Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration.
In February 1987, the Smithsonian Institution opened its historic exhibit, "Field to Factory: Afro-american Migration, 1915-1940." Under the direction of Spencer Crew, its chief curator, "Field to Factory" struck an exceedingly responsive chord. Popular and scholarly interest in the Great Migration soared. The exhibit soon inspired a variety of films, symposia, and new books, including Bound for the Promised Land. As the author states, "I lingered for a long time at many portions of the 7,000 square foot exhibit, looking and listening. . . . I became a silent witness to the power of the material to evoke the spiritual" (p. 2) Bound for the Promised Land examines the Great Migration as a religious or redemption movement. Specifically, Sernett places the growth of the northern black urban church at the center of his analysis, emphasizing the Great Migration as a "Second Emancipation" and the fulfillment of God's will to deliver "his people" from the "land of Egypt." As such, he reinforces recent efforts to supplement our usual focus on the economic, social, and political dimensions of the migration with fresh new cultural perspectives.
Building upon the recent explosion of scholarship on black migration, Sernett situates his study within the larger context of socioeconomic, political, and cultural changes that existed in the rural and to some extent the urban south on the eve of the Great Migration. Unlike other recent studies, however, Sernett offers an extended discussion of the rural black churches, emphasizing the programs and activities of individuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, who used Atlanta University and Tuskegee Institute as vehicles to reform what they called the "low moral and intellectual standard" that prevailed among rural black churches. Before the onset of the Great Migration, according to Sernett, few elites understood that black rural religion could and would animate a mass exodus of African Americans out of the agricultural south into the heart of urban-industrial America.
Bound for the Promised Land not only illuminates the rural roots of black population movement. It also offers telling insights into the reception of migrants by northern black churches. Whereas established urban studies portray the ambivalent and often hostile reception that newcomers received in established northern churches, Sernett shows how northern black churches overcame such hostility and transformed concern for the migrants into a special mission, and, as he puts it, "a sacred duty." Scholars, activists, and journalists like Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender all echoed the same theme - the northern black church and minister occupied the pivotal "position of moral, spiritual and, in a sense, the social leadership of the Race" (p. 128). While Sernett acknowledges substantial variation from city to city, he uses Chicago as a detailed case study to show how "mainline" black Baptist and AME churches responded to both the spiritual and material needs of their new parishioners. In addition to Sunday fellowship, these churches provided food, clothing, housing, educational, health, leisure, and employment services to migrants and their families.
However benevolent northern black churches may have been, Sernett concludes that migrants themselves played the key role in transforming the religious landscape of northern cities. Migrants not only fueled the expansion of the mainline churches by joining established congregations, but established their own independent churches, particularly storefronts. Rather than following the usual stereotype of storefront churches as the peculiar home of Pentecostal, holiness, spiritualist, or other so-called "exotic cults," Sernett shows how storefront churches cut across all denominations - Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness as well as a variety of new religious movements. Within the context of the storefront church, Bound for the Promised Land demonstrates that migrants came to the city with their own cultural resources that enabled them to resist "total assimilation into the cultural traditions of the Old Settlers and set up their own religious safe places in a hostile urban environment" (p. 180).
Based upon the preceding propositions, Bound for the Promised Land also offers a telling critique of African American religious history. Despite the recent expansion of research on African American religious history - as reflected in the Newsletter of the Afro-American Religious History Group - few of these studies systematically incorporate the impact of the Great Migration. Moreover, as Sernett notes, until recently "instrumentalist" perspectives dominated the field of black religious studies. Taking their cue from the contemporary "social gospel" movement, noted scholars - Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Joseph William Nicholson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Charles S. Johnson - advocated a "This worldly," material, and political agenda for the new urban black church. They decried what they saw as the "other-worldly" and spiritual orientation of the old southern church, which they identified with the rise of "exotic" sects or new northern religious movements like those of Charles Emmanuel Grace, elder Micheaux, and Father Divine. By carefully charting the activities of mainline black churches and identifying the rise of urban Pentecostalism with a vibrant black rural culture, Sernett exposes the limits of this overdrawn instrumentalist view of black religious history.
While Sernett adds a fresh perspective on the Great Migration, certain issues receive insufficient attention. Although he places the church at the center of his story, there is little attention to the changing role of the black sermon under the impact of mass migration. We need to know much more about the shifting content as well as styles of black sermons. Moreover, while Sernett begins and ends this study on southern soil and offers a firm rebuke to instrumentalist perspectives on black religion, he provides insufficient evidence on black religious ideas and social practices from the vantagepoint of its grass roots rural participants. Educated elites, blacks and whites, dominate descriptions and first hand accounts. Such critical comments notwithstanding, however, Bound for the Promised Land is a solid contribution to scholarship. It brings the religious dimensions of the Great Migration into sharp focus and helps to revamp aspects of African American urban and religious history. Scholars of African American and U.S. social and cultural history should welcome this book.
Carnegie Mellon University
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|Author:||Trotter, Joe W.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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