Jesus, Jobs, and Justice

Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African-American Women and Religion. New York: Knopf, 2010. 736pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-4420-7. Reviewed by Blake Barton Renfro, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (Knopf, 2010) joins the ranks of scholarship examining the intersection of religion and race in the United States.  Where other interpretations have probed the varied political and social aspects of the black church, Bettye Collier-Thomas considers the church from the perspective of women.  While it has functioned as a center for racial justice, the black church has not been immune to internal disputes.  Prevailing patriarchal leadership and homophobia are two contemporary illustrations of the institution’s struggle to define itself.  Through all the struggles, women have been the backbone of the black church, but they have not always been among the public leadership.    Collier-Thomas contends there was a dual “struggle for racial and gender freedom” among black women and that the church became the primary arena for them to assert authority and gain respectability (xvi). 

"More importantly, this book demonstrates how women maneuvered the contested boundaries of gender and race in order to attain power in the church and beyond."  


Tracing African American women’s struggle from slavery to the present is a formidable task.  Collier-Thomas has compiled a wide range of primary sources, including church periodicals, private correspondence, and sermons, to illustrate how black women organized themselves within the patriarchal church.  Prominent historical figures, including Jarena Lee, Nannie Burroughs, and Ella Baker figure into her narrative.  But, the book also addresses broader themes such as denominational polity, interracial Christianity, progressivism, and missionary campaigns.  By examining the reciprocity between religious and public culture, Collier-Thomas illustrates the evolving dynamic between African American political ideology and Christian theology.  This approach enhances our understanding of how the church functioned as a political tool for black women.  More importantly, this book demonstrates how women maneuvered the contested boundaries of gender and race in order to attain power in the church and beyond.  It was this tension between traditional ideas about gender, religion, and civic life that define much of Collier-Thomas’s narrative. 

One of the most important elements examined in this book are the organizations women formed to assert their influence within the church.  Though each chapter is arranged thematically, Collier-Thomas shows how African American women repeatedly capitalized on their large numbers and organized into fraternal groups, bible studies, and benevolent societies.  Caste in the evangelical culture of the nineteenth century, these women emphasized Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for all ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Aware that the church never fully aligned itself with such egalitarianism, African American women’s organizations frequently spoke of a shared “sisterhood” among believers.    Focusing on their shared gender identity, these groups were the driving force behind the women’s struggle for equality.  They also promoted interracial and interdenominational movements.  And, while they never fully diminished Jim Crow segregation, such interracial cooperation illustrated how evangelical culture both upheld and broke down the period’s dominant racial attitudes.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice is a meticulously researched book. However, Collier-Thomas has chosen to highlight a series of fragmented stories, rather than outlining a cohesive historical narrative.  A more articulated thesis and a clearly defined set of questions would have made for an easier read, and it would situate Collier-Thomas’s provocative conclusions among other works in American religious and gender history.  Though the book acknowledges the historiography of the black church, it rarely engages these other histories.  Nonetheless, Collier-Thomas raises several important themes about the role of women in the black church and American society, and her interpretations of interracial Christianity add a significant contribution to the literature.  For these reasons, scholars should consult this book.  


Blake Barton Renfro
Doctoral Student in History
Louisiana State University

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