07.11.14

Eight Summer Reads

I’m often asked what books I’d recommend on the African-American Church. The question isn’t as easy to answer as the questioner thinks. That’s a huge body of literature with all kinds of dimensions to it. And not only is the literature vast, the perspectives are wide-ranging. There are some books I’d love to recommend even though I don’t agree with almost anything the author believes! But I can’t in good conscience recommend the book to persons who may be tripped up by such perspectives.

So, I usually take the easy way out and recommend everything Tony Carter has written on the subject! That gets me out of most jams because everybody loves Tony and he only writes good stuff!

But, Tony would insist that I dig a little deeper and suggest some other titles as well. And maybe if I write this post, I can then just point people to The Front Porch and have them leave some recommendations as well. So here goes—a list of rather classic works, whether centuries old or modern day classic. Eight recommendations for summer reading and for building a basic bookshelf on the Black Church:

History:

Milton Sernett (ed.), African American Religious History: A Documentary History 

Being a lover of history, I find it impossible to recommend one volume—unless that one volume actually samples original source material across a wide historical era. That’s precisely what Sernett does in African American Religious History. He introduces us to the people and events through a sampling of original sources. You have the advantage of learning the history in the voices of the history makers. That’s a blessing because too often our reading of the history is limited to secondary sources. Then we’re left in the difficult position of trusting the authors rather than knowing the sources. One caveat to this recommendation: This is “religious history”—not Christian history exclusively. Sernett deals more broadly with religion in our context. Sometimes readers forget the distinction and treat as “Christian” things that most certainly are not. But this volume should be on every shelf.

Biography:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and William L. Andrews (eds), Pioneers of the Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment, 1772-1815

Okay, I’m cheating on this recommendation, too. Why recommend one biography when you can recommend five classics in one volume?! Gates and Andrews assemble five classic narratives of lives of Ottobah Cugoano, John Jea, John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronnisosaw. You get their conversions, their perspectives on faith and religion, their insights into the slave trade, and their labors as abolitionists. You get their involvement in missions and their theological orientation. There is the self-consciously Reformed Equiano alongside the self-consciously free-will advocate John Jea. You’ll find a scintillating life story in each biography.

Sociology/Politics:

W.E.B. DuBois, The Negro Church

E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America / C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier (in one volume)

No study of the Black Church is complete without a reading of DuBois, Frazier and Lincoln. When you read these deans of sociology and history you’ll discover that there’s been a long and venerable tradition of critically appraising the Black Church. There’s no reason to think you’ll agree with all the critiques these men offer, but there is plenty of reason to be aware of the critiques themselves. Their analyses raise our discourse and deepen our appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the church through the years. And they keep us from that overly romantic view of the church that suggests the church cannot be at the same time sharply criticized and deeply loved.

Sermons:

William Douglass, Sermons Preached in the African Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia

Lemuel Haynes, Black Preacher to White America

Now this is a tough category to narrow down to just one or two selections. But I’ve chosen two that I thought would be edifying, great illustrations of doctrinally-sound and exegetically-careful exposition, and capable of standing the test of time. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard the name William Douglass. If that’s the case, you’re in for a theological treat with Sermons Preached. Anyone climbing up on this porch knows our love for Lemuel Haynes. To my knowledge the only collection of sermons from Haynes is Black Preacher to White America. Unfortunately, it is out of print. If you can score a used copy then definitely pick it up! If not, try picking up either May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes or The Faithful Preacher for a taste of Haynes.

Preaching:

Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art

Mitchell’s pithy volume has served as a text in Black preaching courses and studies for a couple of decades now. He smoothly covers the history, development, context, style and theology of Black preaching as he defines it. Though not a how-to guide, there’s much practical wisdom to glean here.

Theology:

James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed   

James Cone stands as the dean of Black Theology. His seminal works helped ignite and shape the academic movement. God of the Oppressed is Cone’s fullest systematic attempt at defining Black Theology. Any student of the Black Church needs to read Cone. I would not endorse Cone’s theological method or conclusion, but you won’t understand African American academic theology without understanding Cone.

There you have it. Some summer reading to whet your appetite for things Black Church. This is not a definitive list. So, what would you add or change?

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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