Swing low, sweet chariot
Miraculously, slaves plucked real inspiration from their masters' religion
Faith. Where does it come from? What fosters it? What is it? Like the gentle waves of an incoming tide, these questions lap at the pages of "This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience." Fortunately, the book doesn't try to answer these questions. It simply lets them lap, confident that no amount of questioning can drown faith.
"This Far" interweaves stories of individual spiritual journeys and accounts of church leaders and religious movements. The authors, Juan Williams (who wrote "Eyes on the Prize" in 1987) and Quinton Dixie, cover a vast amount of information without burying the reader in excessive or irrelevant detail. They are masters, as well, at placing black worship in the context of US history. In particular, they link blacks' faith to their ongoing fight for equality.
The book covers Christianity and the Nation of Islam most thoroughly, but lesser-known religious groups are described as well, including black Shakers, the Moorish Science Temple of America, and Five Percenters.
Noting the irony of slave holders' "Christianity," Williams and Dixie describe how Africans and their American-born descendants both identified with Christianity and altered it. In some cases, they Africanized it, infusing the rhythms and values of their gods into their captors' teachings and practices. In other cases, they located themselves smack in the middle of their masters' Bible, finding in the Hebrews' escape from Egypt promise of their own deliverance.
More often than not, plantation owners used the Bible, like the whip, as a weapon against their captives. Yet slaves' inherent faith, coupled with their intelligence and spiritual intuition, revealed to them not only the hope inherent in the Scriptures but the divine authority behind their drive to be free. Acknowledging how easy - natural even - it would have been for slaves to shun their masters' religion, the authors note that "instead [blacks] separated the message of Christian love from people who had no love for them."
After chronicling the scripturally inspired but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion plotted by Denmark Vesey, "This Far by Faith" moves on to describe another slave's attempt to reclaim his freedom through repatriation in Africa. Ibrahima Abdul Rahman, a Muslim, was somewhat more successful than Denmark Vesey, perhaps because his goal was so much smaller.
Rahman sought freedom only for himself and his family (not an entire community); he won it for himself and his wife, but not his children. His quite remarkable journey from Africa in the hull of a slave ship and back again - this time as a paying passenger on the upper deck of a Liberia-bound vessel - is a testament to his tenacity, ingenuity, and above all, faith.
As the authors note, "For him life had come full circle, all in accordance with the will of Allah." Indeed, as I read "This Far by Faith," the word journey kept occurring to me. I was struck by the twists and turns African-Americans' faith has taken in their dogged pursuit not only of freedom but of some way to make sense of their suffering. By separating the violence done to their bodies and souls from the saving Spirit, millions of black Americans have for centuries been fueled by faith. And with that fuel, they have changed the nation.
Though the authors acknowledge "glittering examples [around the world] of the power of religion to provoke and support social justice," they unabashedly argue that "God's power to transform society has no greater example than the U.S. Civil Rights movement."
In fact, one of the great contributions of this text is its attention to fleshing out that movement. As they point out, "King played a crucial role in the struggle for black equality. But he was part of a movement.... King and other civil rights activists were inheritors of a grand tradition of non-violent direct action."
Pivotal in that line of inheritors was Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister and dean of the chapel at Howard University in the mid-1930s. Thurman's trip to India, especially his meeting with Gandhi, and its profound impact on life in America, is a journey well worth reading.
Indeed, every word of this book is worth reading, whether you watch the PBS companion series due to air in June or not. If you have any interest in the many branches of Christianity and their development in this country, any interest in non-Christian religions and philosophies, any interest in the nation's march toward maturity or in black history, if you have even an ounce of faith - or wish you did - "This Far by Faith" is a must-read. Besides, as the title suggests, we've come this far, but there's still some distance to go. If you care to be a part of that journey, read this book.
• Formerly a professor of African-American literature, Trudy Palmer is now an assistant dean at Washington University in St. Louis.