In New World A-Coming, Judith Weisenfeld examines the ways that black Americans fashioned their own “religio-racial” identities, focusing on those drawn to certain African American new religious movements during the early to mid-twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Great Migration from southern states to the urban North. These groups are the Moorish Science Temple of Noble Drew Ali, the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, the Congregation of Beth B’nai Abraham of A. Josiah Ford, the Commandment Keepers sect of Black Judaism of Wentworth Matthews, and the Nation of Islam (NOI) of Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad. From the journalism of the African American press from the 1920s and 1930s onward, similar constellations of new religious movements have often been subject to close scrutiny and sharp critique. Weisenfeld acknowledges the seminal work of Arthur Huff Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults in the Urban North (1944), as one of the works of scholarship on which she intends to build. Nonetheless, the existence of such precursors to Weisenfeld’s scholarship should not obscure the fact that this is a groundbreaking volume based on a large amount of diligent research in the ample primary sources and a brilliant and sound reconceptualization of the subject matter, and employing a clear, concise, and scintillating writing style. Weisenfeld’s chapters are divided phenomenologically into such matters as “Geographies of Race and Religion,” “Sacred Time and Divine histories,” “Religio-Racial Self-Fashioning,” “Maintaining the Religio-Racial Body,” “Making the Religio-Racial Family,” and “Community, Conflict, and the Boundaries of Black Religion.” The result is a series of intricate arguments and illuminating in-depth portraits that make it difficult for brief reviews to summarize adequately the book’s contents. One starting point for Weisenfeld’s inquiry is a series of encounters that members of these religious communities had with government officials such as census workers and draft registrars, during which these black folk would reject the label of “Negro” as a race label that could be applied to them. Alec Brown Bey, a Moorish Science Temple member, insisted that the draft registrar identify him as a “Moorish American.” Commandment Keepers rejected “Negro” in favor of identification as “Ethiopian Hebrew.” Peace Mission Movement members insisted on being identified as “human” (2–3). Weisenfeld argues that these “narratives of alternative religio-racial identity … were spiritual maps that oriented followers toward the past and the future in new ways that, in turn, shaped members’ daily lives and interactions with others” (25). Members’ identities were based upon their ways of understanding their spiritual genealogies, often rooted in ancient times. Ethiopian Hebrews placed great importance on the encounter of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (31). Noble Drew Ali saw his movement as arising from Moabites who founded the empire of Morocco (44). Fard and Muhammad taught Nation of Islam members about an English slave trader, John Hawkins, who they believed had consigned African peoples to ignorance by kidnapping them in 1555 and bringing them to the Americas on the ship “Jesus” (59). By thus infusing in their members an orientation toward sacred peoplehood, these stories enabled blacks to see themselves as “religious agents … instead of objects of missions” (87). As part of adopting their new identities, the members of these new religious movements often changed their names. Moorish Science Temple members added “Bey” or “El” to their names (104). Fard assigned new surnames to his Nation of Islam followers, such as “Karriem” or “Allah” (109). When Fard disappeared in 1934, his successor, Elijah Muhammad, counseled NOI members to take the surname “X,” to signify the unknown name that the divine Fard would have given them (109). Peace Mission Movement members took wholly new names, such as “Joy Love” or “Purity Sincerity” (104). New diets were designed to promote health, and members’ religio-racial identities were confirmed after death by new burial practices. Weisenfeld traces the projection of identity to larger social units, first the family and then the community. Ideal family configurations differed greatly among these new religious movements. For example, Elijah Muhammad forbade the use of birth control, whereas Father Divine enjoined his Peace Mission Movement followers to celibacy (180, 183). The military draft during World War II enforced the need to make choices about relations to the United States. Elijah Muhammad was sent to prison in 1943 as a draft resister, inaugurating a prison ministry that thrived long after his release from prison three years later (214). While Father Divine emphasized pacifism during World War II, he also stated that one of his followers might conscientiously choose to fight (230). The Peace Mission Movement also energetically opposed practices of segregation in housing during the 1930s and 1940s (229). A. Josiah Ford, excited by the prospective coronation of Haile Selassie I (believed to be a descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) as emperor of Ethiopia, migrated to that country, only to have his small community of Ethiopian Hebrews in Addis Ababa dispersed by the Italian invasion in 1936 (240). Weisenfeld also examines certain boundary-enforcing conflicts between African American Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostalist ministers and the new religious movements that are the focus of her study. This vivid, theoretically rich, and well-executed work has much to teach scholars of American history and the history of religion about the ways that black people in the twentieth century engaged in far-reaching reconstruction of their own racial, as well as religious, identities. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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