Edward J. Blum. W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8122-4010-8. Reviewed by Alan Scot Willis, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
For Edward J. Blum, religion is the key to understanding W.E.B. Du Bois. In W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, Blum contends that too many scholars have ignored Du Bois's religious thought, and counters this "error" in the scholarship by arguing that "Du Bois cannot be fully understood without reference to his religious imaginations" (180). Further, Blum contends that this apparent neglect within existing scholarship skews scholars' views of one of the twentieth century's most perceptive, and public, intellectuals. Thus, Blum's goal is two-fold: to illuminate Du Bois's religious message and imagination, and to reclaim the secularized Du Bois as a religious thinker. Blum succeeds admirably in both endeavors.

The scope of W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet is impressive. While a slim volume compared to other works on Du Bois—it is a mere 220 pages of text—Blum explores the breadth of Du Bois's work, including his sometimes overlooked novels and short fiction. By including such a wide range of works, Blum finds multiple religious Du Boises: one is a consummate Harvard- and German-educated New Englander—a religious modernist dedicated to a mechanistic cosmology and the social gospel; another is a deeply spiritual, almost mystical, African American who believes that Africa and Africans hold the key to the world's spiritual redemption. This is Du Bois's religious double consciousness, and squaring these two thinkers with each other is not a particularly easy task. Blum tends to see the modernist Du Bois in Du Bois's academic works and the mystical Du Bois in his works of fiction, but those lines blur, especially in The Souls of Black Folk; Souls encompasses many genres and, therefore, reveals multiple Du Boises. As a result, Blum sees Souls as Du Bois's most important religious text (60). With Souls, Blum argues, Du Bois claimed humanness for Africans that whites denied; he claimed that black folk had souls, despite the racist teachings of a perverted white Christianity which claimed they did not. With Souls, Du Bois countered "more than seventy years of white supremacist theology and culture" (65).


"For Blum, the heart of Du Bois's main religious achievement was countering the perversion of Christianity that allowed whites to believe that God loved whites more than blacks, and possibly did not love blacks at all. "



For Blum, the heart of Du Bois's main religious achievement was countering the perversion of Christianity that allowed whites to believe that God loved whites more than blacks, and possibly did not love blacks at all. Blum thus places Du Bois as the heir to Frederick Douglass in this assault on racist Christianity. Like Douglass, Du Bois believed in a true Christianity that rejected racism. Blum's analysis, however, differs from that of David Howard-Pitney. Howard-Pitney, writing in 1986, saw Du Bois as reviving the black Jeremiad in the wake of Booker T. Washington's more accommodationist stance. Still, Howard-Pitney is concerned more with Du Bois's position in American civil religion, and with his analysis of America's democratic promise and the African American relationship to that promise, than he is with Du Bois's thoughts on blacks' relationship to the divine.(1) Blum, instead, focuses precisely on Du Bois's theology and his understanding of the relationship between black folk, white folk and the Divine. According to Blum, Du Bois reclaimed the African soul for American blacks in Souls, and presented blacks in the image of Christ in his fiction.

For Du Bois, the black experience of oppression tied blacks to the suffering Christ. In both his fiction and non-fiction, Du Bois transformed lynched blacks from the evil demons of white mythology to Christ-like martyrs; equally, he transformed lynch mobs from the armies of salvation to minions of darkness (163). This motif was clearly presaged in "Of the Coming of John" in Souls.  While lynching was not a daily occurrence in every southern community, Du Bois believed that church segregation was the day-to-day reminder that whites believed they were connected to God in a way in which blacks were not. Du Bois assailed the churches for their racial segregation.  He also attacked the deeply revered myth that America was a Christian nation; Du Bois declared that America could not be a Christian nation as long as it practiced racial discrimination and its "Christian" churches endorsed racism (103). Du Bois's assault, like Douglass's before him, was not an attack on Christianity itself, but rather on the churches and practices that, erroneously, were being called Christian. Thus, according to Blum, Du Bois was calling out Christians for their failings and insisting that they become Christian; he was performing the role of a prophet.

If Blum is correct in his assessment of Du Bois, how is it that scholars have labeled Du Bois secular and irreligious, or even anti-religious? Is it that secular historians have recognized the power of Du Bois's intellect and sought to claim him as one of their own? While Blum believes there are "dissenters" who have examined Du Bois's religious thought, including Phil Zuckerman and David Howard-Pitney (224, fn#18), he does argue that, "the irreligious Du Bois presented by so many historians, especially David Lewis, is a mythical construction that serves the purposes of the secularized academy far more than [it] elucidates the ideas and beliefs of Du Bois" (11-12). Like Blum, Zuckerman notes that other scholars have essentially ignored Du Bois's religious scholarship; but Zuckerman, unlike Blum, does not concentrate on Du Bois's own original religious ideas.  Instead, he focuses on establishing Du Bois as a major sociologist of religion, and on demonstrating the sophistication of Du Bois's religious scholarship.(2)

Four other possibilities may explain the omission of Du Bois's religious thought in much of the existing scholarship: Du Bois was hostile to established religion, and this hostility could appear to be anti-religious; Du Bois was complex and evolving, making it difficult to determine what his religious beliefs were; Du Bois had multiple religious "selves," and their manifestations—especially in his academic work—differed from what many scholars expect to find in African American religious experiences; Du Bois became a Communist and defended the Soviet Union.  Blum clearly addresses the first of these issues, noting that "while church orthodoxy enraged him, authentic expressions of faith were entrancing" (21). Throughout W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, Blum distinguishes between Du Bois's views of churches and his views of religion, while noting quite clearly Du Bois's admiration for churches and clergy who challenged racism in America.

