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 Willie James Jennings. For the Journal of Southern Religion.

Dr. Savage has written a lucid, insightful, and helpful account of the relation between African American religion (principally Christianity) and political activism. This book stands nicely on the one hand between current historical accounts like, Clarence Taylor, Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the 21st Century (Routledge, 2002) or Fredrick C. Harris, Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford, 1999) or even David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (University of North Carolina, 2004), and on the other hand more theological or philosophical accounts like Eddie Glaude Jr., Exodus: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago, 2000) or Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (Basic Books, 2005).

Confronting the on-going debate regarding the relative political progressiveness of African American churches and religion, the book asks readers to avoid reading back into history a seamless trajectory of progressivism and to attend carefully to the forms of debate that have characterized the question of black ecclesial and religious utility for political agendas. The point that Savage wishes the reader to draw from her analysis is that any attempt to engage African American religious life for political ends must enter into respectful and knowledgable negotiation of those belief systems with a familiarity with the history of debates. Through seven chapters, the author offers us helpful overviews of the crucial trajectories of those debates.
Chapter one offers a balanced though sparse treatment of the early 20th century’s three seminal treatments of the African American religion and the black church, those of W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, and Benjamin Mays. While the author’s analysis of their treatments of the black church does not break any new conceptual ground, she does offer a tight comparison that yields clarity on the effect of their reading of African American religious life for the generations of intellectuals that followed in their wake. Chapter two introduces us to the first generation of social scientists that took black religious life as their sociological object. Charles Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Zora Neale Hurston (although trained in anthropology), and the collaborative work of Gunnar Myrdal, all emerge in this chapter as significant historical points of origin for detecting and elaborating the rich plurality in African American religious life.

"Burroughs's life and work is yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves, and Savage has put us all in her debt for this treatment."  


Chapter three gives us a beautiful account of the life and religio-political eclecticism of Mary McLeod Bethune. Savage almost channels Bethune in this chapter. The author wonderfully exposes us to the progressive religious genius of Bethune. The chapter’s conceptual connection with the previous chapters could have been stronger. And it needed more analysis of Bethune’s religious position in relation to that of the churches or other African American religious organizations. Chapter four presents the life of Nannie Helen Burroughs partially in relation to the life of Bethune (and to a lesser extent, Charlotte Hawkins Brown), but centrally within the context of Burroughs visionary work for women within the National Baptist Convention. Burroughs’s life and work is yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves and Savage has put us all in her debt for this treatment. The author gives us a nice view of the political imagination of Burroughs expressed through the ecclesial confines women faced (and continue to face) in one of the major black denominations. Both chapters three and four have as an important subtext the historical difficulties of the obsession with black male religious leadership.

Chapter five returns us to Benjamin Mays, but here the author reflects on Mays’s progressive southern liberal vision as it was informed by his internationalism. Mays believed both in the need for integration especially within the churches, white and black, as well as the maintaining of strong black institutions. These ideas grew out of his vision of a global Christian universalism that would fuel a progressive political performance by white and black Christians. Yet Savage clearly marks May’s underdeveloped thinking in regard to black women while allowing him to be a person of his time. Chapter six begins with a treatment of Fannie Lou Hamer as the template for reflection on a form of political rebellion deeply informed by African American religious sensibilities. Savage then reflects on the lives of several people who as she beautifully puts it “became part of a remnant that rebelled against those who rejected ecstatic religion as primitive and antithetical to activism, against those who believed that men led and women followed, against those who believed that fear would overpower faith.” (242) Marian Wright Edelman, Mary King, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael all present to us not a simple historic trajectory of African American religious political activism but a moment of religious revolt against a formerly more dominant African American religious quietist tradition.

The final chapter seven offers the beginnings of an insightful interpretation of the conflict between then presidential candidate Barak Obama and his former longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright placing that conflict in the historical context of the rise of black liberationist thought and the black middle class. It would help a considerable number of celebrated pundits who have commented on these matters to read Savage’s brief but helpful contextualization of the political trajectories of that conflict. Savage has given us a book that concisely introduces a number of crucial figures, ideas, and positions essential for anyone wishing to understand the political configurations of African American religious life. This book is ideal for the undergraduate classroom. It is not only accessible but filled with seasoned judgments and wisdom, characteristics in short supply in many accounts black religion and politics.


Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology
Duke University Divinity School

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