New World A-Coming

Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration

368 pages

28 halftones

February, 2017

ISBN: 9781479888801

$35

Cloth

Add to Cart Available: 10/14/2016

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Author

Judith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945.

All books by Judith Weisenfeld

When Joseph Nathaniel Beckles registered for the draft in the 1942,  he rejected the racial categories presented to him and persuaded the registrar to cross out the check mark she had placed next to Negro and substitute “Ethiopian Hebrew.”  “God did not make us Negroes,” declared religious leaders in black communities of the early twentieth-century urban North. They insisted that so-called Negroes are, in reality, Ethiopian Hebrews, Asiatic Muslims, or raceless children of God. Rejecting conventional American racial classification, many black southern migrants and immigrants from the Caribbean embraced these alternative visions of black history, racial identity, and collective future, thereby reshaping the black religious and racial landscape. 

Focusing on the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and a number of congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, Judith Weisenfeld argues that the appeal of these groups lay not only in the new religious opportunities membership provided, but also in the novel ways they formulated a religio-racial identity. Arguing that members of these groups understood their religious and racial identities as divinely-ordained and inseparable, the book examines how this sense of self shaped their conceptions of their bodies, families, religious and social communities, space and place, and political sensibilities. 

Weisenfeld draws on extensive archival research and incorporates a rich array of sources to highlight the experiences of average members. The book demonstrates that the efforts by members of these movements to contest conventional racial categorization contributed to broader discussions in black America about the nature of racial identity and the collective future of black people that still resonate today.

Reviews

  • "Innovatively researched, elegantly written, and persuasively argued, Judith Weisenfeld’s new history of African American religious groups is a major contribution to the study of African American religions during the Great Migration. Weisenfeld deftly uses draft records, death certificates, immigration forms, and other bureaucratic documents to breathe life into the stories of Southern migrants, Northern residents, and Caribbean immigrants who joined Jewish, Muslim, and other prophetic religious movements. These new religious movements, Weisenfeld reveals, resisted racial identities imposed upon them by an increasingly powerful state and fellow American citizens alike. Their religious commitments, expressed not only in a rich theological imagination but also in material culture, ritual activity, and institution-building, created new collective racial identities invested in the redemption of Black peoplehood. Weisenfeld’s beautifully rendered story will engage both scholars and general readers interested in religion, U.S. history, and Africana studies."

    —Edward E. Curtis IV, Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

  • "Weisenfeld's richly informative and analytically sharp social history resurrects worlds of black American new religious movements in the interwar years. With particularly adept use of bureaucratic records, she gives us a new picture of the lives of African Americans who rejected categories given to them and sought to redefine their own lives and reinvent their own identities. Meticulously researched, provocatively written, and beautifully detailed."

    —Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

  • "For too long Christianity has reigned over our histories of African America. This book definitively establishes the plurality of black religious experience and the definitive role religions had in the formation of twentieth-century racial identity. Reading unconventional sources and unearthing forgotten (but now unforgettable) figures, Weisenfeld offers an exemplary study of religion as a form of social and cultural criticism. There is no historian working with greater precision in the study of religion in America today."

    —Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

  • “A magnificent, thoughtfully researched work which breaks new theoretical ground on race, religion and the great migration. These compelling, exquisitely researched stories of the lives of devoted participants in the Moorish Science Temple, Ethiopian Hebrews, Father Divine and the NOI reconfigure the cult/ sect status that has historically labeled these groups. Weisenfeld's book redefines the contours of African American Religious history, American religion, and race in American history, and is a must read for the casual reader and established scholar alike."

    —Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

  • "A comprehensive study of the formation of 20th-century black religious movements...Weisenfeld's wide-ranging study is eloquent yet succinct."

    Publishers Weekly