The rise of black ethnics: The ethnic turn in African American religions, 1916-1945

Sylvester A. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


During the world war years of the early twentieth century, new African American religious movements emerged that emphasized black heritage identities. Among these were Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew's Congregation of Commandment Keepers (Jewish) and "Noble" Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple of America (Islamic). Unlike African American religions of the previous century, these religious communities distinctly captured the ethos of ethnicity (cultural heritage) that pervaded American social consciousness at the time. Their central message of salvation asserted that blacks were an ethnic people distinguished not by superficial phenotype but by membership in a heritage that reached far beyond the bounds of American history and geography. The academic study of these religions has largely moved from dismissal and cynicism to serious engagement with African American Jews and Muslims as veritable forms of religion. Despite this progress among scholars, some recent studies continue to deny that Matthew's and Ali's communities were authentically Jewish and Islamic (respectively). When scholars dispense with theological or racial biases that bifurcate religions into 'true' and 'false' forms, the study of these black ethnic religions might best yield important insights for understanding the linkage among ethnicity, the nation-state, and religion. The religious reasoning of Matthew and Ali produced resourceful, complicated challenges to dominant colonial and racist paradigms for understanding agency and history. Their theology is appropriately discerned not as illusion, hybridity, or confusion but as thoughtful anticolonial expressions of Judaism and Islam that sought inclusion and honor through black ethnicity. At a time when African Americans were viewed as cultureless and without any legacy of inheritance except the deformities of slavery, the rise of black ethnics introduced religious traditions that demonstrated blacks were indeed a people with heritage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-163
Number of pages39
JournalReligion and American Culture
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Religious studies


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