Du Bois on Religion

Edited by Phil Zuckerman

Introduction Phil Zuckerman    1
1 The Problem of Amusement    19
2 The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study   29
3 Credo    43
4 The Negro Church [Essay]    45 
5 Of the Faith of the Fathers    47
6 Of Alexander Crummell    57
7 A Litany at Atlanta    65
8 Religion in the South    69
9 Jesus Christ in Georgia   91
10 The Church and the Negro  99
11 The Burden of Black Women   101
12 Jesus Christ in Baltimore    105
13 Easter    107
14 The Negro Church    109
15 The White Christ    141
16 The Gospel According to Mary Brown    143
17 The Second Coming   147
18 The Prayers of God    151
19 A Hymn to the Peoples    155
20 Pontius Pilate   157
21 The Gift of the Spirit 161
22 The Color Line and the Church  169
23 Will the Church Remove the Color Line?   173
24 The Son of God  181
25 Jacob and Esau  187
26 The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto   197
Index  203
About the Editor   209


The Problem of Amusement

This essay, written in 1897, illustrates Du Bois’s ability to understand and analyze religious organizations as catering not merely to the limited spiritual or other-worldly needs of their members but to their social, this-worldly needs as well. Du Bois is specifically concerned with the problem of amusement for young black adults and in what ways the Black Church can or cannot address the matter.


The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

The following selections come from Du Bois’s classic book The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899. This brilliant work represents not only the first systematic sociological study of urban African Americans but quite possibly the first sociological study of its kind undertaken in the United States. Du Bois interviewed over 5,000 people in this exhaustive investigation of the historical, social, educational, political, racial, economic, religious, health, conjugal, criminal, environmental, employment, and demographic conditions of the black population of Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century. Du Bois describes the Black Church as “a social institution first, and religious afterwards,” a theme that pervades his sociological work on religious institutions.



Du Bois wrote the following poem in 1900 at the age of twenty-three. It was subsequently published in Darkwater (1920), and it is his single most reprinted piece of work. While it is a gentle expression of religious sentiment, its motif of racial pride and its condemnation of injustice and inequality are also quite pronounced and were extremely radical in their day.


The Negro Church [Essay]

Du Bois was one of the most vociferous critics of the Black Church. In this piece, published in The Crisis in 1912, Du Bois charges that “all is not well with the colored church” and subsequently suggests paths toward improvement.


Of the Faith of the Fathers

The following chapter comes from Du Bois’s most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Du Bois describes the Black Church as the “social centre” of the black community and its “central club-house,” thereby developing his ongoing analysis of the social/communal aspects of early twentieth-century black religious life. But he also illustrates the deeply spiritual components of black religiosity, as well as exploring such matters as the uniqueness of the Negro revival, the transition from African religion to Christianity, and the racist color line that separates white and black even, and perhaps most incredibly, in the realm of religion.


Of Alexander Crummell

This chapter, also from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), offers a powerful illustration of what it was like to be a black Christian leader in the United States at the turn of the century. We glimpse the story of a strong young man who braved the white racism of his day in pursuit of his spiritual ambition. In exploring the inter- section of race and religion, Du Bois reminds us that religious life is never a realm unto itself, but is always and everywhere interwoven with the given social and cultural forces with which it finds itself inevitably enmeshed.


A Litany at Atlanta

This poem was written in 1906 and subsequently published in Darkwater (1920). It was composed in the wake of a gruesome race riot that took place in Atlanta. White mobs killed and assaulted the blacks there, as well as destroying their homes and property. Du Bois was away in Alabama at the time but rushed home to his wife and baby, who were unhurt. He wrote this piece while he was on the train heading home. It is one of the finest examples of “God wrestling” in American literature.


Religion in the South

This chapter comes from The Negro in the South, published in 1907. It is a rare volume and is of considerable interest; two of its four chapters were written by Du Bois and the other two by Booker T. Washington, the prominent African- American leader with whom Du Bois would subsequently have a difficult and often antagonistic relationship. In this chapter, Du Bois discusses questions concerning the conversion of enslaved Africans to Christianity, the careers of several prominent black religious leaders, and the glaring hypocrisy of white Christianity alongside white racism.


Jesus Christ in Georgia

This piece of short fiction was originally published in The Crisis in 1911 and was subsequently published, with slight alterations, under the title “Jesus Christ in Texas” in Darkwater (1920). It is a gripping tale of race and religion in which Du Bois uses the figure of Jesus Christ as a device to highlight the essence of true Christian ethics, expose the evil of white racism, and elevate the painful reality of black suffering to the status of the heroic and holy. Jesus is depicted not as a fair-haired Anglo but as a “mulatto, surely,” his hair curly and his face “olive, even yellow.”


