Religious Movements of the Great Migration: An Interview with Judith Weisenfeld

By Vaughn A. Booker | February 7, 2017

(George Rinhart/Getty/Corbis) Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford stands with members of the Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham.

The Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s, when people of African descent moved from the American South and the Caribbean into cities of the American North, fostered a diverse urban religious culture. In her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration, Judith Weisenfeld explores how five religious communities created novel identities that were both religious and racial, or “religio-racial.” The Nation of Islam, the Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, the Moorish Science Temple of America, and Father Divine’s interracial Peace Mission Movement took root in cities from Chicago to New York, Philadelphia to Toledo, and beyond. Each movement represented an alternative religious response to the structures of segregation and racial classification in Jim Crow America.

An inspiration for Weisenfeld’s latest work was Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 book, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, which examined five newly formed religious groups that competed with established black Protestant traditions for the hearts and minds of urban America’s migrants of African descent. Weisenfeld takes Fauset’s study further by revealing that the movements which did not identify as Christian proclaimed new racial identities as seriously as they proclaimed new religious identities.

Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. A graduate of Barnard College and Princeton University, Weisenfeld is a scholar of American religious history with a particular emphasis on twentieth-century African American religious history. Her work also explores intersections of religion, race, and gender, as well as religion in American film and popular culture. 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.

Vaughn A. Booker interviewed Weisenfeld over email. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: After having written a rich study of representations of African American religion in early American film, what compelled you to turn to black religious movements in the Great Migration era?

JW: I have long been interested in these religious movements of the Great Migration, from the time I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 Black Gods of the Metropolis in an undergraduate class and even proposed something about these movements in my applications to graduate school. So, in many ways, this project has been with me for my entire academic career. But it also emerged naturally from past work.

Interest in African American religious responses to migration and urbanization ties together the major projects I’ve written thus far. My first book was a case study of African American women and the Young Women’s Christian Association in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century. My second book about representations of African American religion in early sound film also highlighted at various points the ways that white Hollywood filmmakers and black and white filmmakers who made “race films” for black audiences addressed religion and urbanization. So, this project is connected to those in continuing to explore aspects of African American religion and the Great Migration. In this case, I was fascinated by the fact that the political, cultural, and religious transformations that occurred in the urban North in the context of the Great Migration included the emergence of a range of religious movements that offered people of African descent new ways of thinking about black history, identity, and religion.

The project also extends the discussion in Hollywood Be Thy Name about the role religion plays in producing ideas about race. In the case of early sound film, I explored narrative, sonic, and visual approaches to representing African American religious life and considered the sorts of arguments the films made about African American potential for full citizenship through their examinations of religion. With New World A-Coming, I turn attention to a set of religious movements that promoted very different ideas about the nature of black racial identity and the appropriate religious contexts for people of African descent than those found in the more common black Christian contexts.

R&P: And throughout New World A-Coming, your descriptions of the formation of new religious communities, as outcomes of migration and urbanization by people of African descent, certainly bring into focus the religious expressions of black Caribbean immigrants as well as African American migrants.

JW: The inclusion of black immigrants from the Caribbean was inescapable given the way the project shaped up. I was interested in placing groups that offered new ways of thinking about racial identity through a religious lens into conversation with one another, and in two of these—congregations whose members identified as Ethiopian Hebrews and Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement—membership included immigrants from the Caribbean. In the case of Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, founders and most members were immigrants.

So, understanding how the religious cultures and social institutions of Caribbean immigrants contributed to the development and appeal of some of these movements was important. For example, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was headquartered in Harlem from 1918-1927, was a crossroads where the founders and early members of Ethiopian Hebrew congregations met and worked together on the UNIA’s project to foster global black pride and create the conditions for black self-determination. And Garvey’s movement also influenced Noble Drew Ali, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple, who characterized Garvey in the MST’s scripture as having prepared the way for his own prophetic work. The popular global black history work of a figure like Jamaican immigrant J. A. Rogers also contributed to the way founders and members of some of the groups, whether immigrants or U.S.-born, approached history. I left the project feeling that there’s much more work to do to flesh out the story of religious connections between African Americans and black immigrants from the Caribbean.

R&P: Your work offers us “religio-racial identity,” a category that holds together two concepts of self and group identity that often appear inextricable in the lives of the people of African descent you discuss. How would you like this category to influence our discussions of religion and race in America?

JW: I struggled for a long time with terminology. Labels like “sects” and “cults” that were common in an earlier era of scholarship—such as Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis that inspired my own work—have largely been replaced by the “new religious movements” framework. I decided not to use the language of NRM, however, because it doesn’t capture what I found to be distinctive about these particular groups. The Great Migration and immigration from the Caribbean generated a host of new religious movements and “black gods of the metropolis,” to use Fauset’s wonderful phrase. But what compelled me about Ethiopian Hebrews, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and the Nation of Islam was not only the fact that they offered new religious options to people of African descent outside of Christian denominations, but that race was inextricably tied to religious orientation. In addition, the leaders, founders, and members believed that understanding that religion and race were necessarily bound up together transformed them as individuals and as a group.

