Black Christianity has always had an ambiguous relationship to American culture. If African slaves grew to embrace Christianity, they did so in their own way: hallowing Exodus and wondering, “If God delivered Daniel, why not every man?” Thus was born the amalgam “Afro-Christianity”—a universalistic faith drenched in particularity. The “Africanness” was a matter of style, too, given in moan and shout, which often led whites to view black religion as exotically emotional. Even Martin Luther King Jr. was known to recoil at the sight of a preacher “jumping out” and “screaming with his tune.”
Not the least of the virtues of Preaching With Sacred Fire, a smorgasbord of an anthology, is to remind the reader of the dazzling array of black preaching. There’s plenty of the fire that readers might expect. Toward the end of “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” delivered around 1941, the legendary C. L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin and King’s favorite preacher, breaks into fervent chanting. But that wasn't fireworks for its own sake; Franklin had already well explored his main theme, God’s love and mercy. In his 1987 sermon “Chaos or Creation,” Charles G. Adams, known as “the Harvard Whooper,” launches his signature crescendo only after parsing the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.
Style, then, can be the vehicle of substance and not its enemy, and in Preaching With Sacred Fire, all manner of stylists abound: cerebral, mystical, whimsical, tender, contemplative, offbeat, angry, sublime. Some of the most beautiful moments are gently lyrical. Gardner Taylor, now retired as pastor of Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church of Christ, asks in a 1982 sermon, “Do you sometimes in the solitude of your own reflection weep a silent tear as the words of that hymn come to you, ‘Was it for crimes that I have done, / he groaned upon the tree?’”
For all the concern with the redemption of “all God’s children,” black preaching has never lost its this-worldly concern for black people: from Frederick Douglass’s lamentation (“This Fourth of July is yours. . . . I must mourn”) to King’s reassurance (“We as a people will get there”), from Henry McNeal Turner’s 1898 sermon “God Is a Negro” to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s warning about Judgment Day (“Our oppressors . . . are of the devil!”).
This tradition of jeremiad puts in context the heated sermons of Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama’s former minister, who was attacked during the 2008 campaign as a race baiter, among other things. Read in its entirety, Wright’s controversial post-9/11 sermon “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall” is less an expression of Afrocentric rage than a prophetic chastisement with a pacifist twist. “They moved from the hatred for armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocence,” he intoned, equating vengeful Americans with the ancient Israelites when they strayed from faith into retribution. “The babies. The babies. ‘Blessed are they who dash your babies’ brains against a rock.’”
The black pulpit has been a mainly male preserve, but editors Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas, both preachers in their own right and publishers of the journal The African American Pulpit, restore pride of place to women of God and their precocious feminism. As early as 1833, Jarena Lee, a born-again exhorter, asked, “And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach, seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as the man?”
Ultimately, Preaching With Sacred Fire is an invitation: Come savor this feast of history. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the “Afro” in Afro-Christian can endure. King envisioned the withering away of the “so-called Negro Church” once racism diminished. Just as entertainment, therapy, and marketing now inform white evangelical worship, black empowerment preachers such as T. D. Jakes today give a new twist to the American obsession with emotional recovery and self-improvement. An expanded black middle class resonates to the message of a spate of prosperity preachers.
Yet it’s worth remembering that not so long ago, as a new Great Awakening was unleashing evangelical zeal, theorists of modernity were predicting the triumph of secularism. The “so-called Negro church” is still the place where most black Christians worship. And when hasn't it had to rebalance its portfolio of race, faith, and citizenship? What’s different in today’s post–civil rights, post–identity politics world is that the meaning of blackness, like Jewishness or gayness, is no longer obvious or ordained: It must be fashioned before it can be chosen. The constancy here is change, the ceaseless need for self and communal reinvention. And what’s more American than that?
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Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr. (2008).
Reviewed: "Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present" edited by Martha Simmons and Frank Thomas, W.W. Norton, 2010.
Cover photo courtesy of Martha Simmons