Barbara Dianne Savage. Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. 359 pages. ISBN 978-0674-03177-7. Reviewed by Jacob S. Dorman. For the Journal of Southern Religion.

Professor Barbara Diane Savage’s book is an elegantly written, highly accessible overview of the historiography of African American religion as well as a brief introduction to some of the central figures in twentieth century African American public life. In the first half of the book, the author argues that early scholars of African American religion often viewed black churches as obstacles to the progress of the race. In Savage’s account, scholars such as W.E.B. Bu Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and E. Franklin Frazier all too often erased women from their discussions of black churches or implicitly viewed the predominance of women in church pews as part of the so-called “problem” of black religion. The author also takes pains to debunk the idea of a unitary “black church,” arguing that black religious institutions were “idiosyncratic, complex, contingent, and already highly politicized, including along gender lines,” (p. 50). The second part of the text looks at the lives of Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Benjamin Mays, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokely Carmichael, ending with an obligatory synopsis of the controversy over President Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Here the author’s message is that black religion and black political activity are not “innately compatible and mutually reinforcing” but rather the product of “intraracial conflicts” and tensions that we may gainfully study and historicize (p. 270).

Dr. Savage’s book is a notable achievement, useful for training graduate students and written in a style accessible to a general audience. The title of both the book and its chapters, however, would have benefited from greater precision: ultimately the book is not about black religion as much as it is about the debates that have animated its scholarship. The second half of the book takes the reader closer to the religious beliefs of a handful of prominent individuals, but there is almost no investigation of theology, ritual practices, organizational evolution, performance, the body, or other markers of religious life. We are left with finely written portraits of religious people, but not of black religion or its politics. The chapter headings are almost cryptic. For example, “In Pursuit of Pentecost” is not about the Holiness or Pentecostal movements, but is instead a consideration of the life of Mary McLeod Bethune, a devotee of the Moral Re-Armament movement. In the chapter, Bethune only mentioned Pentecost metaphorically to describe the simultaneous translation technology at the United Nations founding convention in 1945— not as “a religious paradigm that she and some other African Americans turned to in this period,” as Savage claims (p. 145). Surely the Pentecostal movement deserves treatment in its own right in a book about “the politics of black religion.”

"In terms of historiography, the author's insights into the gendered nature of the (mostly male) scholars who studied (mostly female) church members are important."  


In terms of historiography, the author’s insights into the gendered nature of the (mostly male) scholars who studied (mostly female) church members are important. Most of her chapters boast detailed research in primary sources and her chapters on Bethune, Burroughs, and Mays are particularly strong, featuring extensive research in published essays and unpublished archival papers. By contrast her discussion of the civil rights movement depends almost entirely on only four memoirs, making very little use of the exhaustive literature on the movement. Her review of religious studies scholarship likewise would have benefited from more detailed discussions. In one instance, Savage tells her readers that there was great disagreement between scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Melville Herskovits, and Zora Neale Hurston, who supported the idea of African cultural retentions in black religion, and scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier, Arthur Huff Fauset, Hortence Powdermaker, and Charles S. Johnson, who opposed the African retentions thesis, but she skates too quickly over the surface of those debates.

It is puzzling that the author writes that the fact that the most radical sects had turned to Moorish or African identities was a “conundrum” that stymied Arthur Huff Fauset’s objection to Herskovits’ retentions thesis (p. 106). Naming one’s sect “Moorish” is not proof of either descent from Morocco or of the theories of African retentions and reinventions. In another passage, the author terms Fauset’s linkages between the Moorish Science Temple and the later Nation of Islam an instance of  “straining to forge fragile bonds” when numerous scholars of African American Islam have established that such links were immediate and direct: pioneers of the Nation such as Fard Muhammad and Abdul Muhammad were former followers of the Moorish Science Temple, and other members were directly influenced by its teachings.