Rather than characterize the movements as “new religions” in relation to existing religions, I decided to describe them in a way that I thought captured the individual and collective self-understanding that motivated those within the groups. The category of religio-racial identity allowed me to highlight the particular form of intersectionality that was important for those within the groups but also leaves open the option for scholars to group them differently and explore other configurations that illuminate different aspects of early twentieth-century American religious life. I hope that the framework of religio-racial identity helps to make sense of the degree to which participants in these movements understood race and religion as linked, and that it encourages scholars of religion to attend to racial formation and identity in more complex ways. Just as the category of religion is constructed and situated differently in different historical contexts, so too race has been constructed and experienced in complicated ways that intersect with religion.

R&P: And you provide great detail about the performance of religio-racial identity through name changes, rituals, diet, attire, public and private speech, childrearing, and even sex segregation. In particular, I was struck by the interracial members of Father Divine’s Peace Mission. As they worked to live out a “raceless” identity as “humans,” their religio-racial practices reveal that to be raceless entailed a strong race consciousness on their part, a seemingly unavoidable entanglement with racial segregation in the American society they inhabited.

JW: The question of how one re-races or un-races oneself in a highly racialized society is fascinating and, for members of these groups, religious practices and community formations were central to the process of remaking and maintaining their identities. In the cases of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, the goal was to persuade people to reject Negro racial identity and Christian religious commitments in favor of what they understood to be a true and original religio-racial identity (Moorish-American Muslim, Asiatic Muslim, or Ethiopian Hebrew). Father Divine preached a complete rejection of race and members engaged in practices aimed at undoing racial identification. These included prohibiting the use of racial terms like Negro or White and referring to people according to complexion—light-complected or dark-complected—when descriptors were necessary. They also arranged themselves physically according to alternating light and dark complexions as a visual strategy to resist racial thinking and pursued a variety of public actions that insisted on racial integration. As you note, their strategy to move to racelessness was, nevertheless, caught up in America’s racial system.

R&P: With the Peace Mission, a religio-racial group that required celibacy of its members, I also found that you provide a glimpse at religious ways of expressing same-sex desire when same-sex physical intimacy was not allowed. The written correspondence between Peace Mission member Happy S. Love and Dorothy L. Moore demonstrated this religious way of expressing love.

JW: This was another unexpected aspect of the research. I was reading through materials in the Dorothy L. Moore collection at Emory and was surprised to find correspondence between Moore, who was a white visitor to the Peace Mission in Philadelphia in the late 1940s, and a number of members, including an African American woman who adopted the spiritual name of Happy S. Love. There was a level of friendliness and affection in the correspondence, as well as exchanges of gifts and photographs, that surprised me given Divine’s insistence that members cut ties to their families and friends and direct all their emotional attention to him as God on earth. No physical intimacy was allowed among members, and sex segregation was meant to facilitate celibacy. But it is clear from some of Divine’s sermonic admonitions that he considered some of the women to be too companionate with one another. We don’t know if this meant that women had become sexually involved with one another, but he preached that any emotional attachment to another person imperiled members’ standing in the Kingdom of God on earth. I was struck in the letters by the way Happy S. Love mobilized Father Divine’s theology of tapping into the spirit of God within to convey affection for Moore. Rather than writing that she missed Moore, for example, Happy S. would write that “Father in me” missed her. Thinking carefully about the way Peace Mission theology and Divine’s language appeared in the correspondence allowed me to resist what I thought was an easy conclusion that Happy S. Love had violated her commitment to celibacy and turn instead to the complexity of her engagement with the movement’s theology and practices.

R&P: You have uncovered and painstakingly engaged a rich source base—government documents like wartime draft cards, census forms, marriage licenses, enumeration districts, records pertaining to child welfare cases and psychiatric evaluations. And you rely on such documents to reconstruct these subjects, families, and communities in their daily existence as religio-racial groups in the twentieth century. Your analysis of these black religions and their charismatic leaders as they interacted with government institutions, received critical press coverage, and faced opposition from black Protestant clergy affects our understanding of how they formed and practiced their theologies. Do you see your scholarly approach resonating with the “lived religion” mode of talking about American religious groups and practices?

JW: My approach in the project definitely has affinities with “lived religion” as a way of exploring American religious groups and practices. Much of the literature on the groups I call religio-racial movements has focused, understandably, on the charismatic founders and leaders and on official theology. I was interested in the experiences of members of the groups, asking how, in practical terms, they embraced new religio-racial identities and enacted the groups’ theologies in everyday life.

