I think that a lot of generalizations are made about African-American religions, and I will admit that I fell into such a category before taking this class. African-American religion is not just Christianity, and it’s not just Protestant denominations like the Baptists or Methodists. As we’ve studied and will continue to discover, African-American religious thought is so much more than that — it’s Catholicism, indigenous African traditions, Christian denominations like COGIC, it’s Islam, Nation of Islam, and Santeria and Vodun; it’s rural, it’s urban, and it can’t clearly fit into societal lines.
In Weisenfeld’s two chapters, she had two related, but separate theses. In the first she discussed Arnold Ford and the Ethiopian Hebrews, Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple, and Arthur Matthew and the Commandment Keepers. In the second, she explained the origins and evolution of the Nation of Islam under WD Fard and Elijah Muhammad, as well as Father Divine and the Peace Mission.
Her thesis for the first chapter was that regardless of how far from the “norm” these religious traditions were, like many African-American Christians of the time, they connected their religious heritage to Africa. The two groups even were in dialogue together — they “participated in a shared discourse with many black Christians that linked racial identity and spiritual destiny to their homeland [Africa].” The roots of Africa grounded believers with a deep significance put place especially, a sacred geography. This connection to Africa served as a foundation for the identity they formed for themselves as believers and as black people in the United States.
While the second chapter also emphasized connections to Africa, WD Fard and Elijah Muhammad did not create such relationships with the Christians around them. They went so far as to say the Bible was a “poisoned book.” However, they still used the ideas of Africa and heritage to forge identities for their followers. They did reject ideas of “American,” in favor of “Asiatic.” Their emphasis was on black people’s being a nation, “which has no beginning or end.” Father Divine also had ideas that would have not agreed with mainstream Christian thought, since he saw himself as the embodied manifestation of God. The traditions in this chapter seemed to go beyond just America, and even beyond Africa, and had believers see themselves in a different time and place, and the place of the divine and the individual within human history.
The second chapter closed with the idea that “the power of the narratives to draw blacks in the urban north into new identities that did not rely on slavery as the experience that created black peoplehood.” Blacks became the “religious agents,” rather than the “objects of missions.” I think that sentiment is powerful, in that we’re beginning to see the development of religious thought and identity on a group’s own terms, rather than them trying to fit within an already pre-determined mold.