Cults & Sects
Published in

Cults & Sects

Alexander Alland, from his “Ethiopian Hebrews” series (no. 14)

new world a-coming (1)


What we’re reading

  • Weisenfeld, “Narratives” (Part I, pp 23–88)


  • charisma / charismatic leader
  • agency

Weisenfeld, “Narratives”

From the introduction:

Part I offers an overview of the narratives of identity the founders and leaders of the movements conveyed to potential adherents, in which they provided new ways of understanding their origins as a people, the events that led them to their current social, religious, and political locations, and their corporate futures. While each group presented potential members with a unique formulation of religio- racial identity, their success in the crowded religious and cultural arena of urban black America depended on a similar set of components that authorized and supported that identity. I argue that for the thousands of black people who joined them, the appeal of these movements derived from a combination of confidence in the authority of the founder or leader and the power of the leader’s narrative of religio- racial identity. In analyzing the narratives I highlight how some groups reoriented believers’ sense of peoplehood in relation to particular geographic regions and others by offering a new understanding of the chronology of sacred events for others. (Weisenfeld 2016, 18–19)

Again, this is why we read the intro and conclusion before we dive into the rest of the book — smart, clear writers like Prof. Weisenfeld outline what each section or chapter does and give us a sense of what to look for when we’re reading. It’s our job as scholars to review the evidence she’s providing and see if that evidence supports her analysis. (Spoilers: it does.)

So we already know we’ll be looking for information about compelling, confident leaders or founders AND that these leaders/founders will be offering narratives — stories with explanatory power — about the sacred significance and meaning of racial identity.

As you read, think about which narratives these leaders and founders are offering, and why folks who joined their movements might have found those narratives engaging and important.

Pay attention as well to the tension between acknowledging the appeal and influence of leaders and founders and Weisenfeld’s critique (echoing Fauset) of assumptions about “the natural susceptibility of the black masses to such ‘fakers’ to these tales of the irresistible power of the dangerously charismatic ‘cult’ leader,” (2016, 24). As well, note that white ethnographers and Black commentators alike shared an anxiety about “the religious diversification set in motion by the Great Migration,” (ibid.). Why might religious diversification inspire anxiety?

Weisenfeld neither disregards the appeal of a “charismatic” leader/founder — especially, she says, because they claimed “privileged access to divine knowledge” — nor does she find it sufficient to attribute the appeal of R-R movements to such leaders/founders (ibid.). Rather,

It was a combination of charisma and the persuasiveness of the narrative of sacred history and divinely ordained identity that ultimately moved Carrie Peoples and others to reject much of their former lives in favor of a new framework of religio-racial identity. Peoples believed that Fard was a trustworthy vehicle of religio-racial truth, but her ongoing commitment to the identity he promoted stemmed from more than susceptibility to the lure of charisma. Those who embraced a new religio-racial identity were motivated as much by the information they learned about their individual and collective history, their relationship to God, and their place in the world as by the person of the leader. (Weisenfeld 2016, 24–25).

Hopefully by now you can see that this as much an argument about agency as it is about charisma. (Honestly, these are always two sides of the same coin in “cult” studies.) Yes, Fard, Father Divine, and other leaders/founders were compelling public speakers — but no amount of charisma is sufficient to inspire people to rethink their entire perspective on the universe and their place in it, or to restructure their entire lives in tension with the world around them.

Members of R-R movements found leaders’ narratives rational, compelling, and important enough to turn their lives upside down; they made logical decisions to act in these ways. These leaders were conduits for stories that told disenfranchised, terrorized peoples that the homicidal racism they were facing was ungodly, unjustified, and unacceptable. These narratives rewrote history with Black people at the center — or, in the case of the Peace Mission, a history without race at all — and told them it was their rightful place, ordained by God. This sounds like a pretty compelling narrative to me.

Note, too, that while these movements were very different, their central narratives shared key elements:

All reject[ed] the category of Negro as a fabricated product of slavery and subjugation in the Americas. Each argued, albeit through different routes, that their followers’ true history…began long before the establishment of European colonies in the Americas and the enslavement of Africans. (Weisenfeld 2016, 25).

Many historians have downplayed the religiosity of these movements, interpreting them as reactive responses to the political moment of early-to-mid 20th century America. But Weisenfeld insists that to read these movements as purely political is to misunderstand them:

Narratives of alternative religio-racial identity were more than political charters for action in the present moment; they were spiritual maps that oriented followers toward the past and the future in new ways that, in turn, shaped members’ daily lives and interactions with others. Government, religious, and scholarly observers may have routinely characterized these as primarily political movements and excluded them from the realm of the religious, but for those who embraced this new knowledge about self, community, and history, religion was central to their transformations. (ibid.)

