Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition



Here's a book that should be appearing in about a month or two, keep your eye out for it: Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow. I first became interested in this as a Ph.D. dissertation from Columbia some years back. It's now coming out as a book focusing on the world of black Christians in Savannah from the 1890s through the Depression. It's one of the richest local studies of African American religion that I've read, full of fascinating detail but also productive of big (and sometimes controversial) ideas about the role of the church in the community. I'll blog about this more in the future once it's available. Here's some more on it:

Using Savannah, Georgia, as a case study, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition tells the story of the rise and decline of Black Christian Nationalism. This nationalism emerged from the experiences of segregation, as an intersection between the sacred (religion and church life) and the secular world of business. The premise of Black Christian Nationalism was a belief in a dual understanding of redemption, at the same time earthly and otherworldly, and the conviction that black Christians, once delivered from psychic, spiritual, and material want, would release all of America from the suffering that prevented it from achieving its noble ideals. The study’s use of local sources in Savannah, especially behind the-scenes church records, provides a rare glimpse into church life and ritual, depicting scenes never before described. Blending history, ethnography, and Geertzian dramaturgy, it traces the
evolution of black southern society from a communitarian, nationalist system of hierarchy, patriarchy, and interclass fellowship to an individualistic one that accompanied the
appearance of a new black civil society.

Although not a study of the civil rights movement, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition advances a bold, revisionist interpretation of black religion at the eve of the movement. It
shows the institutional primacy of the churches giving way to a more diversified secular sphere before an overtly politicized struggle for freedom could take place. The unambiguously political movement of the 1950s and 1960s that drew on black Christianity and radiated from many black churches was possible only when the churches came to exert less control
over members’ quotidian lives.

“Oltman’s recovery of a fascinating union of business and religion, in rise and decline, illuminates the history of Savannah and underscores the complexities, opportunities, and tensions that typified early twentieth-century African American communities across the nation. Clearly written and skillfully researched, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition leaves indelible impressions of struggles that mattered to communities and individuals alike.”—Jon Butler, author of Awash in a Sea of Faith


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