Cover Image: The Black Church

The Black Church

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Member Reviews

A great companion to the TV documentary. A must read for anyone interested in the complicated history of Christianity and the African American experience.
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I am a product of a Black Church and I greatly admire the work of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Knowing these two things about myself, I thought this book would be a perfect fit for me.  My reaction however was different than what I expected.

This book is a general overview of what religion has meant to Black Americans since the first Africans arrived on American soil.  Approaching the book as an overview is best.  There is not a deep exploration into the various denominations that have shaped the Black American religious experience.  There are also glaring omissions of religious leaders who have shaped Black American spiritual life.

Another drawback of the book for me was that it drew heavily on the work W.E.B. Dubois.  It has been over 100 years since Dubois work was published.  There are many theologians who have written about Black Church life since Dubois.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was the inclusion of the Nation of Islam.  Christianity is not the sole belief system of Black Americans and it was nice to have another religion discussed.

This book is for someone who wants to have a broad picture of Black American religious experiences.  It is also a great book to commemorate the documentary of the same name.  Many of the book’s passages are directly from the documentary. For those who want a deeper understanding of the various Black American religious experiences, the book offers an extensive Recommended Readings section that I plan to explore.

I was given the opportunity to review an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley.
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This is a very comprehensive telling of the history of the Black church and should be very enlightening to all readers. There is a PBS series that accompanies this book and is a good supplement as it includes interviews from a number of prominent Black entertainers, religious figures and historians, to name a few. The series is worth it to hear the singing and preaching alone. But this book delves into more details than is included in the TV series and is a fascinating history not told in any school I (a white person) have ever attended. It sums up the importance of church and community as part of the Black culture passed down through the generations and provides insight into this important part of American history.
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Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written a great book on the history of the Black Church in America. This book covers the Black religious tradition from the days of slavery to our current moment during the coronavirus pandemic. Along the way, Gates tells how important the Black Church has been as a source of spiritual renewal and political power for centuries.

This book is a historical survey of the Black Church, meaning it covers a lot of broad topics as it relates to the Black American religious experience. Many of the topics could and probably have their own standalone books. Gates’s book could have been alot longer, but it does a good job of giving the reader a well researched and thorough examination of the Black Church’s evolution.

What makes this book special is that Gates was able to talk to a diverse group of people including celebrities, musical artists, clergy, and religion scholars about the Black Church’s significance. Notable names include: Yolanda Adams, Bishop Michael Curry, Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Kirk Franklin, Bishop T. D. Jakes, John Legend, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Senator Raphael Warnock, Oprah Winfrey, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

One of the important points that Gates makes is that Black enslaved people shaped and adapted Christianity in their own way, not how it was taught to them by white slaveholders. Enslaved people infused African traditions in their version of Christianity that are still with us in some form today, traditions such as the ring shout and spirit possession.

Gates also covers the challenges the Black Church faced and continues to face in our current moment. The debate over worship styles (charismatic vs. more mainline) is an ongoing one since the end of the 19th Century; while the prosperity gospel vs liberation theology message is an issue that the Black Church has focused on since the early 20th Century. The influence of secular music on Black gospel music is another point of contention. There was resistance from Black church members of gospel music because of its blues and rock and roll elements. Nowadays there is resistance to gospel music that has a more hip-hop feel to it. Thomas Dorsey and Kirk Franklin were innovators in their respective eras on shifting the boundaries of gospel music for a new generation of Christians.

Readers should know that this is mostly a story about Black Christianity in America. There are substantial mentions of Black Muslims during slavery; the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X also are covered but it is not at the same level as Black Christians are discussed.

Gates closes his book, in the Epilogue, by discussing the role of the Holy Ghost in the Black Church tradition, specifically the concepts of “getting happy” and “speaking in tongues”. He tells a personal story of his experiences of going to a church where “catching the spirit” was common. Ultimately he makes a verdict about its significance in the Black religious tradition.

I enjoyed reading this book especially as someone who grew up in a Black Church. I learned alot of facts I was unfamiliar with before. Readers of Black history, religious studies, and PBS series (this is a companion book to a series by the same name) will enjoy reading this informative work.
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An interesting history of the Black Church in America, and a discussion of the pivotal role the Church has played in Black culture.

"In a world of utter instability,  where African American families could be torn apart at a moment's notice, the enslaved found a rock in the religion and practices they developed in communion with one another..."
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This is a sweeping history of an institution that has influenced American life and politics, whether the public realizes its contributions or not. While Gates celebrates the achievements of the Black church, he takes care not romanticize the institution, such as by acknowledging the long-standing sexism and misogyny within some churches. I do wish on this topic and others he would analyze a bit more. He does suggest possible reasons for the patriarchal attitudes, such as the emphasis on "old-time religion" and the influence of evangelicalism on the Black Church. (Evangelicalism tends to emphasizes piety and the care of souls, rather than liberation.) But I found myself wanting more robust discussion. The question seems too important for passing observations. I presume he is restrained to appeal to general readers and not academics, but then why not have some of the heftier discussion in the footnotes? 

Anyhow, I liked this book enough to give 4/5 stars, and I hope to use chapters in my uni-level history classes.
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NetGalley ARC Educator 550974

Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. The Black church. A conundrum for some, and salvation for others. Mr. Gates explores the beginning of the Black church to the current state of it. Generations shaped by rituals, songs and preaching. His grasp of the knowledge as well as the officers of the church seem endless. You will be surprised, happy and maybe even sad. This book is a must have for anyone wanting to know more about the Black church.
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Read if you: Want a revealing, intriguing, and inspiring succinct look at the Black American church, from slavery days to present time. 

Librarians/booksellers: A PBS documentary of the same name will premiere February 2021. This will likely be in demand. 

Many thanks to Penguin Group/The Penguin Press and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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