John Fea’s recent Anxious Bench post, “Where Are the Studies of Twentieth-Century Black Evangelicalism?” raised an excellent question, one that confronted me over a decade ago as a graduate student in Dennis Dickerson’s Religion and the Civil Rights seminar. At that time, works on twentieth-century African American religious history and the “black church” were readily available. Works on twentieth-century American evangelicalism could also be obtained easily. But rarely did the former employ the term evangelical or the latter include anything of note regarding African Americans.
Recently some religious historians have redressed some aspects of this lacuna in the scholarship. Building upon the historiographical approach developed by the first wave of historians of Southern religion such as Sam Hill and Donald Mathews, they have considered race as a primary interpretive lens for understanding evangelical history. Since cultural constructions of race shaped the religious beliefs and social interactions of American evangelicals, this line of historical inquiry proved fruitful. Books such as Stephen Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South have enriched our understanding of evangelicalism. Even so, such efforts deal with questions of race in terms of how they affected a predominantly white evangelicalism.
Which brings the discussion back to the question at hand: where are the studies of twentieth-century black evangelicalism? Two historical realities have contributed to the paucity of works on twentieth-century African American evangelicalism. The first relates to the history of evangelicalism as a movement. The second relates to the manner in which the struggle for full equality emerged as the centerpiece of African American history in the twentieth century.
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