The enslavement of an estimated ten million Africans over a period of almost four centuries in the Atlantic slave trade was a tragedy of such scope that it is difficult to imagine, much less comprehend."

So begins Albert Raboteau in Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (Oxford, 1978), the benchmark work on slave Christianity. But he and other scholars have done much to help readers comprehend and imagine life for African Americans before the Civil War—without downplaying the overwhelming tragedy of the situation.

Uniquely religious

As W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington both noted, the story of the black church and black America are unalterably linked. It would be impossible to write about the black experience without reference to Christian faith. But until Raboteau's book, there were few noteworthy tomes specifically on black religion. There are more now, but scholars still lament the breadth of such works.

Some of the better books are collections of primary source material, most notably Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Duke, 1985), edited by Milton C. Sernett. He argues that such a work "does not constitute a history of Afro-American religion," but merely serves to enable readers "to think about Afro-American religious history." It certainly does that.

A more specific collection is Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans (HarperCollins, 1994). The prayers here are less historically important, but they do serve to show the vitality of black spirituality firsthand.

The main evangelical publishers have issued disappointingly few books on black Christianity, historical or otherwise. But based on recent releases, they might be starting to come ...

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