The Complexities of Racial and Religious Identities

This post is part of our online roundtable on Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming

Prophet Noble Drew Ali (standing center) and temple members, at religious service of the Moorish Science Temple of America, circa late 1920s (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

Judith Weisenfeld’s exhaustively researched and analytically brilliant new book, New World A-Coming, offers a compelling reinterpretation of several new religious movements that took shape among African Americans in the early twentieth century, mostly in the urban north. Weisenfeld designates these movements — the Moorish Science Temple, the Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, the early Nation of Islam, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement — as “religio-racial” to highlight the distinctive ways in which they redefined their racial and religious identities. She excavates census and draft registration records, local newspapers, and an array of archival materials to develop a textured picture of the religious lives and practices of their members. Weisenfeld rejects the typical historiographical preoccupations with their religious heterodoxies as Muslims, Jews, or Christians and instead situates these movements as an integral part of African American cultural and social history.

Racial and religious identities have long been intertwined, Weisenfeld explains, and can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. Indeed, race and religion were arguably differentiated as categories of identity throughout the colonial encounters of the early modern world, and have never been entirely separated in practice. The movements Weisenfeld profiles were unusual, however, in the way they uniquely marshaled religious resources to transform racial identities. They rejected the racial identities of Negro, Afro-American, or colored in favor of alternative identities such as Moorish American, Ethiopian Hebrew, Asiatic, or simply human, “race-less angels” and children of the one true God. Weisenfeld rightly insists that we cannot simply dismiss these reconstructed identities as imagined, as if the racial location they refused were self-evident or essentially true. Rather, she challenges us to see how adherents sought to relocate themselves and their communities within the social fabric of the United States.

Weisenfeld’s religio-racial movements joined a wider set of African American conversations around communal identity in which nation and nationality figured just as much as race and religion. The Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam used the language of nation to rearticulate the communal identity of Black people in the US, making them not only religio-racial movements but black nationalists as well. They built on the foundations of earlier black nationalists such as the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which emerged alongside and in dialogue with other anti-colonial and anti-racist nationalisms. Marcus Garvey, the UNIA’s founder, modeled his movement after Irish, Jewish, and other diasporic nationalisms that aimed to call a nation-state into being and so re-envisioned the future of an oppressed people.

Noble Drew Ali, the Moorish Science Temple founder and prophet, similarly stressed the need to restore a true national identity for the people commonly called Negroes. Drew Ali taught that they were actually the descendants of Islamic Moors from Egypt and Morocco. Reclaiming this identity would allow his followers to live on an equal basis with Americans of other national origins. Drew Ali pointed to Garvey as a “forerunner… divinely prepared [to] teach and warn the nations of the earth to prepare to meet the Prophet,” just as John the Baptist had prepared the way for Jesus. Unlike Garvey, he refused to separate racial, religious, and national identities. The Moors, like any other people, should practice the religion of their national inheritance: “Every nation shall and must worship under their own vine and fig tree, and return to their own and be one with their Father God – Allah.” Moorish Americans had to reclaim their original religion—Islam—and through it their true nationality if they were to throw off the shackles of slavery and inequality at last.1

Members of the Moorish Science Temple in Chicago, Illinois. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Drew Ali insisted on the movement’s commitment to the United States and its founding ideals. He encouraged his followers to reclaim their true Moorish-American identities precisely so they could claim their constitutional rights and freedoms. In doing so they would follow the example of the Germans, the Irish, the Poles, the Hebrews and every other proud immigrant nationality in the country. Thus, the incorporation papers for the “Moorish Temple of Science” in November 1926 listed the goals of “uplift[ing] fallen humanity and teach[ing] those things necessary to make men and women become better citizens.”2 Moorish Americans did not simply reject the negatively racialized category of the Negro but redefined themselves in order to marshal evidence supporting their right to enjoy full US citizenship.

