Take & Read: American religious history

Four new books that explore Black Americans’ religious witness

This year’s racial justice protests, sparked by outrageous incidents of violence by police officers and White vigilantes, have led many Americans to inquire more deeply than ever before into America’s racial history. Religion has intersected with race throughout American history, and many of the best new books in the field focus on Black Americans’ religious witness. From building churches to creating art and music to pursuing faith-based social justice in the public square amid the threat of lynching, African Americans have persisted in a nation that repeatedly denies the value of Black lives.

Dennis C. Dickerson’s The African Methodist Episcopal Church: A History (Cambridge University Press) reflects insights gleaned through the author’s distinguished career as a US labor, civil rights, and church historian. Those interested in learning more about the history of the Black church will find no better resource than this thoroughly researched volume. Dickerson carefully investigates each era of the history of the nation’s most storied Black denomination, beginning with the dramatic tale of Richard Allen’s 1787 exodus from the segregated St. George’s Church in Philadelphia to found a Black congregation.

The writing displays the care and devotion of a member of the AME tradition but also the critical reflection of a scholar. Dickerson’s central question involves a tension at the heart of the tradition, between the need to preserve and develop what was for decades one of the only US institutions controlled by Black people and the imperative to follow the liberationist example of its founder by openly assailing slavery, racism, and colonialism. Dickerson locates instances of the latter in figures outside the hierarchy of denominational leadership: laypeople including civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, and Daisy Bates.