new world a-coming (3)


Malcolm X at an NOI dinner (via CNN)

What we’re reading

  • Weisenfeld, “Community” (Part 3, pp 167–278)

Weisenfeld, “Community”

This section is so important in the study of new/emergent religions. If you haven’t done NRM studies before, you might not have a sense of how often scholars and journalists fixate on individual members and their decisions to join or leave these groups. Weisenfeld helps us see that no member of a religio-racial movement joins in isolation: their families and friends might support or rebuke them, but community is always a part of how we do religion.


Prof. Weisenfeld tells us to be on the lookout for “how the religio-racial movements provided alternative frameworks for configuring life in common at the levels of family, community, and nation,” (2016, 168). She shows us that both R-R movements and conventional Christian communities both addressed similar concerns — relationships to family, community, place, nation, and the reconfiguration of “social relations and political perspectives” in alignment with religious commitments and convictions. But

At the same time, each religio-racial movement’s narrative of identity engendered a distinctive understanding of religio-racial families, community formation, the American nation, political participation, and interactions with blacks outside of the movements. (Weisenfeld 2016, 168)

So we know we should be looking for how Ethiopian Hebrews, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Islam helped members rethink and rework their relationships to their families, their communities, to America, to political movements and causes, and to other Black people beyond these R-R movements.

Note that agency here is collective as well as individual: not only do individual members act on themselves and their communities; communities act on the individual, on other communities, and on the nation itself.

Prof. Weisenfeld also helps us understand the stakes of religio-racial belonging. In some cases, joining R-R movements meant leaving behind family and friends to join a new and unfamiliar community. Joining R-R movements could also mean being at odds with other Black Americans and with American law enforcement — as we’ll discuss at length in the final unit of this class.

Weisenfeld, “Making the Religio-Racial Family”

“I was taught arithmetic and algebra, and that I was an Asiatic girl and the cream of the earth.”

Sally Allah, as quoted in Weisenfeld 2016, 204

Um, full disclosure, I was not prepared for the amount of violence Weisenfeld documents in this chapter? Which is short-sighted of me, I now realize. Anyway, CW for domestic violence, sexual assault, and several murders (attempted or actual), apparently.

[This] chapter explores how religio-racial perspectives on history and peoplehood and ideas about the collective future shaped each group’s approach to family. In many ways, religio-racial family making was part of a broader concern with purity of peoplehood in light of the loss of collective history and identity in the traumas of slavery. Restoring peoplehood required the assent of individuals and creation of community in the present, but also the projection of religio-racial commitment into the future, either through transmission across generations or perseverance into eternity in Divine’s kingdom. Such concerns, in turn, shaped ideas about marriage and attitudes toward children within the movements. (Weisenfeld 2016, 169)

What do the ways these movements made or remade the family tell us about the movements themselves? How do R-R movements’ family structures help us better understand the movements’ religio-racial self-fashioning? How might we understand these family structures as constructive responses to violent and traumatic histories?

[R-R movement members’] commitments shaped the social unit of the family, generating frameworks for how men and women should relate to one another, whether and how they should form family units, and the significance of such configurations for the religio-racial community. (Weisenfeld 2016, 171)

How did the Ethiopian Hebrews, Peace Mission, Nation of Islam, and Moorish Science Temple rethink and reshape the family? What do these reconfigured family shapes tell us about the movements in question? How did outsiders respond to these familial configurations? Why is paying attention to movements’ family structures important?

Each movement’s framework allowed members to invest in the social unit of the religio-racial family to create community in the present and orient themselves toward the future. (Weisenfeld 2016, 172)

Weisenfeld notes that for all their difference from mainstream Black Protestantism, religio-racial movements by and large invested in “the heterosexual family as important for their projects of racial salvation,” (ibid.). How did MST, NOI, and the Ethiopian Hebrews explain the importance of the gender binary and procreative heterosexuality to their respective theologies? How did Father Divine’s Peace Mission challenge this paradigm? How did these familial frameworks allow members to invest in their movements’ theologies and communities? How did these family structures help R-R movements build toward the future?

In contrast to Divine’s insistence that racial categories and racial segregation were sinful, he promoted sex segregation as natural and part of the divine order of creation, preaching, ‘We will not tolerate but one discrimination and that is between the males and the females. That is all the segregation we shall have. But we shall have segregation to that degree, for that is the way god Created them in the beginning. Now isn’t that Wonderful!’” (Weisenfeld 2016, 185)

I’m also fascinated by Father Divine’s insistence that racial segregation is a sin but gender segregation is biblical and good. How do we see gender segregation play out in PM? Did gender segregation = gender hierarchy, according to Weisenfeld? What space did PM make for doing gender differently? How did observers characterize PM’s gender segregated and celibate lifestyle?

Attention to children took such forms as rituals of incorporation, formal education, and young people’s organizations, all focused on binding children and youth to the reclaimed identity their leaders, parents, and other adult members had embraced. Religious education for children is not unusual, and the approaches religio-racial movements took to cultivating their children and preparing them for adult membership share much in common with a range of other religious groups in the United States at the time, including those to which many members had formerly belonged. Nevertheless, religio-racial nurture often took on particular urgency in light of adult leaders’ and members’ determination to restore true identity and ensure the perpetuation of religio-racial commitments across generations. (Weisenfeld 2016, 198)

How did R-R movements express their visions of the future through what Weisenfeld calls “religio-racial nurture?” How did PM, CK, NOI, and MST encourage religio-racial self-fashioning in its youngest members? How did outsiders respond to these programs?

