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 Cheryl J. Sanders. For the Journal of Southern Religion.

Barbara Savage has written a wonderful text on black religion and politics. To be honest, at first I was mystified by the book’s title and cover, mainly because of my lack of familiarity with the poetry of Robert Hayden. Thankfully, in her introduction Savage quotes the phrase “your spirits walk beside us” in the context of Hayden’s poem in order to illustrate the “romanticized connection between religion, history and memory” that engendered the religion and politics debate in the aftermath of slavery. (5) But when taken together with the cover photo of the hands and torso of an androgynous dark-skinned person clothed in white, the title fails to signify the subject of the book, notwithstanding the prominence and accuracy of the subtitle “the politics of black religion.”

Mindful of the adage not to judge a book by its cover, I was thrilled to discover inside a stellar historiography of the study of black religion and the black churches during the first half of the twentieth century. The first chapter is a critical assessment of the contributions of the three most prominent African American public intellectuals of the early twentieth century: W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin E. Mays, with particular attention to their advocacy of theological education as a means to equip black male ministers for the reformation of black churches and the political advancement of black people. Her second chapter offers a historiographical overview of the next wave of black religious scholarship done by social scientists in the 1930s and 1940s, most but not all of them African Americans, who undertook the task of studying black churches and black religion: Charles Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Zora Neale Hurston, Hortense Powdermaker, St. Claire Drake, Horace Cayton, Gunnar Myrdal and Arthur Huff Fauset. Savage’s discussion includes an important analysis of the impact of the civil rights movement upon the scholarly appreciation of black religion and the black churches. Her evaluations of the pioneering works in black religious studies are concise, engaging, and ideal for two groups of readers in particular: (1) students needing a first-time introduction to black church studies as an academic discipline, and (2) others who may have read these works decades ago but can benefit from an updated review of familiar themes and issues in black church studies while being brought to greater awareness of how the civil rights movement has influenced so many assumptions about the relationship between black religion and politics. One of the most important achievements of this study is to debunk the mythical notion of a monolithic “black church” by demonstrating the diversity of theological and social perspectives that comprise the religious institutions and political aspirations of African American people.

"With copious notes and documentation, she brings to life the stories of three influential educators who were active in religion, politics and international affairs ..."  


In her subsequent chapters, Savage turns to the educators and activists to enhance her depiction of the drama and complexities of the religion and politics debate among African Americans. With copious notes and documentation, she brings to life the stories of three influential educators who were active in religion, politics and international affairs during the years leading up to the civil rights movement: Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs and, again, Benjamin E. Mays. Next Savage narrates the religion and politics debate through the civil rights era by highlighting memoirs of the movement from a religiously and racially diverse group of women and men whose contributions have sometimes been overlooked due to the prominence of Martin Luther King, Jr., including Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Mary King, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael.

The final chapter, “Reconcilable Differences,” reveals the ultimate purpose of Savage’s critical portrayal of the scholarship and memoirs related to black religion and politics, namely, to explain the highly-publicized controversy that erupted during the 2008 presidential campaign between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and his longtime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Savage concludes that “the lesson of that controversy and of others detailed in this book is that the simplistic dichotomies that drive most discussions about race, religion and politics still have traction because African American religion remains a subject of mystery, misunderstanding, and manipulation.”(283) While one may question whether and how the dismissal of “simplistic dichotomies” can serve as a remedy for reconciling “differences” within the religion and politics debate, it is certain that Your Spirits Walk Beside Us advances the discussion by marshalling a fresh mix of perspectives and sources to set forth an adept historical overview of a difficult dilemma.


Cheryl J. Sanders
Professor of Christian Ethics
Howard University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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