Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches

More than Conjurers

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Margarita Simon Guillory
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     182 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A survey of Black religious thought reveals that many scholars see political consciousness and spiritual restoration as separable experiences. This historiography suggests that some religious spaces focus on activism, social justice, political movements, and civil rights, whereas others focus on the afterlife, the spiritual realm, self-actualization, and holy ascension. And never the two shall meet. With Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers, Margarita Simon Guillory seeks to trouble this long-held distinction. In order to argue for a new politico-spiritual paradigm, Guillory looks at the historical trajectory of African American Spiritual Churches and the conditions that make necessary the work of healing and restoration in those spaces. Utilizing both archival and ethnographic material, Guillory reveals a “symbiotic relationship between political activism and spiritual transformation” often obscured by current modes of thought (2). 

A multi-faceted piece of scholarship, the power of Guillory’s book lies in its ability to bridge the fields of Black women’s labor history and American religious history while fusing previously dueling ideologies surrounding political and spiritual orientations in African American churches. Incorporating mixed methodological approaches, she utilizes a bevy of archival sources from Chicago Defender and Louisiana Weekly articles to interviews from the Federal Writer Projects Collection and ethnographic fieldwork in New Orleans Spiritual churches, painting a dynamic picture of a tradition too often relegated to the periphery of Black religious life. 

Through Guillory’s profile of influential Spiritual practitioners and progenitors like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seal, and Archbishop Lydia Guilford, she shows the significance of a matriarchal tradition which both opens the doors for poor Black women to become entrepreneurs and leaders in New Orleans and resists the intrusion of patriarchal administrative structures which seek to disrupt these objectives. In a time period where most employed Black women worked in low-wage, service industry jobs which placed both body and spirit at risk, Guillory shows how the spiritual and social work of women practitioners in the Spiritualist tradition not only provided the opportunity for Black women to run their own churches, but also gave free spiritual guidance and healing to marginalized people in need, charging wealthier patrons in such a way as to cover the costs of those who could not afford counsel. 

Guillory’s work illustrates the progressive practices of New Orleans Spiritual churches through the 20th and early 21st centuries. It is a remarkable achievement. Highlighting the leadership of Black women, this work displays the different ways that those leaders cared and provided for the needs of marginalized New Orleans residents. With the assistance of biblical and ancestral Spirit Guides who lead, guide, and direct the paths of these women, the spiritual and social are always intertwined in the churches and in Guillory’s account. However, I wonder if there isn’t room to trouble the relationship between the social leadership of Black women in this tradition and the spiritual leadership they receive from Spirit Guides, the most popular and oft-mentioned of whom are men. Guillory spends considerable time unpacking the role of Spirit Guides in the work of Spiritualists, particularly the figures of “Black Hawk” and “Father Jones.” These “divinely authorized spirit mediators” (26) play an important part in the work of the tradition’s female progenitors. In nuancing the significance of male mediation, whether spiritually or physically, to establish female authority, we move one step closer to dismantling patriarchal norms in religious scholarship. 

Stretching in its historical narrative from Jim Crow to Hurricane Katrina, this book displays the resilience of southern Africana religious traditions while addressing both inter and intra-communal struggles with racism, sexism, classicism, and ageism. Guillory is gifted in her ability to home in on the contemporary implications which lie behind work so rigorously researched and carefully constructed. Guillory refuses the paradigm that separates political approaches from spiritual ones in Africana religious traditions. She shows that there is much to be learned from mining the traditions of Afro-religions which lie at the margins of dominant narratives. This work displays what is revealed when we pivot the center.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ambre Dromgoole is a doctoral student in African American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margarita Simon Guillory is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester. She is the co-editor of the volume entitled Esotericism in African American Religious Experience and the co-author of Breaking Bread, Breaking Beats: Churches and Hip Hop—A Basic Guide to Key Issues. In addition to these works, she has published articles in the Journal of Gnostic Studies, Culture and Religion, and Pastoral Psychology.


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