The Bible, most often the King James Version, has served as a source of inspiration, spiritual guidance, artistic production, education, and political strategy for Africans in America since their arrival in the New World. White enslavers allowed enslaved black people to attend Christian church services to listen to both white and black preachers admonish obedience to masters, according to the biblical teaching of Ephesians 6:5–8, Colossians 3:22–25, I Timothy 6:1–2, and I Peter 2:18–21. When the preachers chose Ephesians 6 as their biblical text, their sermons always stopped just short of verse 9, which instructs masters not to threaten their servants and to be aware that God is always watching. Abolitionists and fugitive slave narrators used the same Bible to argue for the sinfulness of slavery. Black men and women, inspired to answer “the Call” to preach the Christian gospel, used the Bible as their primary source for inspiration, authority, and confirmation. More than any other source, the Bible has been the foundation upon which Black preachers have built their homiletic arguments —spiritual, social, economic, political, and familial—despite the preacher’s level of literacy. Its stories, doctrines, language, rhythms, and tones have provided the preacher the tools to paint word pictures on a virtually blank and vast canvas for his or her listeners, some of whom could read, many of whom could not prior to the 20th century. Yet all were familiar with the messages of hope the Bible offered. For both early and contemporary African American women who aligned their lives with and even felt led to preach the Christian gospel, the Bible has supported their right to undertake what they believed to be a divine vocation. In the face of resistance from male clerical leaders of mainstream religious denominations, unlicensed black women preachers have systematically read the legitimacy of their ministries through the experiences of both Old and New Testament women, like Deborah, a judge of Israel; Mary Magdalene, the first to spread the news of Jesus’s resurrection when she returned from the tomb after His crucifixion; and Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, who worked with the Apostle Paul to establish the early Christian Church in Europe. From the earliest African American preaching women, like Elizabeth and Jarena Lee, to contemporary Black women preachers like Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman elected bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Bible offered indisputable evidence of God’s dispassionate call for laborers to His vineyard and continues to undergird their right to join that labor force. The Bible and the sanctuaries of Black churches served as the manual and meeting space for planning and implementing a successful 20th-century American civil rights movement. The Bible provided the movement’s most prominent leaders, like Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the messages of love, hope, urgency and inspiration they would preach in the face of hatred, despair, complacency, and resistance. Quoting the prophet Isaiah’s inspiriting words, they confidently proclaimed: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:4–5) Finally, for scholars of African American life and culture, especially those interested in its religious traditions and forms of spiritual expressivity, the Bible has remained the central text for the study of Black theology, liberation theology, Womanist Theology, and African American Hermeneutics and homiletics.
The works in this section provide overviews and introductions to the Bible as a central element in African American religious life and culture. Wimbush 1993 provides a broad introduction to African American engagement with the Bible. Blount, et al. 2007 and Wimbush 2000 are two major collections of essays by well-known biblical scholars of wide-ranging interests. Wimbush 2003 is a short but foundational treatment of the ways the Bible has helped to shape an African American worldview. McCray 1990a and McCray 1990b outline arguments for an Afrocentric reading of the Bible by defining terms and identifying key individuals for study. Bailey and Grant 1995 and Callahan 2006 take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding biblical influence on Blacks in the United States. Page 2010 and Yamauchi 2004 explore the African roots of the Hebrew Bible.
Bailey, Randall C., and Jacquelyn Grant, eds. The Recovery of Black Presence: An Interdisciplinary Exploration, Essays in Honor of Dr. Charles B. Copher. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Collection of fourteen essays divided into two parts—biblical studies and other theological disciplines—related to pioneering scholar Charles Copher’s broad areas of concerns relative to African American theology and critical race studies. Range of topics includes Old Testament theology, the Gospels, DuBoisian political theory, Toni Morrison and the Bible, slavery, womanist theology, pastoral counseling, and transmission of faith legacy to Black children.
Blount, Brian K., Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery, eds. True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Comprehensive collection of essays on African American biblical interpretation, including essays on slavery in the early church, images of Africa in the Bible, womanist biblical interpretation, African American preaching and the Bible, and African American art and the Bible. Second half includes biblical commentary on each book of the Bible. Useful appendix listing African American New Testament scholars holding doctorates.
Callahan, Allen Dwight. The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
Takes as its premise the ubiquitous nature of biblical influence in African American life and culture, including religion, visual art forms, music, folk medicine, alternative ‘non-Christian’ belief systems, literature, and resistance. Wrestles with the complexities of the trope of the ‘talking book’ as both poison and good. Includes both subject and Scripture indexes.
McCray, Walter Arthur. The Black Presence in the Bible: Discovering the Black and African Identity of Biblical Persons and Nations. Vol. I, Teacher’s Guide. Chicago: Black Light Fellowship, 1990a.
Offers a methodology for studying Black peoples written about in the Bible. Focuses on Genesis 10 to analyze the Hamitic/African genealogical line to include Hamitic, non-Hamitic, and Cushite peoples. Includes maps and biblical index.
McCray, Walter Arthur. The Black Presence in the Bible and the Table of Nations. Vol. 2. Chicago: Black Light Fellowship, 1990b.
Follow-up study from Volume I that focuses on Genesis 10 to construct a Table of Nations descending from Ham, Noah’s second oldest son, and to identify a Black biblical presence. Empirical analysis of the table, including ten histories of Genesis, charts, and illustrations.
Page, Hugh R., Jr., ed. The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Collection of essays on every aspect of the Hebrew Bible relative to the African Diasporic experience. Includes at least one essay on every Old Testament book, divided canonically. Includes maps, images, and index of scriptures.
Wimbush, Vincent L. “African American Tradition and the Bible.” In Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, 12–15. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Traces broadly the history of African Americans’ engagement with the Bible as dynamic and reflective of their collective and diverse social, economic, political, and spiritual positions in American society. Offers five historically situated readings: Awe and Fear: Initial Negotiation of the Bible and the New World; Critique and Accommodation; Critique from the Margins; Leaving Race Behind; and Women’s Reading.
Wimbush, Vincent L., ed. African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures. Originally Presented at an International Conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York, April 1999. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Collection of sixty-four essays organized to explore hermeneutical, historical-comparative, ethnographic, and literary contexts of African Americans’ relationships to the Bible and biblical studies. Includes major scholars from a wide range of American institutions. Divided into three major sections and further subsections. Extensive bibliography with Scripture, name, and subject indexes.
Wimbush, Vincent L. The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Analyzes African Americans’ encounter with the Bible and the ways it has shaped a Black American cosmology. Considers African spiritualities and their early influence on Africans brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade. Short, broad treatment.
Yamauchi, Edwin M. Africa and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.
Explores the historical and archaeological background of biblical texts relative to Africa and the Bible. Examines the commonly accepted exegesis of the texts and traces the ramifications of their later interpretations and misinterpretations. Explores the curse of Ham, Moses’ wife—Zipporah, Solomon, the Ethiopian Eunuch, Simon of Cyrene, and Afrocentric biblical interpretation. Includes extensive bibliography and Scripture, author, and subject indexes.
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