Tag Archives: African-American Christianity

Is the black church dead?

A New York Times article follows up on the recent provocative article by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a religion professor at Princeton, called “The black church is dead.”

I’d be interested to hear especially from African-American readers of this blog whether there is truth in Glaude’s charges. Certainly I’ve heard for some time that this community is struggling with the pernicious health-and-wealth doctrine. But has all social action gone by the boards in black churches? Is the church really no longer a cohesive institution among African-Americans?

A history-maker passes at 106: Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson

Sometimes we need to step back from ponderous tomes full of sweeping narratives and grand historiographical theories and look at the people around us who carry history with them. My wife Sharon works in hospice care and meets history-makers all the time. Her own grandmother, Jessie Creelman, was a nurse in Nova Scotia who lived to 103. She lived from the horse-and-buggy age to the internet age. (We have a photo from Jessie’s 100th birthday party, when our oldest daughter, Kate, was just 11 days old. There’s Jessie, and Sharon, and Kate: women whose lives stretch across four generations!)

In her work, traveling from house to house, giving care to people in the twilight of their lives, Sharon meets more history-makers in a week than I’ve ever met.

Here’s a brief NPR piece about one such person: Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson, an African American woman who just passed away at the age of 106. Ella Mae was the first black student at her college in 1926. She wasn’t allowed to live on campus. She was a professional woman in an era of “extreme prejudice.” And she suffered, but she held her head up and she made history.

When Ella Mae made her trip last year from her Cleveland assisted-living facility to Barack Obama’s inauguration, it wasn’t easy. She was very uncomfortable. She sat out in the crowd in her wheelchair, covered from head to toe in a sleeping bag, with only her glasses peeking out. But she just had to be there, to witness one more piece of history being made.

Now the story of Ella Mae’s own history-making life is being published by Penguin. It’s already near the very top of the Amazon.com sales list, and it hasn’t even been released yet. It’s called It Is Well with My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-Old Woman. I really want to read it. I think Sharon and I will probably read it together.

Take some time this month to get together with a history-maker and hear their story. What a great way that is to absorb and be inspired by our history.

The black church and other American churches: “We’re not dead yet!”

Christian Century Jason Byassee’s got a good answer to Hauerwas and other doomsayers. See his blog entry about the continued viability of the black church, here. It explains why he thinks that “the church – mainline, black, and much farther afield still than either – probably has a bit more left in the tank than headline grabbers like to let on.” It also contains links to interesting reflections on the current state of the black church in America.

Low social status = high spiritual power: the power of the poor, black, female holiness evangelist among white holiness folk

You can see other posts on this blog for biographical information about Amanda Berry Smith, the well-known post-Civil War holiness evangelist. At noon today I’ll be down at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis to talk to the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort about Smith and the holiness movement’s treatment of racism and other social ills. During my graduate years at Duke University, I took a course with scholar of African-American history Laurie Maffly-Kipp and wrote a paper that asked why Smith was so successful in white campmeeting holiness circles.

The paper is much too long to post here, but here is a section that gets to the heart of some interesting gender and race attitudes that shaped the largely middle-class white devotees of the late 19th-century holiness movement (which started and retained its greatest strength within white Methodist churches, but spread well beyond this, to Christians of many denominations, black as well as white). I think an understanding of these attitudes as they impacted Smith’s life is important for evangelicals–especially but not exclusively those in the holiness and Pentecostal movements. The “gender essentialism” and “romantic racialism” examined here are still very much in play.


How did [Amanda Berry] Smith operate in white circles?

Victorian gender essentialism

Smoothing [Amanda Berry] Smith’s integration and eventual success in white holiness circles were a pair of intrinsic advantages she possessed by virtue of her status as a black woman. The first of these had to do with the essentialist views of womanhood prominent in the white America of her time. “The dominant thought of the age embraced an essentialist understanding of gender; it ascribed to womanhood a feminine essence that was virtuous, patient, gentle, and compassionate, while it described manhood as rational, aggressive, forceful, and just. Unlike man, woman was considered naturally religious, bound by greater emotionalism, and with a greater capacity to sympathize and forgive.”[i]

Victorian gender-essentialism made women peculiarly able to represent certain aspects of “holiness” religion: its commitment to relationality, affectivity, subordinate union with Christ, absolute dependence on God for everyday matters, and so forth. As Higginbotham notes, this essential feminine spirituality was most closely associated with the maternal role. Not surprisingly, then, a number of key nineteenth-century female holiness leaders were mothers manqué, whose children had died young, freeing them to “expand the circle” of their maternal attentions to the church at large. Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Berry Smith, Maria Woodworth-Etter…all lost most or all of their children before entering upon their public ministries. And all played expertly upon the notions of feminine essence current at the time, presenting to their audiences a curious but compelling combination of maternal authority and feminine susceptibility to the influence of the Spirit. The feminine hand that rocked the cradle of evangelicalism—went the argument—was in turn nurtured by the Spirit, in intimate and emotional ways not usually avowed (if experienced) by men of the time. This appears to be true for Smith and Truth[ii] no less than for the whites Phoebe Palmer and Maria Woodworth-Etter. Continue reading