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Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years.

Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years. By Henry H. Mitchell. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004. xviii + 197 pp. $18.00 paper.

Henry H. Mitchell, a retired professor of black church studies from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, has written a general treatment of African American religious history up to about 1900, a treatment that emphasizes the influence of Africanness over African American religious history. He seeks to counter the notion that Christianity is a white religion by mining the abundant evidence for self-determination among black Christians in the United States.

As evidence of African survivals in the formative period of the African American churches, he explores such cultural practices as the talking drum, the inverted pot, and the ring shout. Turning his attention to matters of religious belief, he finds that "the only major aspects of Christian orthodoxy that were new to Africans were Jesus, hell, and the Bible" (19). Unfortunately, he does not draw upon recent research that delineates some of the differences in African cultures between different African nations that had to be overcome in order to fashion African American culture. Nor does he explore differing influences from those Africans who followed traditional religions vis-a-vis minorities who had practiced Islam or Christianity in Africa before being stolen away to the Western Hemisphere.

One of the great strengths of this book is its deep grounding in African American religious traditions. Mitchell has made use of local church histories that have previously been unexplored in writing this work. With such sources, for example, he can provide an account of church trials in an AME congregation in Reading, Pennsylvania, in order to demonstrate "the careful scrutiny ... of moral and ethical behavior" (76) in early black churches. This book is filled with dates and places detailing the founding of black congregations and schools. Most people who are affiliated in some way with historically black denominations will be able to find particulars of their own community's experience reflected in here in some way.

The tendency of this book to lapse sometimes into the style of a compendium or catalog is compensated for by Mitchell's vigorous judgments that he is not shy to share with his readers. The latter help to make the book come alive. He is a firm advocate of women's equality within the church, for example, and he provides helpful thumbnail sketches of several of the earliest preaching women within the historically black churches. He thus establishes how women's "charisma, activism, and dedication were of critical importance" (80-81) to black churches.

There were a few areas where this book does not accomplish as much as it might have. At times, he should have taken a more critical stance toward the traditions of black churches. It is a mistake, for example, to take at face value the claims of the AME Zion Church that Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were "great AMEZ orators" (114) when recent biographers of Douglass and Truth have demonstrated their wide range of religious commitments, of which the AMEZ Church is probably not the most important. Mitchell needed stronger, more diverse, more recent, and less generalized sources for this book. The thinness of his sources meant that he was unnecessarily vague on occasion, such as in his discussion of the legal struggle over the question of whether baptism of a slave necessarily entailed his or her freedom. A better job of editing would have also eliminated unnecessary redundancies. On the whole, however, this work will be a helpful resource for church groups and as an auxiliary text in the classroom, and it should also be purchased for library use.

Stephen W. Angell

Earlham School of Religion
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Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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