- Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists Since Emancipation ed. by Edward R. Crowther and Keith Harper
I was raised in an interdenominational household. My father was entrenched in the National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated (not to be confused with the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated), and my mother was a product of the National Primitive Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated. Baffling, right? Distinctions like incorporated, unincorporated, and primitive seem innocuous, yet they point to major theological differences and [End Page 447] are the result of both legal and physical fights. Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists since Emancipation encourages readers to question the monolithic understandings of the African American religious experience. Edited by Edward R. Crowther and Keith Harper, the volume suggests that phrases like black Baptist and black church have outlived their usefulness, and a closer reading of particular institutional and individual stories provides a deeper appreciation for the complexity and diversity of black religiosity.
In the opening chapter, noted black Baptist historian Sandy Dwayne Martin examines black Baptist identity during and after the Civil War. While not based on any new research, Martin's chapter reinforces the link between temporal and eternal concerns among African American Christians. According to Martin, notions that otherworldly pursuits do not reflect a deep yearning for freedom in this life are completely false. African Americans viewed emancipation as a vindication of and by faith. Martin's essay is followed by Charles F. Irons's examination of black Baptists in postwar North Carolina. Irons shows that contrary to popular belief, all black Baptists did not start independent congregations immediately after slavery. Some chose to continue long-standing relations with white Baptists, and in fact, "themes of choice and variation more accurately capture the black experience in the immediate postwar period than the theme of separation" (p. 38). Irons's thesis stands as a corrective to the historiography that equates black autonomy with separation.
Eric Michael Washington's work on the formation of black Baptist foreign mission work suggests that "Ethiopianism provided … a theological basis for racial uplift both at home and on the continent of Africa" (p. 59). Most discussions of pan-African theologies overlook this tradition within the black Baptist movement, so Washington tries to trace a continual line of religious nationalist sentiment among black Baptist missionaries to Africa. While the chapter shows the penchant for independence among black Baptist missionaries, some degree of cooperation was essential to the success of their efforts. The separatist/cooperationist dichotomy has led scholars to misinterpret the nuanced relationship between black and white Baptists, particularly in the South. In reality, black Baptists could not have done all they were able to do so soon after emancipation without white support. The question for African Americans was to what degree and on what terms were they willing to work with white communities.
This ongoing relationship with white Baptists is an important theme of Between Fetters and Freedom; nowhere is this clearer than in April C. Armstrong's chapter on Nannie Helen Burroughs's relationship with Annie Walker Armstrong. Their unlikely sisterhood was emblematic of cooperative efforts between black and white Baptist women of the National Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention. Paul Harvey's short essay invites readers to think about how one might bridge the gap between scholarly understandings of official history and actual religious practice—"two approaches that are often seen as being antithetical" (p. 135).
The final four chapters examine various aspects of black Baptist history in the second half of the twentieth century. Alan Scot Willis explores the work of M. C. Allen, editor of the official organ of the National Baptist Convention of America, and attempts to make sense of the twoness in the organization's [End Page 448] identity as reflected in the columns of the National Baptist Union Review. In the process Willis introduces Allen as a little-known proponent of Afrocentric ideology in the black Baptist tradition. Courtney Pace Lyons...