Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

Cumbey sketch
Black Gods of the Metropolis #16: Where Did Your Heart Go? Did You Put It on a Train? by J. Alan Cumbey

Black Gods of the Metropolis (1)

Understanding religio-racial identity

This is a foundational text for the study of African American religions, and it should be a foundational text for the study of new religious movements. But honestly, I’ve never read it before now. Glad to be sharing this experience with all of you.

What we’re reading

  • Savage, “Forward,” from Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Penn 1970)
  • Szwed, “Introduction,” from Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Penn 1970)
  • Fauset, “Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North,” from Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Penn 1970)


  • Great Migration
  • religio-racial identity
  • secularization thesis

The Great Migration

We’re going to hear this phrase a lot in this section of the semester. Briefly, the Great Migration (1916–1970) refers to the relocation of roughly six million Black Americans from mostly rural areas of the American South to northern US cities. This mass migration afforded Black Americans more and better paying employment opportunities, dramatically shifted the composition of major cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, and had a lasting effect on the American religious landscape. This was a period of intense religious creativity that gave birth to significant American NRMs, many of which reimagined Black history outside or beyond legacies of enslavement and oppression.

We’ll learn more about this important period of American history throughout our “Religio-Racial Identity” unit (which starts today!). But here are a few resources to get you started:

Savage, “Forward”

Just…wow. One paragraph in and we already know that the scholar who wrote the definitive work on new religious movements in the early 20th century had that work reduced to what Savage calls “his racial credentials” by the Philadelphia Anthropological Society, which sponsored the book’s publication (1970, vii). Cringe.

Savage also tells us that the Philadelphia Anthropological Society’s microaggression — which might just be a straight up aggression, honestly — “spoke to prevailing assumptions about the nature of the nexus between race, religion, and culture, ironically the central intellectual debate in the book,” (1970, vii). So we also know right away that Black Gods of the Metropolis will help us better understand what Weisenfeld calls religio-racial identity: the imbricated intersectional ways race, religion, and culture co-constitute each other, especially in the context of what’s now the United States.

Sidebar: I hope you caught that Fauset was denied an officer’s commission in the armed forces because federal law enforcement was investigating him for his political activism. That’s going to be a theme in this unit as well.

Fauset did not follow the lead of other scholars at the time who designated as “cults” most Christian holiness, Pentecostal, and storefront churches. He distinguished the latter institutions by referring to them not as cults but as “orthodox evangelical churches.” (Savage 1977, ix)

Fauset’s doing this work while many other early scholars of religion are showing up in unfamiliar religious communities and deciding for themselves whether they were “really” Christian. This is a groundbreaking approach to the study of religion; Fauset is years ahead of his time. I also love the description of these NRMs as an “adventuresome range of religious ideas and practices,” (Savage 1977, x). This description of radical religious innovation has big Olamina energy imo.

It’s also important to note that Fauset spoke to and recorded interviews with laypeople rather than focus solely on religious leaders. Again, this is an approach that the discipline of religious studies wouldn’t adopt for decades after Black Gods’ publication. Fauset’s willingness to credit NRM members’ explanations for joining these groups is likewise remarkable; even many scholars of religion outside NRM studies often fail to treat members of so-called cults with this kind of respect. So too Fauset’s insistence that Black people’s belonging to NRMs was both a religious and a political commitment.

Szwed, “Introduction”

Okay, full disclosure: I assigned this bit because I almost always have us read the introduction to any book I assign. This particular introduction doesn’t add much beyond “Fauset decided to ask Black people why they joined new religious movements and then took their answers seriously,” which doesn’t sound like groundbreaking work in ethnography or religious studies? But it was.

You’ll also note that Szwed emphasizes elements of African Diasporic Religions present in the “cults” Fauset studies. Where else have we seen ADR elements pop up in American NRMs this semester?

Fauset, “Negro Religious Cults in the Urban North”

At this point some historical perspective is in order. (Fauset 1970, 2)

Fauset comes out swinging, even if his prose reads as mild: if not one enslaved African who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 was Christian, why are nearly all religious African Americans Christian? Why do we know so little about the practices we’d now think of as religious that these enslaved African people carried with them?

Fauset is also refuting the racist notion that Black people are inherently (more) religious. This matters for a few reasons.

  1. No one is inherently religious. We learn to do religion from other people, because religion is a social construct.
  2. At the time Fauset is writing (1944), most scholars still subscribed to the secularization thesis: the assumption that Since the Dawn of Time, religion has been evolving from “primitive” (ie Indigenous) religions to more sophisticated polytheisms to monotheism to eventual, inevitable atheism.

Here’s the thing about the secularization thesis. Well, two things, actually.

  1. It’s wrong. People have not stopped being religious, though we do religion in many different ways than they did in the early 20th century.
  2. It’s racist AF. I’m sure you noticed that all the folks on the “primitive” side of that timeline just happened to be not-white? Yeah.

So by insisting that African Americans are not inherently religious, Fauset is rejecting the secularization thesis. He accedes that Black NRMs in the US might retain ties, however tenuous, to Africana religions; but that doesn’t make African Americans any more essentially religious than anyone else. This isn’t just a religious studies or an anthropological argument — it’s a political one, pushing back against race “science” that tries to blame Black Americans for conditions created by structural inequality.

But even the Christianization of enslaved Africans should not be understood as complacency on the part of the enslaved, Fauset suggests. Rather, “Indeed, the American Negro church, viewed historically, provides numerous vivid examples of the Negro’s capacity to revolt,” (1970, 7). Black religion has always been a product of resistance, survival, and creativity, Fauset argues.

His insistence on historical context locates the “cults” that are the subject of his inquiry along the trajectory of Black American religious innovation, rather than dismissing them as irrational aberrations. He attributes these departures from mainstream religious practice as “doctrinal splits,” which is to say he understands his interlocutors as sophisticated religious thinkers whose innovations best suit their understandings of sacred texts and lived traditions (Fauset 1970, 8). Fauset also proposes that the comparatively small size of these “cults” doesn’t rob them of scholarly or social significance.



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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