What does this passage mean? What is Weisenfeld saying about religio-racial movements here, and why does it matter?

Speaking of maps, spiritual or otherwise: Weisenfeld’s introduction to this section also directs us toward what we should look for in the narratives to come. She says that

We can come to understand the transformative power of these religio-racial identities by considering how they frame questions of ultimate meaning, conceptions of the divine, understandings of divine will, and produce ideas about the nature of and relationship between the spiritual and the material. For members of these groups, such questions were refracted through a desire for knowledge about history and a sense of place in the world and, as such, were shaped by the specific racial context of early twentieth- century America. (Weisenfeld 2016, 25–6)

So when we’re reading about NOI or Ethiopian Hebrews or Father Divine’s Peace Mission, we’re looking to see what narratives these R-R movements offer about:

  • ultimate meaning — why are we here; what does this all mean
  • conceptions of the divine — what is god/the sacred/the ultimate and what is god’s relationship to us
  • understandings of divine will — what does god want for/from us
  • the nature of and relationship b/w the spiritual and the material — what are we made of, what are we supposed to do with our bodies, homes, and the larger world around us
  • history and place in the world — where did we come from and how should our past inform our present lives; where do we go from here

Note that Weisenfeld’s framework of religio-racial identity suggests that the answer to all of these questions must tell members something about their racial identities as well as their religious commitments. (Side note: it’d be interesting to apply this checklist to Olamina’s Earthseed. Could we understand Earthseed as a religio-racial movement? Why or why not?)

Weisenfeld closes the introduction to this section by encouraging us to focus on space and time in the next two chapters. Specifically, she tells us

Leaders of religio-racial movements provided answers to questions about black identity that, in some cases, engaged specific religious traditions: Judaism in the case of the Ethiopian Hebrews, Islam for the MST and the NOI, and Christianity in the PM’s case. They did not simply call on followers to exchange one religion for another, however, but provided frameworks for understanding black history and identity that reoriented members in space and time. Rather than concentrating solely on the charismatic leader or the religious traditions they engaged, the two chapters that follow examine the movements’ authorizing frameworks to explore how they functioned as comprehensive religio-racial systems of meaning. (Weisenfeld 2016, 27)

So as we move into these chapters, be sure to look for how the narratives offered by each of these movements make religio-racial meaning of space (Geographies of Race and Religion) and time (Sacred Time and Divine Histories). These frameworks matter, Weisenfeld argues, because

Attending to these thematic commonalities opens up new ways of understanding the movements’ appeal to potential members and highlights how their religio-racial systems oriented believers toward the past, present, and future. (ibid.)

What does she mean by this?

“Geographies of Race and Religion”

  • How did the Ethiopian Hebrews reimagine Black Americans’ religio-racial identity in relationship to space/place? Which space(s) were significant to this movement and why? What meaning did the group make out of these significant space(s) and how did this meaning shape their practices and their goals?
  • How did the Moorish Science Temple reimagine Black Americans’ religio-racial identity in relationship to space/place? Which space(s) were significant to this movement and why? What meaning did the group make out of these significant space(s) and how did this meaning shape their practices and their goals?
  • How did both of these religio-racial movements think of other religions, including Christianity?
  • How does the evidence Weisenfeld provides in this chapter help us better understand the relationship among founders/leaders of R-R movements, the narratives offered by these movements, and the people who joined them?

“Sacred Time and Divine Histories”

  • How did time function as a theological category in the Nation of Islam and Father Divine’s Peace Mission?
  • How did W. D. Fard, Elijah Muhammad, and Father Divine use theologies of time and history to construct their visions of religio-racial identity?
  • How did Fard, Muhammad, and Divine talk about the relationship of time to specific geographic locations (Mecca and the United States, for example) for understanding religio-racial identity?


Founders and leaders of the religio- racial movements offered varied narratives of peoplehood and individual identity as divine truth. Some highlighted sites of geographic origin as spiritually powerful, and others reoriented believers in sacred divine time. Understanding how the leaders mobilized these different frameworks of collective religio-racial identity gives some sense of the power of the narratives to draw blacks in the urban North into new identities that did not rely on slavery as the experience that created black peoplehood. These new narratives provided access to a collective identity in which blacks were religious agents. (Weisenfeld 2016, 86–7)

Told you it was an argument about agency. See you next time for “Selfhood!”



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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