Monday, March 17, 2008

Come Shouting to Zion

Today, I am reading Come Shouting to Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and Caribbean to 1830 by Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood (1998).
Page 123:

What exactly was the difference that so frightened white observers? Perhaps it was the often extravagant and unrestrained nature of black worship, which implied a view of the world that was wholly different from that which whites were prepared to accept. Long after shouting had become institutionalized and ritualized as part of the structure of conversion, black shouting could still incite fear and awe in whites witnessing it for the first time, as when, for example, the local preacher at Hites Chapel, on the Berkeley Circuit, "got the lacks to shouting, and some of the whites run.

This is a work of comparative history. I especially appreciated its examination of the limited success of early Catholic missionary efforts in West Central Africa and its exploration of African syncretism and adoption of the elements of Christianity that they found most useful to their needs.

I was a little disappointed by the chapters that I read (1 and 4). For a work of comparative history to work well, it must be impeccably organized so that the reader doesn't get confused about what is being compared. Come Shouting to Zion is all over the place.

In the chapter on African beliefs, Frey and Wood jump around promiscuously from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and back again, from Gambia to Angola to the Gold Coast without much differentiation. After reading this chapter, I had some idea of the general trends whereby Africans of different nationalities incorporated aspects of Christianity into their own belief systems, but I had no idea about the sweep or development of these trends. Frey and Wood are specifically critical of anthropologists' inability to see cultural change, but I found a mashup of 400 years' history without even the most basic timeline to be less than helpful.

A similar problem haunts chapter 4. In discussing the "First Awakening" of Protestant Christianity among enslaved people in the Americas, Frey and Wood jump from Maryland to Georgia to the Danish Virgin Islands, and from Methodists to Baptists to Presbyterians without a good overarching structure.

Perhaps it is just my ignorance of these subjects (which is substantial), but a 40-page chapter with no subheadings, no double line breaks, and no definition of terms makes a comparative history incredibly confusing. I don't know if this is worth bringing up at my seminar tomorrow - it may sound like a ticky-tacky complaint, but I think it is a valid concern since we will be discussing the efficacy of comparative history.

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