Prophets, Prophets Every Where

by John G. Turner

From our recent posts it strikes me that we have no shortage of prophets in American religious history. Paul's quite right to point us to Thomas Slaughter's biography of John Woolman, which I'm eager to read.

For those who prefer to get their prophecy straight from the prophet's mouth (or pen, rather, or clerk's pen), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has just published its long-awaited first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. Any friends or family still trying to find me a Christmas present have their problem solved. Update: I hear the first print run sold out. Still, I take belated gifts.

Speaking of prophets, I just enjoyed reading our friend Ed Blum's W.E.B. Du Bois, a very welcome diversion from the end-of-the-semester crunch. I've had a particularly soft spot for Du Bois ever since a member of one of my first classes submitted an earnest five-page essay on "W.E.B. Dubious." The spellchecker is not your friend!

I know others have discussed Ed's book here, but for those of you who have yet to savor his "religious biography" of an American Prophet, make plans over the holidays. One of the reasons this book succeeds is because of Ed's own passion (devotion, even) about Du Bois: I wrote this book as an acolyte, imagining myself sitting at Du Bois's feet, reading over his shoulder, and listening to the responses of the many he touched. I wrote this book to learn religion and spirituality from Du Bois. For certain months, I tried to live his day-to-day professional routine: morning walks, regular lunches, and evening conversation. I prayed his prayers to my students and endeavored to feel his moving in their hearts.

Blum proves a perceptive student of his seer, excoriating white American Christianity for its racist sins: As whites conflated the jig of Jim Crow with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and as they tightened the noose of Judge Lynch in the name of Jehovah Lord, the spiritual wage of whiteness sanctified the violent white supremacist America. Blum, though, doesn't end with prophetic rage. Du Bois and Blum preach from both testaments. As Du Bois prayed, "Nothing is so bad that good may not be put into it and make it better and save it from utter loss."

I learned a great deal from this book, one that will help me in the classroom, first by prompting me to assign not only Souls of Black Folk but to have students sample Du Bois's essays and short stories. I did not know that Du Bois wrote stories and poems with black Christs, mulatto Christs, and female Christs. Blum perceptively connects his prophet with later developments in black theology, liberation theology, and womanist theology.

I loved reading Du Bois's answer to "Is the civilization of the United States Christian?" He thought the question absurd. How African Americans (and, to a large extent, any historically informed and thoughtful Christian) must cringe when leaders of the Religious Right speak wistfully of returning to past Golden Ages of American Christianity that included things like slavery, lynchings, and segregation. Blum also rejects such frameworks: What makes no sense, however, is that an America of bombs and threats and red-scare witch hunts has been painted religious, while Du Bois's endorsements of peace, disarmament, economic uplift, and human brotherhood have been declared antireligious.

Prophets are never perfect. In Du Bois's case, it's still difficult for me not to be stunned at his credulous praise of the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s and early 1960s. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison accepted the truth of communism as a "god that failed" -- Du Bois seems to have hardened his heart to the evils of Stalinist communism. When it comes to prophets in that era, I find Reinhold Niebuhr (or Wright and Ellison for that matter) to be a surer guide.

The most immediate contribution of Blum's book is his correction of a historiography that has presented Du Bois as irreligious or even antireligious. Blum easily convinced me that the truth is much more complex. Moreover, Blum sets aside the "audacious" proposition that he or anyone else could render a definitive judgment on the nature of Du Bois's belief, instead focusing on Du Bois's writings and the way that readers often received them as religious missives.

As Ed suggests in one of his recent posts, we need to be sensitive to the "destructivity of some religious forms in the United States," particularly -- I would add -- those of our own faith traditions if we have them. Blum has clearly learned that lesson well from Du Bois.

In terms of the prophetic subject of my own work, I'm certainly open to learning lessons from Brigham Young. I think I'll stop short of proclaiming myself an acolyte, however, as my wife warns against the full embrace of his lifestyle.


Christopher said…
In terms of the prophetic subject of my own work, I'm certainly open to learning lessons from Brigham Young. I think I'll stop short of proclaiming myself an acolyte, however, as my wife warns against the full embrace of his lifestyle.

Hahaha. Nice one. Thanks for the thoughtful review of Ed's book. It's at the top of my non-thesis oriented to-read list.
John G. Turner said…
I try to avoid polygamy jokes but couldn't help myself.

But I've got to say that compared to emulating Woolman, Smith, or Brown, Ed wisely chose to become a Du Bois disciple.
J. Stapley said…
Excellent post, John. I need to read that Du Bois volume.
Anonymous said…
John, this is such a kind post. Thank you. I think a fun juxtaposition would be your book on Bill Bright with mine on Du Bois - for a religious history class or a religious biographies class. They lived basically through the same time period in the US and the differences (at first) may seem to only be race: but geographical areas were different; ages were different; denominations were different; throw in Aimee Semple McPherson and we've got quite a new and complicated perception of 20th century US (religious) history.
Manlius said…
Nice post, John.

Speaking of American prophets, one that's often overlooked is Howard Thurman. Many relegate him to the importance of his influence on MLK Jr. (and indeed, that is noteworthy), but I wish he were more appreciated in his own right.
Anonymous said…
Another vote for more attention to Howard Thurman!