The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality
- ISBN: 9781478011781
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: April 2021
Penny Edgell and Grace Yukich note in Religion is Raced (NYU Press, 2020) that the study of American religion is far too often relegated to the study of White, Christian Protestantism. The limitations of such an approach are apparent in perceptions of American evangelicalism, which is seen unidimensionally along racial and cultural lines. Todne Thomas’ Kincraft, an ethnographic study of Afro-Caribbean and African American evangelicals, offers a corrective in this light, not only for its distillation of the nuances of Black evangelical religiosity, but also for its troubling of Whiteness as endemic to popular conceptualizations of American evangelicalism.
Black evangelical communitas, or “kincraft,” is marked by a “relational ethos” and “community fashioning” that draws upon the “mobilities, intersubjectivities, and sacred imaginaries” (5) of the African diaspora to shape Black Christian social life, and extend common conceptions of evangelical familial culture. Kincraft, as an interpretive model of relational identity formation and praxis within Black evangelical culture, locates and renders legible the social worlds of African and African American evangelicals, and illustrates how their collectives trouble Anglo-oriented approaches to the study of American evangelicalism.
Centering her study on two metro Atlanta churches, Dixon Bible Chapel (DBC) and Corinthian Bible Chapel (CBC), Thomas documents the spiritual kinship practices of each, while noting the convergences and divergences that comprise a complex Black evangelical religious identity. Thomas divides the book into two parts, with the first contextualizing distinctive familial and kinship models iterated within the evangelical religious movement, and as practiced by Black evangelical communities.
The first three chapters provide historical, sociological, and theological appraisals of the ethno-racial roots of family and kinship within Black evangelicalism. Kinship worlds and Black evangelical spaces, Thomas notes, are borne of out of the influences of the Plymouth Brethren religious movement and U.S. neo-evangelicalism (32). Brethren-based theology supplants corporeality and biogenetic notions of family with a metaphysical genealogy in which the spiritual union of all born-again Christians across generation, age, race and class, becomes the basis for family and kinship. Owing to this theology, the DBC and CBC congregations “uphold this broad understanding of themselves as members of the universal body of Christ” (38).
Black evangelical and diasporic conceptualizations of family and kinship are distinctive from those proffered in mainstream (White) evangelicalism, which typically embraces a rigid and heteropatriarchal modality that alienates Black evangelicals as racial and religious others. The distance between the universalized “godly family” of mainstream evangelicalism and the “roots-based family” in Black evangelicalism, opens space for an Africana religious sociality, which Thomas coins kincraft. For evangelicals in the DBC and CBC congregations, kincraft is grounded in an active recovery of diasporic kinship and ancestral ties, while safeguarding their identities as spiritual sisters and brothers in Christ.
Thomas addresses the historical background of the DBC and CBC with an overview of the influential Afro-Caribbean ministry of T. Michael Flowers, who planted Brethren churches throughout the south. Flowers held that “Biblical Christianity has no perimeters, just folks . . . Never mind the badges. You’re in Christ” (61). While Flowers’ mission was driven by a reformist (and colonialist) bent that sought to realign southern Black Christianity away from its perceived high emotionalism and the singular authority of charismatic preachers, Thomas illustrates that Flowers’ ministry held particular appeal to southern Black Christians due to his troubling of White evangelical maintenance of the color line by promoting universal spiritual kinship which transformed the “ethnic, racial, religious, and class hierarchies into universalistic tropic representations of the human” (73).
Thomas ends the first part of the book with an examination of the interracial and intra-ethnic identity conflicts among African American and Afro-Caribbean CBC and DBC members. Arising from the context of diasporic migratory patterns and efforts at community building, Black evangelicals often articulate kinship norms against the backdrop of an outlier status in terms of their race and in terms of their illegibility as religious participants in “acceptable” Black and White Christian spaces. On this register, Thomas notes, Black evangelical congregations must navigate the grammars of Blackness, which are resolved through the silencing of ethnic difference and the foregrounding of familial religious identity (92) through spiritual kinship. In response to the quest for belonging in the larger evangelical landscape marked by racial ambivalence, CBC and DBC congregations embrace alterities of otherness and diasporic identity as a corrective bridge to racial and social divides.
The second half of the book provides portraitures of DBC members’ use of spiritual kinship in the quotidian—shedding light on biblical instruction, the gendered habitus, and the moral scope of the evangelical Black family.
Spiritual kinship is iterated in Bible study settings because these spaces establish a communal orientation that coalesces around conceptions of brotherhood, biblicism, and institutional authority. Within the context of Bible study, there is a participatory focus that enables spiritual relatedness. The teaching and learning endemic to Bible study “serve as central processes of community reciprocity and accountability” (111). DBC Bible study is also distinguished by a fraternal orientation in which the titles “brother” and “sister” highlight the supremacy of spiritual connection and identity over against social distinctions. While the fusing of biblical instruction and brotherhood among DBC congregants illustrates their broader understandings of relatedness, Thomas goes on to note that these practices also serve the purposes of a “gendered spiritual kinship” (134).
Though constructions of gender in church life reify patriarchy through male elder’s authority over the teaching and general trajectory of DBC life and relegate churchwomen to subordinate statuses, the women of the church find alternative routes of kinship through the crafting of “spiritual relationships in and across households.” Thomas illustrates how “DBC women reproduce and tighten the pre-existing bonds of the broader church community through quotidian domestic practices” (135). Thomas deems these women’s religious participation “sacramentalized sisterhood.” DBC sisterhood is driven by a relationality that is anchored in “rituals of nourishment and experience that foster a sense of camaraderie among churchwomen” (141). Here, the gatherings of churchwomen to worship, break bread, pray, and offer personal testimonies, allow for a religious agency otherwise muted or dismissed within the institutional church structure and gender hierarchy, and troubles assumptions about church authority as tied to singular, localized physical structures.
Thomas’ final chapter comments upon the “dense and thick sociality” (167) manifest through the mobilization of spiritual kinship practices, which “allows black evangelicals to meet the demands of Christian living and to interject their critical moral visions on family, community, and Christianity into the US racio-religious landscape” (171). The familial and kinship communities in both the CBC and DBC congregations create support systems that bolster solidarity. Though these frameworks offer a buffer against the racist pathologization of the Black family, Thomas also notes that the congregations still participate in neo-evangelical heteropatriarchy, even as they raise critiques about the various scripts that inform the intersections of faith, family, and the scope of U.S. evangelicalism.
Thomas powerfully renders how Black evangelicals have complicated and troubled the narratives surrounding religion, race, and family. In the conclusion, Thomas observes: “the evangelicalism that many of us have come to know in the US” is one that “defines and embraces true believers as those who belong” (201). The racial and political conservatism and rigid hierarchy of broader American evangelicalism, however, does not allow for full belonging without condition. Kincraft illustrates how Black evangelicals in the United States, drawing on their own Afro-diasporic orientations and sacred imaginaries, have worked to create their own mechanisms of spiritual and relational belonging against the fixed racial and social positionalities reinscribed by White evangelical culture. Moreover, Thomas’ exploration of the spiritual and racial kinship endemic to kincraft can and should be read furthermore as an example of Africana religious agency—an agency that not only critiques the social and interpersonal milieu of mainstream evangelicalism, but that unearths new conceptual ground by embodying a creative spirituality and world-building that has enabled Black evangelicals to establish their own standards for religious community.
Darrius D. Hills is an associate professor of religious studies at Morgan State University.Darrius D. Hills
Date Of Review:October 20, 2021