The second issue presents greater problems. Blum admits that no one can truly understand another person's relationship with God; indeed, Blum notes, "this book refuses the audacious assertion that anyone can know such information" (19). How then is Du Bois to be admitted to the "Congregation of the Righteous"—if, in fact, there can be a recognized "Congregation of the Righteous" at all—where Blum argues he belongs? (19) First, Blum assumes that Du Bois wrote a fair representation of what he believed.  Yet Du Bois clearly had an active and vivid religious imagination. Second, Blum seems to argue that because people responded to Du Bois in religious ways, and found religious inspiration in Du Bois's message, Du Bois's message must therefore have been religious. It is possible, however, that it was the readers' religiosity, and not Du Bois's, that sparked the religious nature of their responses to Du Bois's work. Blum has no way of disentangling the two strands.

The third possible reason that Du Bois has been read out of the "Congregation of the Rightous" is the existence of his multiple religious personas. Du Bois adhered to liberal and modernist religious beliefs and accepted the major tenets of the social gospel. This belief system put him solidly in the tradition of the educated northern elite and thus distanced him considerably from most African Americans.  While this difference was most starkly apparent when he refused to lead a public prayer at Wilberforce University in the 1890s, it nonetheless followed him much of his life (23). Indeed, as early as 1962, Duane Lockard argued that W.E.B. Du Bois encouraged African Americans to reject the "traditions, religion, and behavior patterns of lower-class blacks," an idea that may have set the pattern of scholars seeing Du Bois as anti-religious.(3) Outside his fiction, Du Bois sounded like Walter Rauschenbush or Jane Addams in his attacks on capitalism and its contagious selfishness and in his insistence that Christianity could be judged only on what it prompted adherents to actually do. While Du Bois's religious persuasions—at least as represented in his non-fiction—differed substantially from those of the majority of African Americans, few scholars would exclude Rauschenbush or Addams from the "Congregation of the Righteous." Blum seems to argue merely that scholars need to look for, and accept as authentic, as wide a variety of religious beliefs for African Americans as they do for whites.

Last, Du Bois's modernist and social gospel leanings ultimately led him to view Communism as the "political and economic manifestations of the teachings of the biblical Jesus" without creating, for him, a theological conflict (193-194). Du Bois had long argued that whites, convinced of their racial supremacy through a perverted view of religion, had used that distortion to mislead millions of people; he was thus comfortable with the idea of religion being the "opiate of the people." Du Bois, then, could reconcile Christianity with Communism in a way that struck most Americans as impossible. The quick association that most Americans made, and make, between Communism and Atheism makes it easy to cast the late-in-life Du Bois as irreligious, possible even anti-religious. Blum recognizes this tendency, noting that "Du Bois's attempt to square the teachings of Christ with those of Communism may sound hollow to historians" (194). This association may have been easier to make had Du Bois merely been a Communist, but his vocal defense of the Soviet Union associated him directly with a government engaged in religious persecution.  

Some of Blum's attempts to qualify Du Bois's views as "religious" may seem stretched to scholars. Du Bois praised the Soviet Union for disassociating religion and public life, declaiming "who believes in miracles?" and thanking the Soviet Union for having the "courage" to stop the teaching of religious "fairy tales and so-called religious truths." He also found in Communist China a people who were ethical despite, not because of, religion (204-205). Such comments could certainly appear anti-religious. Had Du Bois moved to an ethical system that needed no God? And if so, can he still be called religious? Looking across the last decade of his life, it is not entirely clear where Du Bois looked for the ultimate truths he had pledged to pursue. Still, Blum is correct in asserting that Du Bois was not alone in his efforts to square Communism and Christianity; and he does muster evidence showing that Du Bois's discourse, at least, continued to draw upon Christian symbolism. To what extent Du Bois personally continued to believe in Christianity cannot easily be determined. Here lies one of Blum's central problems: Blum claims it is not his intention to try to determine Du Bois's personal religious beliefs, and yet he argues that Du Bois should be admitted to the "Congregation of the Righteous." At some level, Blum is trying to have it both ways.

In the final analysis, Blum is convincing. He has contributed to the scholarly recovery of Du Bois as a religious thinker, and he has outlined the major achievements of Du Bois's religious imagination. While the text should certainly be accessible to advanced undergraduates, it ought to be considered seriously for any graduate student studying the confluence of race and religion. Even the "dissenters" whom Blum recognizes as having studied Du Bois's religious thought—especially Zuckerman and Howard-Pitney—have approached the subject in substantially different ways than Blum has in W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet. If, at times, Blum appears to overstate his case, it is worth noting the degree to which he believes other historians have overstated their cases for a secular, anti-religious Du Bois.  Blum, thus, successfully achieves his goal of providing a clear and persuasive rejoinder against the agnostic Du Bois.   

Alan Scot Willis
Assistant Professor of History
Northern Michigan University

1. David Howard-Pitney, "The Enduring Black Jeremiad: The American Jeremiad and Black Protest Rhetoric, from Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. Du Bois, 1841-1919" American Quarterly 38:3 (1986), 481-492.
2. Phil Zuckerman, "The Sociology of Religion of W. E. B. Du Bois," Sociology of Religion 63:2 (Summer 2002), 239-253.
3. Duane Lockard, "American Subculture: The Negro's Paradox," The Public Opinion Quarterly 26:3 (Autumn 1962), 373.


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