for the success of the civil rights movement.

New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading