Article: Mothers of the Movement: Evangelicalism and Religious Experience in Black Women’s Activism

This article centers Black religious women’s activist memoirs, including Mamie Till Mobley’s Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America (2003) and Rep. Lucia Kay McBath’s Standing Our Ground: The Triumph of Faith over Gun Violence: A Mother’s Story (2018), to refocus the narrative of American Evangelicalism and politics around Black women’s authoritative narratives of religious experience, expression, mourning, and activism. These memoirs document personal transformation that surrounds racial violence against these Black women’s Black sons, Emmett Till (1941–1955) and Jordan Davis (1995–2012).

Their religious orientations and experiences serve to chart their pursuit of meaning and mission in the face of American brutality. Centering religious experiences spotlights a tradition of Black religious women who view their Christian salvation as authorizing an ongoing personal relationship with God. Such relationships entail God’s ongoing communication with these Christian believers through signs, dreams, visions, and “chance” encounters with other people that they must interpret while relying on their knowledge of scripture. A focus on religious experience in the narratives of activist Black women helps to make significant their human conditions—the contexts that produce their co-constitutive expressions of religious and racial awakenings as they encounter anti-Black violence. In the memoirs of Till and McBath, their sons’ murders produce questions about the place of God in the midst of (Black) suffering and their intuitive pursuit of God’s mission for them to lead the way in redressing racial injustice.

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Vaughn A. Booker received his A.B. in Religion from Dartmouth (’07), his M.Div. from Harvard, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton, with a Certificate in African American Studies. A historian of religion, his scholarship focuses on twentieth-century African American religions, including studies of religion and gender, leadership, conversion, popular music, humor, “race histories,” memoir, visual/material culture, metaphysics/spirituality, memorialization/mourning, activism, and internationalism.                                                                                                                                      

Vaughn’s second book project is a history of irreverent religion in African American life. To support this research, in 2022, he was awarded an External Faculty Fellowship with the Stanford University Humanities Center for the 2022-2023 academic year. In 2021, he was also awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for 2023-2024.

Vaughn is currently an editorial board member for The Immanent Frame, and he co-chairs the Afro-American Religious History Unit of the American Academy of Religion. His academic publications have appeared in The Journal of Africana ReligionsReligion and American Culture: A Journal of InterpretationNova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, and the open-access journal Religions.

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