The study of African American religious history needs no special warrant. The
story is self-authenticating, bearing its own witness to the travail and triumph
of the human spirit. Carter G. Woodson wrote in 1939: "A definitive history of
the Negro Church ... would leave practically no phase of the history of the
Negro in America untouched."! No one has yet attempted a synoptic, not to
mention definitive, history of African American religion. Woodson's pioneer-
History of the Negro Church,
published in 1921, is a celebration of firsts on
the order of a family scrapbook.
At the beginning of his own mammoth
rendition, Sydney Ahlstrom acknowledged that historical surveys of Ameri-
can religion have "virtually closed out" the black religious experience. Ahl-
strom predicted that serious consideration of the religious history of Ameri-
cans of African descent would become "the basic paradigm for a renovation of
church history:'3 In the 1960s historians began to concern themselves with the
factors of race and ethnicity in the makeup of religious America.4 Merely
splicing references to black religion into a main strand that told someone else's
story, however, produced only a rope of sand.
From time to time, scholars
from outside the field of church history suggested alternative perspectives and
methodologies for dealing with the "invisibility" in the standard surveys of the
religious reality of non-Europeans, though none has gone further than gen-
eral diagnosis of the malady.
1 Carter G. Woodson, "The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution;' Negro His-
tory Bulletin 3, no. 1 (October 1939): 7.
2 Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (Washington, D.C.: Associated Pub-
3 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1972), pp. 12-13.
4 See, for example, Martin E. Marty, "Ethnicity: The Skeleton of Religion in America,"
Church History 41, no. 1 (March 1972): 5-21; and Robert T. Handy, "Negro Christianity
and American Church Historiography," in Reinterpretations in American Church History, ed.
Brauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 91-112.
5 Roger D. Hatch, "Integrating the Issue of Race into the History of Christianity in America:
An Essay-Review of Sydney E. Ahlstrom," in A Religious History of the American People;
Martin E. Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: Dial
Press, 1970); Robert T. Handy, "A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Real-
ities," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46, no. 4 (1978): 545-69.
6 See two contributions by Charles H. Long: "Perspectives for a Study of Afro-American