The Motif of Hope in African American Preaching During Slavery and the Post-Civil War Era

There's a Bright Side Somewhere

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Wayne E. Croft Sr.
Rhetoric, Race, and Religion
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     2017.
     158 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498536479.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hope occupies a significant place in the rhetoric of African American culture. Prominent community members in politics, activism, and religion have invoked it at various moments to inspire unity, challenge oppression, and pursue equality. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama linked his candidacy with the concept as volunteers blanketed neighborhoods around the nation with posters featuring his image with the word “hope.” Following the civil rights movement, Jesse Jackson sought to mobilize Black America with the simple challenge, “Keep hope alive.”

Previous scholarship has considered hope’s rhetorical and theological importance during slavery, the civil rights movement, and even the presidency of Barack Obama; yet, few have traced its development in African American rhetoric. In The Motif of Hope in African American Preaching During Slavery and the Post-Civil War Era: There's a Bright Side Somewhere, Wayne E. Croft, Sr. seeks to fill this void. Croft organizes this timely book into four chapters, covering different aspects of African American homiletical uses of “hope.” His opening chapter reviews the motif of hope within Black scholarship. Engaging the work of prominent black homileticians and theologians like James Cone, A. Elaine Brown Crawford, and Gayraud Wilmore, he explains, “Whatever is distinct about black preaching grew out of an expression of hope in God’s liberation of people from slavery” (24).

Entering chapter 2, Croft builds on the idea that slavery informed dominant definitions attached to hope in the Antebellum Era. Hope, he suggests, “encouraged Blacks to not grow weary but continue to fight against social injustice in this world and to look forward to its fulfillment” (41). Situating preaching as the central mode of communicating hope, he also locates the concept in the musical and liturgical practices of Antebellum Christianity. Croft identifies two primary manifestations of “hope” during the Antebellum Era: “other-worldly hope” and “this-worldly hope.” He defines other-worldly hope as “sermons focused on the life in the afterworld” (47). This type of preaching “encouraged [slaves] to endure present problems and pain, not to resist slavery but to look forward to a better life in the afterworld” (47). He spotlights the preaching of the Reverend Jupiter Hammon, the first black writer published in America, as an example of preaching grounding hope in the world to come. The other-worldly focus of Hammon’s preaching surfaces in his call for “slaves to hold onto their eschatological hope” in isolation of any critique of the system of slavery (47).

Croft contrasts the other-worldly focus of preachers like Jupiter Hammon with the this-worldly concerns of ministers like Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, and Nat Turner. These preachers with their contemporary focus pushed “slaves … not to rest until their hope for freedom came to fruition” (55). The motivation for freedom in the present, Croft observes, stemmed from the preachers’ interpretation of key Old Testament passages like the Exodus, which “became a paradigmatic story for the slaves, giving them hope and confidence that God would act to liberate them as God has liberated the Israelites” (53). Slavery, Croft argues, informed a hope “defined as freedom from oppression” whether in the present life or the life to come (64).

Having demonstrated the various uses of the hope motif during the Antebellum Era, he turns to two of the leading voices of the post-Civil War Era to illustrate the motif’s evolution, Daniel Alexander Payne and John Jasper. Specifically, Croft engages in a textual analysis of these two luminaries’ preaching to explore the unique manifestations of the motif of hope in their sermons. 

Beginning with Payne, Croft identifies a persistent this-worldly hope at work in his Antebellum Era sermons; yet, he suggests that Payne’s focus is not exclusively present-minded. With his emphasis on education, equality, and personal piety, he balances this-worldly concerns with other-worldly themes. Croft explains that “hope did not regress but rather evolved during the post-Civil War era from freedom from oppression to racial equality” (91). 

Croft concludes with a brief study of the motif of hope in the sermons of John Jasper, noting an other-worldly emphasis. However, Croft distinguishes between an other-worldly concern that fails to engage suffering with Jasper’s approach. Specifically, he argues that the other-worldly focus in Jasper’s preaching “involves not individuals being delivered to heaven, but redemption of the whole creation” (113). As Croft observes, Jasper “mingles this-worldly and other-worldly hope for creation in a way that they are impossible to separate” (114). Earlier scholars like James Cone have argued that the this-worldly hope emphasis of black preaching diminished in the days following the Civil War. Drawing on Jasper and Payne’s career, Croft provides an alternative perspective of certain preachers.

Several features stand out from Croft’s study. First, Croft draws scholarly attention to an evolving relationship between a group’s social situation and manifestations of dominant motifs like hope. Despite widespread recognition of the motif’s prominence, limited attention has been given to its evolution throughout different historical periods. Second, I found Croft’s observation that other-worldly and this-worldly emphases may work in harmony to be particularly insightful. His analysis of Jasper’s sermons offers fresh tools to consider how the motif surfaces at different moments. 

An obvious limitation in Croft’s study is the limited availability of 19th century African American preachers. This absence limits scholars, like Croft, to provide contrast between the different periods. For instance, he highlights the motif of hope prior to the Civil War in several preachers, but there are no texts for these same speakers, except for Payne, during the period following the war. Additional texts from these individuals would add a layer of richness to this study by exposing the ways in which the motif evolved among individual preachers. Despite these limitations, this study serves as an important contribution in the study of preaching and should be a welcome addition to the libraries of those interested in religion, homiletics, African American history, and activism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Theon Hill is Assistant Professor of Communications at Wheaton College.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wayne E. Croft is The Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr. Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics in African American studies at United Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia and senior pastor for St. Paul's Baptist Church in West Chester, PA.

Keywords: 

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