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Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition

Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow

Adele Oltman

Publication Year: 2008

Using Savannah, Georgia, as a case study, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition tells the story of the rise and decline of Black Christian Nationalism. This nationalism emerged from the experiences of segregation, as an intersection between the sacred world of religion and church and the secular world of business. The premise of Black Christian Nationalism was a belief in a dual understanding of redemption, at the same time earthly and otherworldly, and the conviction that black Christians, once delivered from psychic, spiritual, and material want, would release all of America from the suffering that prevented it from achieving its noble ideals.

The study’s use of local sources in Savannah, especially behind-the-scenes church records, provides a rare glimpse into church life and ritual, depicting scenes never before described. Blending history, ethnography, and Geertzian dramaturgy, it traces the evolution of black southern society from a communitarian, nationalist system of hierarchy, patriarchy, and interclass fellowship to an individualistic one that accompanied the appearance of a new black civil society.

Although not a study of the civil rights movement, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition advances a bold, revisionist interpretation of black religion at the eve of the movement. It shows that the institutional primacy of the churches had to give way to a more diversified secular sphere before an overtly politicized struggle for freedom could take place. The unambiguously political movement of the 1950s and 1960s that drew on black Christianity and radiated from many black churches was possible only when the churches came to exert less control over members’ quotidian lives.

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

My first debt of gratitude goes to Mr. W. W. Law, the first Savannahian I met while on an exploratory mission in search of a location within which to explore the many questions and ideas I had about religion and politics in the American South. Mr. Law convinced me to locate my study in Savannah. A veteran of manifold civil rights struggles, an activist to the end of his life ...

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pp. 1-14

Sixty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, black Savannahians gathered together for a public remembrance. The first spectators began marking their places along West Broad Street in the heart of the city's black business district some three hours before the parade was to begin. The skies were overcast that morning but did not discourage black ...

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CHAPTER 1. Mapping Black Savannah: Nation and Religion

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pp. 15-48

A visitor to Savannah in 1920 walking south on West Broad Street, several blocks from the "official" commercial district, would encounter the hustle and bustle of black business and cultural life. Within a three-block radius stood three black-owned banks—fourth would open its doors in 1921. The heart of the black business district was at the corner of Alice and West Broad ...

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CHAPTER 2. Holding the Line for the Word: Black Evangelicals below the Mason-Dixon

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pp. 49-75

When Rev. Cato Priester, pastor of Happy Home Baptist Church, entered the Georgia Infirmary on July 5, 1921, to undergo a series of operations, he took advantage of his new surroundings to preach the Gospel. Before leaving the hospital the preacher had converted for baptism five fellow patients, all of whom experienced regeneration and unity with God. After their ...

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CHAPTER 3. "Even If He Is a Woman": Savannah's Talented Tenth and Black Suffrage

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pp. 76-110

On July 4, 1923, nearly six hundred "of the leading colored people, men and women," hailing from all corners of the state of Georgia convened in Atlanta to discuss the plight of "the Negro" and what was to be done about it. At Taft Hall "middle size men, and little fellows from the humble walks of life" not only "touched elbows" with the most venerable of the region's race ...

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CHAPTER 4. "Have Hardly Had Straw": Black Christian Nation Building and White Christian Philanthropy

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pp. 111-149

Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, black southerners sought education with a singular devotion. In Savannah, African Americans had been operating clandestine schools long before the Civil War. The mud from the boots of General Sherman's troops had barely dried on the streets of Savannah when black clergy convened to form the Savannah Education ...

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CHAPTER 5. "Peace and Harmony of the Church": The Secularization of Black Savannah

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pp. 150-184

It has long been an article of faith among scholars that from antebellum times through the modern civil rights movement, black churches have been the principal social, economic, and political institutions created and sustained by black Americans. Much has been written about black churches, without question the most diverse of all black institutions from the period of ...

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Epilogue: From Black Christian Nationalism to Civil Rights

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pp. 185-196

In December 1935 the Social Clubs Union withdrew from Savannah's Emancipation Association, the organization that for years had been dominated by the clergy and had taken charge of planning the parade and celebration marking the end of slavery. "Like a lightening bolt from a clear sky," read a front-page report in the Savannah Tribune, the association "struck a snarling ...


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pp. 197-222


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pp. 223-240


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pp. 241-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336619
E-ISBN-10: 0820336610
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330365
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330361

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2008