In another variation on the reclamation of national identity, the Nation of Islam asserted that the “so-called Negroes of America” were in fact the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, the original humans who needed to recover their original racial religion of Islam. Founder Wallace D. Fard and his successor Elijah Muhammad celebrated the racial identity of Blackness and linked it to a broader communion of non-white peoples around the world. These original humans would one day reclaim their global primacy from the upstart “white devils” who had temporarily usurped it. Where the Moorish Science Temple worked to establish equal citizenship within the US, the Nation of Islam asserted a separatist nationalism that linked the fate of Black Americans to the anti-colonial struggles of “darker races” around the world. During the Second World War, self-described Black Muslims refused to register for the draft because they did not owe allegiance to the US, a white supremacist power that had aligned itself against Islam along with all “the dark peoples of the earth.” Thus, the Nation of Islam inextricably linked race to nation and religion, offering a new history and a new identity that powerfully re-signified the meaning of Blackness.

In contrast, as Weisenfeld describes, the Peace Mission Movement sought to reconfigure the identity of its adherents in religious rather than racial terms. Father Divine insisted that all racial identities, including whites and Negroes, were an illusion and that believers could recreate themselves as his race-less children. Yet this salvation history also relocated believers on the American racial landscape. Father Divine’s followers, both Black and white, embraced a new identity as the “Angelic race” to transcend the traumas of racial discrimination in a sinful world. Father Divine and his followers encountered various harassments and legal difficulties because of the challenge they posed to a segregated society. But by the 1950s these legal problems had faded. Father Divine joined mainstream religious leaders in denouncing Communism, which he had once seen as an ally in the quest for social equality, as a threat to freedom, democracy, and religion. The “Crusader’s Creed,” recited by members in this period, identified America as “the Birthplace of the Kingdom of God on Earth” and endorsed the US Constitution “with its Bill of Rights and Amendments” as “Divinely Inspired… instruments of the synonymous teachings of Democracy, Brotherhood, Americanism, Christianity, and True Judaism.” This was a patriotic vision that fit neatly into the dominant conventions of American religion at the time. Like many American Jewish leaders in this period, Father Divine positioned his movement exclusively as a religion in hopes of escaping the negative valences of race. Taming its earlier radicalism, the movement no longer faced direct harassment from authorities and faded into the cultural landscape as a heterodox “new religious movement” in African American life.

Elijah Muhammad addresses followers in 1964. (Wolfson, Stanley, New York World-Telegram and Sun, Library of Congress)

None of these movements, however, could transcend the overwhelming power of race.

Unlike European immigrants who could increasingly claim whiteness by asserting a European national or ethnic identity, African Americans remained trapped at the bottom of the Black/white racial binary that so powerfully structured American life. The larger society utterly rejected the religio-racial nationalisms asserted by the Ethiopian Hebrews, the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Islam. All were met with ridicule or condemnation as too political, too racially defined, and therefore not authentically religious because they reconstituted their racial-religious-national identities to resist the negative valences of Blackness in the United States. Alternatively, the Peace Mission Movement rejected race along with racial nationalism, identifying itself solely as a religion. It gained a degree of acceptance in this way. But no matter how much they insisted that race was a fiction, the larger society continued to sort its members within a racial system that classified and discriminated against most of them as racially Black.

Weisenfeld’s book enables us to understand the lived experiences and the powerful new identities constructed by those who joined the religio-racial movements she profiles. I have argued that the axis of nation is just as important as race and religion for understanding the complex remaking of communal identity in these movements. Attending to the co-constitution of race, religion, and nation deepens our awareness of the exclusions these movements faced. The lens of nation also helps us see that they were positioning themselves not only within the racial landscape of the United States but also transnationally across global systems of race and empire.

  1. Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple (47:3).
  2. Moorish Temple of Science, “Certificate for Corporation, Cook County, State of Illinois,” Box 1, Folder 3, Moorish Science Temple Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, New York.
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Tisa Wenger

Tisa Wenger is a historian of American religion with research and teaching interests in the discursive politics of religious freedom, religion in the American West, Native American religious history, and formations of race, religion, and the secular in U.S. history. She is currently an Associate Professor of American Religious History, Divinity School & American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Follow her on Twitter @TisaWenger.