Preaching on Wax

The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

240 pages

14 halftones

November, 2014

ISBN: 9781479890958



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Lerone A. Martin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in Saint Louis.

All books by Lerone A. Martin

Certificate of Merit, 2015 Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research presented by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections

From 1925 to 1941, approximately one hundred African American clergymen teamed up with leading record labels such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor-RCA to record and sell their sermons on wax. While white clerics of the era, such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Charles Fuller, became religious entrepreneurs and celebrities through their pioneering use of radio, black clergy were largely marginalized from radio. Instead, they relied on other means to get their message out, teaming up with corporate titans of the phonograph industry to package and distribute their old-time gospel messages across the country. Their nationally marketed folk sermons received an enthusiastic welcome by consumers, at times even outselling top billing jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
These phonograph preachers significantly shaped the development of black religion during the interwar period, playing a crucial role in establishing the contemporary religious practices of commodification, broadcasting, and celebrity. Yet, the fame and reach of these nationwide media ministries came at a price, as phonograph preachers became subject to the principles of corporate America.
In Preaching on Wax, Lerone A. Martin offers the first full-length account of the oft-overlooked religious history of the phonograph industry. He explains why a critical mass of African American ministers teamed up with the major phonograph labels of the day, how and why black consumers eagerly purchased their religious records, and how this phonograph religion significantly contributed to the shaping of modern African American Christianity.

   Instructor's Guide


  • "Although histories of American religion have focused on the relationship of radio to the growth of preaching in America, especially among white clergy, there has been no study of the impact of the phonograph on the development of black preaching in the mid-20th century. Martin draws deeply on record company archives to explore how the phonograph sermons of black Protestant preachers between 1925 and 1941 significantly shaped African-American religion and culture.... Martin's vital study contributes significantly not only to the history of religion, but also to the lively, ongoing discussion of 'race records' by African-American musicians in early 20th-century America."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Religion Publishing Update Fall 2014: In Profile": "In the early half of the 20th century, many black preachers discovered a new tool—the phonograph. Sermons recorded on vinyl (or, at first, wax) enabled them to reach beyond their local churches and market their sermons to other eager listeners. The records often outstripped the sales of those by popular blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and while many preachers went to places like Chicago to get record deals, record company executives began traveling from church to church in the rural South in search of the next celebrity preacher. In Preaching on Wax, Lerone A. Martin illuminates this little-known chapter in American cultural history."

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Martin’s Preaching on Wax is a beautifully written, well-researched book...Martin’s book also compels the student and scholar of African-American Christianity to re-think the relationship between black religion, popular culture, and commercial success.” 

    The Marginalia Review of Books

  • “After reading this book, I now understand again, but really for the first time, what it was that entranced me when first listening more than twenty years ago to the Rev. Gates, a moment that altered the course of my scholarly career since.  Thank you, Professor Martin, for that.” 

    Church History

  • “Martin has crafted a tight, well-conceived narrative that demonstrates persuasively how religious, commercial, and technological forces came together in the making of modern African American Christianity.  Most important, perhaps, its crisp, accessible prose makes it a pleasure to read."

    Journal of American History

  • "Eloquently recalls the at once triumphant and controversial history of America’s first recordings of black sermonic voices—an innovation that has transformed American religion, music, and the arts more broadly. Important and timely, Preaching on Wax insists that we reframe our understanding of the spiritual impulses, racial politics, and commercial influences that mediate a rich strand of African American religion. Indeed, this is a must read!"

    —Marla Frederick, Harvard University

  • “One of the most richly textured accounts of the emergence of black consumer culture to appear in many years. Martin has made a significant contribution to our understanding of how the rise of 'new sacred commodities' during the first years of the 20th century profoundly shaped modern African American religion. Assiduously researched and full of startling insight, Preaching on Wax challenges us to rethink the sources of African American religious authority during the Great Migration."

    —Wallace D. Best, Princeton University