Voices in the Wilderness

Why Black Preaching Still Matters

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John L. Thomas, Jr.
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , January
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this homiletic text, Voices in the Wilderness: Why Black Preaching Still Matters, John L. Thomas, Jr. situates the work by exploring the historical and important role of the black preacher in the African American community building toward the current mounting racial tensions in the United States, including police brutality against African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. He argues that black preaching has been and is most necessary for the social, spiritual, and theological liberation of African Americans. Using three important black male figures—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson, whom Thomas argues serves as the model for “the development of the conventional black preacher” (17)—he posits there is a dialectical method particular to black preaching. This method relies upon theological content. He maintains that “the theology in black pulpits comes directly from its dialectical engagement with public life. Its practical, empowering, and inspiring messages move people to take action against forces that are destructive to the community. The unique content in black sermons made preachers the public theologians of our times” (4). 

Thomas seeks to expound upon what is unique to black preaching, these voices in the wilderness, using what he terms “theological streams.” These four streams consist of the traditionalist, spiritualist, the here-and-now, and the radical prophetic. According to Thomas the traditionalist calls for “an adherence to the past. The theology in this preaching genre equates faithfulness to previous generations to be a sign of respect and allegiance to God” (105). This requires preachers to incline on God’s promise to the faithful, those who adhere to the faithfulness of the traditions of the past. He continues that the spiritualist “understands liberation exclusively as a divine activity, often taking place in a spiritual realm outside the concrete existence” (107). This requires reliance on the divine to intercede on behalf of the faithful, understanding that total reliance is on the power of God. One is steered away from worldliness in order for the divine to intercede from the spiritual realm. For the here-and-now, Thomas posits it is for “those who seek immediate gratification, individual responsibility, and an affinity toward rational thinking. Their sentiments are focused on the present situation in which God empowers human beings to take responsible action” (115-16). In this realm, congregants work in collaboration with God’s actions on behalf of African Americans. Black people use their God-given resources toward the liberation of African American people. And, finally, the radical prophetic “demands specific action to dismantle oppressed systems of injustice and the removal of those who subjugate the innocent” (121).

This is where the crux of Thomas’s work falls, in chapter 6, “Jordan River: Four Theological Streams.” It is here he introduces his four theological streams, which appears to be the critical and essential work that he wants to build for the reader. The preceding chapters rely heavily on historical and definitional works of black preaching, which serve as a great primer, although this work has been previously grounded by other scholars in the field. To understand what Thomas means by “voices in the wilderness,” in chapter 4, “The Wilderness: A Historical Perspective,” he essentially answers this question: “Faced with evil forces and impending death and destruction, they [African Americans] sought hope in hopeless situations” (13). The voices in the wilderness are the black preachers who helped African Americans through and out of white patriarchal oppression, marginalization, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Unfortunately, Thomas draws upon Martin, Malcolm, and Jackson, three important black male preachers, as his reference point for study. Thus, the voices in the wilderness only seem to be predicated on black male voices, a focus which continues to situate black male preachers as the only voices who are able to speak to and for the black experience. One wonders if possibly Thomas should have considered the ongoing nuances which impact the lives of African Americans in the 21st century, particularly addressing black women’s role in the Black church, as well as black queer lives, and the role of black male patriarchy which has continued to marginalize and oppress these same groups. Thomas does address, minimally, black women in the pulpit in chapter 8, “Women Preaching in the Wilderness,” where he draws upon Sojourner Truth, Reverend Prathia Hall, and Evangelist Shirley Caesar. Perhaps, if Thomas had shown more commitment to diversity by including modern 21st century black women preachers such as Teresa Fry Brown, Valerie Bridgeman, Teresa Smallwood, Kelly Brown Douglas, Yvette Flunder, and Emilie Townes, this would have provided additional wilderness voices who have been and are equally committed to the African American community in relation to their social and political liberation. 

A further consideration would have been to reflect on how black queer preachers, and/or black preachers who are allies, are committed to the inclusion of black queer persons as essential and beneficial to the voices in the wilderness. The omission of black queer voices continues the erasure of their contributions to the Black church, as well as those black queer preachers who remain in the wilderness. 

Thomas’s work is essentially important to the field of homiletics as he pushes to expand on why black preaching still matters in this current moment of police brutality, black protests, and the racial divide. As many look to the Black church for answers, Thomas addresses what many have considered a dying artform in the African American tradition of Black preaching. Thomas seeks to resuscitate these critical voices for the livelihood of the African American community, and he raises some critical offerings. Hopefully, as black preachers work together, black women and black queer preachers will be included as they are equally committed to the continued liberation and freedom of African American people.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terrance Dean is a doctoral candidate in the Vanderbilt University Graduate Department of Religion, Homiletics & Liturgics.

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

John L. Thomas Jr. is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Phillips Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


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