Weisenfeld, “The Religio-Racial Politics of Space and Place”

CW for threats of white supremacist violence RE: PM’s acquisition of property

“Religious spaces were often the only ones over which black communities exercised control.” (212)

[This] chapter charts how religio-racial commitment shaped the ways members situated themselves in local environments that had been formed through the racialization of space in northern cities. The movements emerged as a result of early twentieth- century geographic mobility as southern African Americans urbanized and moved north, and through immigration from the Caribbean. The cultural, religious, and political possibilities and limitations of the urban contexts in which migrants and immigrants settled fostered the novel religio-racial identities the groups offered and influenced the experiences of leaders and members. In turn, members of some of the movements engaged urban space from the vantage point of religio-racial identity to reshape it to their needs, creating urban sacred enclaves or rendering apartment or commercial space appropriate for ritual. In other movements members looked to promised lands outside of the city or even the United States to create spaces where they could build religio-racial communities. Choices about how to relate to urban space grew out of their religio-racial understandings of the relation of the American nation to their collective well-being in the present and to the fulfillment of their future destiny. (Weisenfeld 2016, 169)

The last sentence of this quote gets at the heart of this chapter. What does Weisenfeld mean when she says “choices about how to relate to urban space grew out of [R-R movements members’] religio-racial understandings of the relation of the American nation to their collective well-being in the present and to the fulfillment of their future destiny?” (ibid.) What’s the relationship she’s observing between members’ relationships to urban spaces and members’ conceptions of America and their place in it?

Members of religio-racial movements rendered space and place meaningful in light of their shared commitments. Through embrace of a particular religio-racial identity, individuals cultivated a new sense of self, constituted and maintained it within the social networks of family and religio-racial community, and also adopted particular dispositions toward their environments in light of their religio-racial beliefs. Attitudes about the social and political worlds around them generated material approaches to organizing space and the built environment to support their communities and invested city spaces with religio-racial meaning. (Weisenfeld 2016, 212)

How did the shared commitments of R-R movement members render space and place meaningful? How did R-R belonging shift members’ relationships to space and place — neighborhoods, cities, and nations? How would “forced migration, dispossession, and rupture of connections to ancestral lands” influence religio-racial movements (ibid.)?

Through their varied approaches to urban space, the built environment, and the American nation, members of religio-racial movements fostered particular senses of community that distinguished them from their neighbors. Announcing their rejection of Negro Christian identity, members of these movements created concentrated religio-racial communities in cities and fashioned their worship spaces to suit their needs. Whether they rejected or embraced Americanness, imagined sacred worlds within cities or promised lands elsewhere, members of religio-racial movements nevertheless lived surrounded by blacks in America who had different identity commitments from their own and with whom they sometimes came into conflict. (Weisenfeld 2016, 251)

What, ultimately, is Weisenfeld arguing about the relationship between religio-racial movements and space/place? Why does this argument matter?

Weisenfeld, “Community, Conflict, and the Boundaries of Black Religion”

[The] final chapter focuses on the place of the religio-racial movements in the broader social worlds of black communities in the United States and explores the impact on the groups of relationships with and attitudes of nonmembers. Interactions with family, friends, and neighbors in daily life had the most immediate impact, but leaders and members of religio-racial movements also dealt with competing religious leaders promoting new theological rubrics, attacks from black Christian leaders who interpreted their religio-racial perspectives as dangerous to black people’s prospects for salvation, and analysis and critique by journalists in the black press who were concerned about what these groups’ claims meant for blacks’ collective political future. For many of these outsiders, engaging the religio-racial movements sharpened their own sense of mission, ideas about normative religious and racial identities for blacks in America, and beliefs about the religious and racial formations that would be most productive for black political and social development. (Weisenfeld 2016, 169–70)

How did interactions with religious leaders and members of other NRMs influence members of R-R movements? What impact did criticism from Black Christian leaders have on these movements? What kinds of analysis and critique did journalists in the Black press offer of these movements, and how did members respond?

Weisenfeld insists that “assessments in the black press reveal less about the movements themselves than about the nature of the journalists’ investments in particular forms of black religious leadership and public culture,” (2016, 278). What do we learn about broader American culture and its assumptions about legitimate Black religion from the Black press’ critiques of religio-racial movements?

While the number of members in religio-racial groups may have remained small in comparison to the membership of black churches, the newer groups proved influential beyond their numbers. Their presence in the religious landscape of early twentieth-century black America challenged mainstream black Christians to refine their own religious and racial identity commitments and make the case for the truth and collective power of their beliefs. From the perspective of members of religio-racial movements, the identities and social formations they offered as an alternative to Negro Christian identity represented a singular truth to which all black people should subscribe. Thus, they saw their groups not as fracturing black community but as providing a divine plan for a unified future and the only assured path to individual and collective salvation. (ibid.)

How does Weisenfeld think religio-racial movements influenced broader Black communities? How would R-R movement members have understood the relationship between their religious commitments and their own Blackness?

Good work on this fascinating and challenging book, y’all! For Tuesday, we’re reading and listening to Dr. Weisenfeld herself reflect on the work she did in New World A-Coming.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin


author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults