In Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History, readers of scholarly studies on this subject will discover much that is familiar, and anyone with an interest in this topic will gain new insights from this carefully researched and intellectually stimulating volume. As one might expect, there are references to pioneering works by 20th century scholars, including William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Melville Herskovits, Margaret Creel, E. Franklin Frazier, and C. Eric Lincoln. It is also quite refreshing, however, to see how author Julius H. Bailey challenges 21st century readers to move beyond familiar discussions of a monolithic “Black Church” in America to embrace the diversity that has long characterized the cultural and religious experiences of African-descended peoples in slavery and in freedom, and in both African contexts and those in the diaspora.
From the outset, Bailey presents numerous examples to “illustrate that there has never been one ‘authentic’ African American Religion” (xi). Neither, says Bailey, did African American religions develop in a separate and unequal vacuum in the United States. As this study shows, in countless ways, “an African presence influenced the course of American religious history as well” (xiii).
Rather than focusing simply on evidence of “African survivals” or “Africanisms” in American culture, Bailey devotes a great deal of time and attention to the ongoing exchange of ideas associated with West African traditional religions. In his discussion of the contributions of Edward Burnett Tylor and other 19th century “scientists of religion” who wrote about the “primitive” cultures of Africans, Bailey notes, “African Traditional Religions are often portrayed as a static body of tenets and rituals rather than living and growing world religions” (7). The author finds in the example of the twenty-five million adherents of Yoruban-derived traditions in the world abundant evidence for including this West African-born religion within the larger body of great world religions, rather than regarding it as a primitive belief system. In addition to discussing the Yoruba roots of Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou, the author also takes great care to remind readers, “West African religions have continued to transform, adapt, and meld aspects of varied traditions over time as they have for centuries” (22).
Down in the Valley also provides detailed discussions of Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), Islam, and Judaism in African American religious communities. These discussions include, but are not limited to, the history of Gullah Christian and Muslim traditions in the Antebellum South, the influence of revivalism and the Great Awakening, the rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, and “New Religious Movements” of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the Nation of Islam, Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement, the United House of Prayer for All People, and the Church of God and Saints of Christ.
It should also be noted that while the author provides abundant evidence of the role of religious institutions in uplifting and empowering African American people before, during, and after the modern civil rights movement, he does not hesitate to examine intra-racial and intra-organizational strife among those who practice and study African American Religions—including the strife that fueled the creation of Black liberation theology and womanist theology in the second half for the 20th century. As Bailey notes, “Womanist Theology affirms the efforts of male theologians to critique white Christianity and to form a distinctive black theology; however it is also mindful of the sexism that was also a part of the civil rights and Black Power movements and the ways black male hegemony replicates itself in black theology […] Womanist theologians lift up the heroic qualities of black women and take seriously the roles of women in the black church and in black religious life” (190-91).
In addition to focusing on African American-led efforts to create and maintain their own religious institutions—including those that were and are connected to mainstream denominations in the United States, the author also considers the place of African American membership in various other world religions, including Baha’i, Buddhist, and Latter-Day Saint communities, among others.
With the author’s insightful 200+ page analysis and his nearly 20-page bibliography, Down in the Valley will prove to be very useful for those who teach and study African American religious history, and who are in search of a well-written introductory text.
Regennia N. Williams is an independent scholar and the founder and editor of The Journal of Traditions and Beliefs.
Regennia N. Williams
Date Of Review:
October 26, 2017
Julius H. Bailey is professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands in California. He earned a PhD in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the author of Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the A.M.E.Church (2012) and Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1865–1900 (2005).
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