The Church and the Negro

This essay was published in The Crisis in 1913. It is a harsh, succinct condemnation of American Christianity. As in similar works, Du Bois reminds us of the often problematic and troubling relationship between religion and race relations in American history.


The Burden of Black Women

This poem was published in The Crisis in 1914.


Jesus Christ in Baltimore

This piece was published in The Crisis in 1911.



This piece was published in The Crisis in 19l2.


The Negro Church

Published in 1903, The Negro Church is not only the first extensive, in-depth sociological study of African-American religion specifically, but it is the first book-length sociological study of religion in general undertaken in the United States. Employing an array of historical, interview, survey, and participant-observation research methods, The Negro Church explores multiple aspects of African- American religious life in the early years of the twentieth century, from church finances to public opinion to denominational diversity to belief.

While he was at Atlanta University, Du Bois organized annual conferences in which scholars and specialists would come together to share their research on a variety of timely black issues, such as the Negro in business, the Negro American family, the Negro American artisan, and so on. From 1897 to 1914, in addition to organizing these conferences, Du Bois supervised, edited, and contributed to the subsequent publication of sixteen monographs following each conference.

Below are excerpts from the monograph published on the religion of African Americans. Several authors contributed sections to the monograph, including Du Bois himself. It is largely the sections written by Du Bois that are included here. Themes include the effects of the slave trade on African religion, the conversion process to Christianity, the conditions of various black churches through the country, and so on. Du Bois characterized the Black Church as the “first distinctly Negro American social institution” and illustrates the degree to which the religious organizations of African Americans can be considered social as well as spiritual centers.


The White Christ

This piece was published in The Crisis in 1915.


The Gospel According to Mary Brown

This short story was published in The Crisis in 1919. It is a creative rendition of the Gospel story of Mary and Jesus, set in the early twentieth-century American South and played out by poor southern black people. The construction of Jesus as a black man was a poignant and radical move on the part of Du Bois, who often pointed out that although white Americans claimed Jesus as their savior, it was black Americans who actually lived more Christlike lives.


The Second Coming

This short story, published in Darkwater (1920), is yet another play on the Gospels. Du Bois employs religious themes mixed with social commentary in this narrative of the birth of the black Christ.


The Prayers of God

This poem comes from Darkwater, published in 1920.


A Hymn to the Peoples

This poem comes from Darkwater, published in 1920.


Pontius Pilate

As in “The Gospel According to Mary Brown’’ and “The Second Coming,” this piece of short fiction, published in The Crisis in 1920, employs scenes and images from the Gospels to illustrate and comment upon the lives of African Americans in the early twentieth century.


The Gift of the Spirit

This chapter comes from The Gift of Black Folk, published in 1924. Reminiscent of material covered in The Negro Church and “Religion in the South,” subjects include the conversion of the African slaves and early black American church organizations and leaders.


The Color Line and the Church

This piece was published in The Crisis in 1929. Describing American Christianity as “Jim Crowed from top to bottom,” Du Bois succinctly discusses the tensions between white and black Americans within the specific context of religious institutions.


Will the Church Remove the Color Line?

This piece was published in The Christian Century in I93L Addressing the problem of the “color line” permeating American Christianity, Du Bois condemns the church for its inability to act and its hypocrisy in matters of social and racial justice.


The Son of God

This short story was published in The Crisis in 1933. It is yet another dramatic portrayal of Jesus as a suffering black man amid the racist and oppressive social conditions of the early twentieth century. This story, like “The Gospel According to Mary Brown’’ and “Jesus Christ in Georgia,” makes it easy to understand how and why the Gospel story of Jesus resonated—and continues to resonate—with African Americans.


Jacob and Esau

The following essay was delivered as the commencement address to the graduating class of Talladega College of 1944. In addition to offering a scathing critique of how Jews and Christians have traditionally viewed the characters of Jacob and Esau (lauding the former and condemning the latter), Du Bois exhibits his ability to employ biblical stories and images to address the pressing social problems of his day.


The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto

Du Bois offered this address to a 1952 gathering in New York City honoring the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to discussing his recollections of Europe prior to and immediately after World War II, Du Bois acknowledges that his understanding of the persecution of Jews and the tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto led him to an even greater understanding of inequality and injustice. The problems of the twentieth century were not limited to the color line specifically but included “perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice” in general.

SOURCE: Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA; Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2000. 209 pp.

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