Although arguing in favor of seeing black religion as heterogeneous, Savage warns against placing too much emphasis on the “margins.” Indeed, none of the individuals she profiles comes from alternative or otherwise marginal religious backgrounds. In the second half of the book, her case studies of individual religious figures, important though they are, might also perpetuate commonplace stereotypes about black religion in that they only feature members of mainline churches, excluding Holiness, Pentecostal, non-denominational, and black spiritualist church members, as well as Muslims and Israelites.

Savage’s message that there is no monolithic black church is a welcome one. Still, for this reviewer she does not go nearly far enough in describing what she calls the margins or questioning the category of the marginal. Here I’d like to be so bold as to offer four modest interventions in her fine work.

First, more attention to the margins would have revealed that the alternative sects and gods of the cities were so controversial precisely because they were central to debates over African American religion in that they encapsulated everything that the bourgeoisie found so repellant: mysticism, magic, emotional displays of worship, and other elements that had come to signify Africa— but were not necessarily retained from Africa. Thus, the storefront churches of the Northern cities were not just anathema to reformist scholars like DuBois, Frazier, and Johnson, but they were also the classic location of Herskovits’ African retentions thesis in America—in fact, Herskovits turned to storefront churches on a number of occasions in his text The Myth of the Negro Past to illustrate his theories.

Secondly, African American religions work along a continuum in which there is no bipolar core-periphery or mainline-margin divide but rather there are thousands of churches and other religious institutions, all of which overlap with and abut many others like clusters of cells or shingles on a roof.

The third point is that the margins are not nearly as marginal as the word implies, either in organizational genealogies or in numbers of adherents. Savage writes, “the numbers of black people involved with these sects were always extremely small,” (p. 107). Yet sects such as those of Father Divine, the (Israelite) Church of God and Saints of Christ and the (Islamic) Moorish Science Temple each boasted thousands of members, and there were many thousands of storefront churches in Northern cities after the Great Migration. Indeed, even Burroughs could write, “We have entirely too many store-front churches,” (p. 195).

Another example of the overlap between core and margin is the fact that the Holiness movement took off among African American churches (as opposed to individual evangelists) with the Philadelphia Revival of 1877-9, which started in Bethel A.M.E. church, the founding church of the first independent African American denomination. All those who joined the Holiness movement came from mainline churches—principally Baptist, but also the various Methodist bodies. It is true that the established churches soon came to decry the Holiness movement and forced out its practitioners, but this most marginal of movements had solid roots, both in terms of members and theology, within the hallowed halls of the most established and storied denominations. 

Fourthly, a conception of marginal religions based on numbers of followers ignores the vast shift in fortunes that has routinely accompanied new religious movements, bringing both huge gains and huge losses in membership. Pentecostalism, born as it was in Topeka, Kansas, Houston, Texas, and an industrial neighborhood of Los Angeles, began life in 1905 and 1906 as the most marginal movement imaginable, in terms of its membership and doctrines. But scholars of African American religion have rightly recognized the tremendous achievement and vast numbers of black Pentecostals and welcomed them into their conceptions of the mainstream. So too with the Nation of Islam, which began as a sect of only a few hundreds of people in the 1930s, yet had become a mass movement and a major player in the national conversation only three decades later. Conversely, Father Divine’s sect, which had thousands of members in the 1930s, rapidly dwindled with his passing and the group’s practice of celibacy.

Barbara Diane Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us makes a number of important contributions: it sagely argues that gender politics have infused not only black religion but black religious scholarship; it contends that there is no natural, unproblematic alliance between black religion and black politics but rather that their relationship is both fraught and open to analysis. Finally, the book valuably states that black religion is heterogeneous, not monolithic. Yet the author could have gone even further to break down the divides in the study of black religions. Fauset and Frazier, Herskovits and Hurston may have argued over the continent or continents that have given rise to black religion, but in the final analysis all African American religions, including those labeled “mainstream” and those labeled “marginal,” overlap along a vast and multidimensional continuum, all pieces of the continent, all part of the main.


Jacob S. Dorman
Assistant Professor of History and American Studies
University of Kansas

Volume XII, Table of Contents


Search The Journal of Southern Religion
This site was designed by Randall J. Stephens and is  maintained by Emily Clark. © 1998-2010 by
The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253