Needless to say, it is difficult to find sources that reveal the lived religions of average members, but I found newspaper accounts, vital records, government surveillance documents immensely helpful, particularly in revealing the high degree of commitment of members to their religio-racial identities and communities. Draft cards and census forms, for example, proved to be unexpected archives of resistance to the racial categories the U.S. government used and of the insistence of members of the movements that they be recognized according to what they believed was their true religio-racial identity. Such moments of engagement with the government at various levels—registering for the draft, voting, getting a driver’s license, being counted on the census, serving in the military—turned out to be critical ones for the work of religio-racial identity making and maintenance.

Beyond these acts of resistance, I also turned to these sources for evidence of the practices of religio-racial identity in everyday life and focused on how these new identities transformed members’ approach to the body, family, community, space and place, and politics. Debates and conflicts with black Protestant clergy and church members – sometimes group members’ own family – and the media also revealed aspects of the theologies and practices of the religio-racial movements. It would have been impossible to get at some of these issues relying only on conventional sources like published texts or sermons, and I was excited to find what could be gleaned from unconventional sources, including a variety of seemingly mundane government documents, for African American and American religious history.

R&P: Like the religio-racial movements you study, there are religious groups in contemporary American cities and towns that face and resist similar apparatuses of government surveillance, social stigmatization by established religious institutions, and perceptions of excessive criminality. We have witnessed government and social suspicion toward immigrant and multi-racial Muslim houses of worship since the beginning of the War on Terror. Does your research on religio-racial movements inform how we might view the current moment, in which the U.S. president, who called for “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during the campaign season now seeks to ban immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries?

JW: The notion that Muslims are somehow “predisposed” to terrorism, in the words of the White House press secretary, motivates the actions of the Trump administration and has grounded the surveillance of Muslim communities in America since 9/11. Moreover, the idea that America is a Christian nation or necessarily linked to “the Judeo-Christian tradition” can render those who practice other religions suspect. Right-wing activists contend that Islam is necessarily anti-American, and this discourse has racial dimensions to it as scholars including Sylvester Johnson, Edward Curtis, Zareena Grewal, Moustafa Bayoumi, and others have shown. The current situation is unique and profoundly distressing, but it also sits in a longer history of which the religio-racial movements are a part.

The presumption by government officials and many in the general public that members of the religio-racial movements were disloyal and held anti-American sentiments because they rejected Negro racial identity, Christianity, or advocated for rights for people of African descent shaped their experiences in profound ways. One of my interests in examining the groups in comparative perspective was to resist the notion that leaders and members necessarily stood in opposition to the U.S. government and did so in uniform ways. I found a range of attitudes towards the U.S. government and varied approaches to politics within some of the groups, as well as change over time.

R&P: Recent election cycles in the larger Western world have reiterated the notion that the nation-state is an ethnic and racial marker, rising in response to economic immigration and refugees seeking asylum from conflict. In addition to helping us understand the beliefs and practices of black religions as they forged new concepts of nation, does the concept of religio-racial identity in New World A-Coming offer us a new way to think about the practices of white nationalism in the West?

JW: I do think the concept of religo-racial identity could be illuminating of aspects of movements other than those I address in the book. I was interested specifically in black religious responses to migration and urbanization and the way some black urbanites brought religion and race together in new ways during the Great Migration. In order to do this, I had to attend to the particular theologies, understandings of history and destiny, practices, community formations, and political expressions of each of the groups, and keeping their understanding of the connection between race and religion always at the forefront of the discussion. Exploring the structures of religio-racial thinking and practices of certain white nationalists, such as those in the Christian Identity movement, for example, can shed light on their commitments and goals. For the black religio-racial movements I examine, it seemed to me that scholars sometimes take the racial claims of the black religio-racial movements to be less important to members than their religious claims (that is, that they’re aiming to be Hebrews or Muslims, but not serious about being Ethiopian or Asiatic, for example) and, in the case of Christian white nationalist groups, perhaps tend to underplay the importance of religion to their racial ideology. The concept of religio-racial provides a way for thinking about both aspects of identity together.

R&P: I imagine that your next historical research project will emerge in some way from the people and materials you encountered in this study of religion and race in America.

JW: I am considering a project on psychiatry and African American religion from the late nineteenth century through World War II. I was fascinated by the published case studies of members of Father Divine’s Peace Mission who were sent for psychiatric evaluation to a number of hospitals in New York in the early 1930s. Some were sent by the Children’s Court judge for abandoning their children for a life in one of the group’s communal residences and others were arrested for disorderly conduct for preaching on the streets. The construction of a particularly racialized “cult madness,” relying on ideas about African religious savagery, was evident in the psychiatric literature about the movement and I found similar assessments of early members of the Nation of Islam. This led me to wonder about the broader landscape of psychiatric discourse and practice in this period with respect to African American religious beliefs, expressions, and groups. The project is barely underway, but I’m interested in psychiatric theory, treatment practices within institutions, and the relationship of ideas about African American religion and mental illness to criminalization.

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