SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp: Setting Down the Sacred Past: American Race Histories

By Ipsita Chatterjea

In this book, Maffly- Kipp presents the genre of religious denominational histories, memoirs and other publications as carriers of a trans-Atlantic African-Christian consciousness and collective narrative. Framed by the emergence of the black denominations at the end of the eighteenth century and the “New Negro” in the twentieth century, Maffly-Kipp juxtaposes the diverse tradition of black denominational historical narratives of the religious and political with the impact of DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier and Carter Woodson’s respective analytical formulations of the “Negro Church” and eventually “Black Church.” She emphasizes that these writings constitute a compelling, sustained act of black self-definition that occurs in the context of interactions with whites but reflects substantially competing visions of African American Protestant Christianity. She integrates seamlessly women writers while she clarifies their significance as carriers of religious and familial tradition. Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies as University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Maffly-Kipp’s book should prompt additional attention to her labor as an editor for the University of North Carolina Documenting the South Project, where some of the sources she refers to in the book are available on-line.

In Setting Down the Sacred Past, she has written an intellectual history of the intertwined array of African American doctrines and practices of the religious and political as well as self-reflective historical understanding. Her work here enables Trans-Atlantic intellectual historians to follow another aspect of a narrative identified by J.G.A. Pocock in the Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975, 2003). Maffly-Kipp traces key biblical and black historical metonyms and genres of denominational histories in the development of black intellectual history, religious and political culture. The religious historians and memoir writers she profiles invoke ancient African history as the foundation of western civilization and are testimony to the tensions between narratives of black Christian destiny and internally corrosive regionalism. She maps the rhetorical common ground and distinctions among African American Methodists denominations and Baptists on matters of civic and religious uplift. She documents doctrines of AME exceptionalism and the CME’s tension with Northern African Methodism as it formulated a self understanding in relationship to Southern whites and the legacy of slavery. She details the entrenched anti-Catholicism in African American Protestant ambivalence toward the Haitian legacy of Black liberation and self-governance. She presents narratives of the African American encounters with African Christianity, Islam and indigenous practice that ground the debate on the return to Africa movements in tension with those who sought full citizenship and racial uplift in the United States.

Analytically, Maffly-Kipp situates DuBois and gives him and his contemporaries their due while she documents why we cannot linger on their characterizations of black religion. She recognizes the problems with using double consciousness as an analytic and in her extended immersion in the diversity of religious histories she aids the task over turning hybridity and other tropes of oversimplified causation that mark the study of either “other people’s religion” or the religious culture and legacy of minority groups. Her work is part of scholarly move with Best, Butler, Savage, Evans, McRoberts, and Weisenfeld (among others) to analyze black religion as it is encountered and move from frames that posit the Black Church as self-evident, or some how analytically normative. The book should be read by any scholar or student of American Religious History, African American Studies and anyone who analyzes American or trans-Atlantic Intellectual history or political culture. Placing this book in the hands of undergraduates would expose them to a well-documented lucid narrative that will be, as others have noted, a benchmark of scholarship in these fields for decades.

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