American Prophets

Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice

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Albert J. Raboteau
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , September
     2016.
     248 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691164304.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Forty years ago, historian Albert J. Raboteau breathed new life into the academic study of religion with his magisterial account of the transformation of African indigenous religions during and after the Middle Passage. With the 1978 publication of Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” In the Antebellum South, seminaries and divinity schools that had long ignored Black religion as a legitimate epistemic resource in American religion were now compelled to rethink their positions. Raboteau’s meticulous account of transatlantic Black religions, the religious history of Africans, and the (often ignored) religious philosophy of African Americans introduced to the academy and lay readers alike the languages, traditions, narratives, practices, and rituals of a despised people many Westerners assumed were ignorant and devoid of reason, history, tradition, and morality. 

Raboteau, along with historians such as Sterling Stuckey and John Blassingame, played a substantial role both in explaining and legitimating the unique ways African slaves and their descendants imagined the sacred, interpreted Christianity, and invented Afro-Christianity within the bloody and brutal context of slavery in the Americas. Exploring a range of religious traditions including Candomblé and Yoruba, Raboteau presented in a clear and concise manner the epistemic resources Blacks retrieved and developed to comprehend and respond to the white supremacist worldview that attempted to destroy their humanity. His historical account was distinguished by the care with which he handled the bones of the living dead. Raboteau seemed as interested in providing the historical “data” and artifacts needed to justify the invisible institution as he was in portraying Africans and their descendants as human, an ordinary people with the misfortune of being Black in an antiblack context.

Raboteau remains haunted by the cry of the ancestors. The call to be human in a world blinded by the myth of white superiority and debilitating definitions of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and religion stand as the towering theme of Raboteau’s most recent book, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton University Press, 2016). In this stunning account of the nation’s leading religious giants—Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer— Raboteau writes a heartfelt spiritual biography of seven religiously diverse individuals and their efforts to engage the overlap between religion and politics in a society divided along thick racial lines. These figures are not unusually “religious” or “spiritual.” However, they are noteworthy for their ability to employ their particular religious tradition as they responded to the universal cry of the least well-off, the persecuted, and in the case of Fannie Lou Hamer, to embrace social activism when the threat of death was a constant factor in her life. This is the definition of what it means to be human in American Prophets: opening oneself to God and to a world in need of feeling God’s presence amidst the brokenhearted, imprisoned, and wounded.

Raboteau describes the seven men and women as “prophets” who embraced the “exemplary figures” that were embedded within their primary religious and philosophical traditions: “the ancient prophets of Israel … the Gospel sayings of Jesus … the American antislavery protest of William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau; and fellow pacifists” (xvi). “Recalling these paradigmatic stories fires their imagination and potentially that of their audiences to envision a god who cares about and intervenes in human history on behalf of the ‘poor, the widow, and the orphans’—the oppressed” (xvi).

Raboteau links together each figure through a series of narratives that expose the political, theological, or social connections among them. He opens with Heschel’s intriguing account of humankind’s relation to God as it relates to divine pathos. According to Raboteau’s reading of Heschel’s theology, “the idea of pathos adds a new dimension to human existence. Whatever man does affects not only his own life, but also the life of God insofar as it is directed to man” (10). In chapter 2, Raboteau examines the philosophy of A. J. Muste, the renowned pacifist who explored at length in his work the redemptive power of nonviolent suffering. “For Muste, then, at the center of pacifism lies the iconic symbol of the cross of Christ, whereas the iconic symbol of the violence is the atomic bomb” (48). Though Muste was not visible in many social movements, he played an important role in advising a number of political groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Catholic Worker. 

In the following chapter on Dorothy Day, Raboteau examines the role of “personalism” within her religious biography and social activism. Personalism for Day focused “not only on the value of each and every individual but also the responsibility of each person to do the works of mercy in a ‘hands-on way’—that is, to appreciate the needs of the poor through face-to-face contact instead of the institutionalized and depersonalized structures of charitable giving” (80). 

Raboteau then investigates the link between the inner life and social activism in the writings of Howard Thurman and Thomas Merton. For Thurman, social change “needed to be grounded in spiritual experience, which Thurman described as ‘the conscious and direct exposure of the individual to God’” (110). According to Merton, social action depended on “kenosis, [the] self-emptying” that could take on “silence, solitude” and social action (138). Contemplation deepened one’s sense of “compassion,” which fueled a sense of duty to “speak out” on behalf of the voiceless. 

Raboteau concludes the book with a chapter on King and Hamer respectively. Both of them believe engaged social activism is required of all Christians. King turned to the philosophy of nonviolence to inform his understanding of Christianity. According to him, “nonviolence required active resistance to evil instead of passivity; it sought to convert, not to defeat, the opponent; it was directed against evil, not against persons; and it avoided internal violence, such as hatred or bitterness, as much as external violence, because hatred depersonalized the individual” (146). Hamer turned to Scripture to justify her position: “And if you plan to walk in Christ’s footstep and keep his commandments, you are willing to launch out unto the deep and go to the courthouse, not come here tonight to see what I look like, but to do something about the system here” (178). In this insightful and beautifully written book, Raboteau is beckoning us all to action—to heed the cries of the buried voices within our religious traditions as we attempt to heal a racially wounded society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terrence L. Johnson is Associate Professor of Religion and Government at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Albert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum SouthA Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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