Wallace D. Best. Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. xxi + 250 pp. ISBN 0-691-11578-8. Reviewed by Adam Stewart for the Journal of Southern Religion.

The early historiography of African American religion emphasized structure over that of human agency. Indeed, until recent decades it has been the assumption of many scholars that black religion was primarily the result of African Americans' material conditions.(1) Wallace Best's, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952, serves as an important corrective to these ahistorical accounts, which ignore the important role that practitioners themselves have played in the construction of their own religious and cultural practices and identities. 

"Best explains that the purpose of his book is to explicate the relationship between the migration of southern blacks, Chicago's rapid urbanization, and the transformation of the city's black Protestant churches."  


Best divides his text into six main chapters with a short introduction, conclusion, and a poignant epilogue reflecting on the more recent history of the migration-era black Chicago churches. Best explains that the purpose of his book is to explicate the relationship between the migration of southern blacks, Chicago's rapid urbanization, and the transformation of the city's black Protestant churches. He argues that, "the Great Migration stimulated new urban religious practices and traditions among the black Protestant churches of Chicago that reflected aspects of both black southern religion and the exigencies of city life" (2). Best asserts that the confluence of rural, southern folk religion and the social conditions of the urban North resulted in the creation of a new sacred order through Chicago's African American churches.

In chapter one Best provides the historical context that caused Chicago to become the most important destination for southern blacks during the Great Migration. This chapter also includes an important critique of the overly deterministic sociological literature that came out of the Chicago school of sociology, which often purported a causal link between class and religious denomination among African American Protestants. Best explains that the reasons for religious affiliation among black Protestants were often more complicated than simple class determinism, arguing that, "Class was perhaps the least among a variety of factors that influenced church affiliation and ritual practice during the Great Migration" (33).

In the next chapter Best demonstrates the ways in which southern black migrants influenced the institutional structure and worship practices of the already established mainline African American Protestant churches. He explains that, "Although black southerners migrated for different reasons, the Great Migration was the central event in their lives and the South, not the urban North, was the focal point of their identity" (69). Best argues that the diffusion of rural, southern religiosity and ethos within the established black churches served as a way for southern black migrants to assert their common identities and to differentiate themselves from urban northerners.

Chapter three describes how black Protestant religiosity in Chicago was not simply other-worldly or compensatory as many scholars have suggested. Rather, the black Protestant churches also demonstrated an enormous emphasis on pragmatic social engagement, particularly among new southern black migrants, similar to what was happening in many white mainline Protestant churches influenced by the Social Gospel. Best shows how many black churches in Chicago developed close ties with black businesses and also instituted their own social service programs in order to both meet the growing needs of southern migrants and also to increase the membership and finances of their churches.

In the fourth chapter, Best reveals how the sheer number of southern black migrants forced nearly all African American Protestant churches in Chicago to make significant changes to their worship, preaching, and music. These changes were made not only to accommodate the preferences of the swelling ranks of southern black migrants, but also to cater to the increasing predilection shown towards southern forms of worship, preaching, and music, among a wide variety of black Chicagoans. Best illustrates how churches that made these adjustments were often rewarded with new members and increased finances, while those that did not, often fell into decline and financial ruin.

Chapter five focuses on the history of one such African American denomination that did not respond positively to the influx of southern black migrants, and as a result, suffered quite substantially. Best chronicles the plight of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, which failed (with some notable exceptions) to realize the potential of the Great Migration for its congregations in Chicago. This failure was due to both institutional obstacles and a desire to maintain a certain semblance of respectability, which some perceived southern black migrants and their styles of worship would compromise. The final chapter contains a comparative analysis of the highly successful ministries of two of Chicago's most important African American women pastors, Elder Lucy Smith and Reverend Mary G. Evans. Best argues that the unique circumstances of urban society provided new opportunities for African American women to exercise their agency in ways that would not be possible in other social contexts (148-149).

Despite what might be surmised from the book's title, Best's investigation into the influence of the Great Migration on black Protestantism in Chicago, is as much about the religion of the South as it is about the religion of the North. Best's argument that the dialectical relationship between the southern religious ethos and the northern urban context culminated in the development of a new sacred order provides an important corrective to previous scholarship in the area. Best's work opens the way for further research into the complexities of, not only African American religion, but also other religious traditions that have likewise suffered from historically inaccurate and ideologically suspect scholarly analyses. Scholars interested in urban and African American religion will find this text immensely rewarding. And to those interested in the effect that the southern religious ethos has had on the broader spectrum of American religion, this text is essential reading.

Adam Stewart, University of Waterloo

1. See for instance, Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, reprint (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); Samuel M. Strong, "Social Types in a Minority Group: Formulation of a Method," American Journal of Sociology 48 (March 1943): 563-573.
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