Albert Raboteau, expert in African-American religious history, died at 78

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(RNS) – Albert J. Raboteau, an American historian of religion who has helped students and journalists improve their understanding of African American religion, has passed away.

The scholar died Saturday, September 18 in Princeton, New Jersey, years after being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, Princeton University announced. He was 78 years old.

A member of the Princeton faculty since the 1980s, Raboteau obtained emeritus status in 2013. He chaired the university’s religion department from 1987 to 1992 and was dean of its doctoral school from 1992 to 1993.

“Professor Raboteau has taught me so much: how to navigate the archives, how to trust and be comfortable with my questions, and how to write clearly and with sophistication,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the department of African-American Studies from Princeton, in a Princeton Declaration. “His genius knew no boundaries. His work helped to create a whole field, and he was able to evolve just as easily in the fields of literature and cinema.

When a book publisher came to campus to find out more about Raboteau’s next book, an appreciation from Princeton Noted, the author instead arranged a meeting with the publisher and Glaude, leading to the publication of the first book of the then graduate student.

In addition to his years of mentoring students, Raboteau also gave reporters his take on the history of the Black Church and contemporary religious attempts to combat racism.


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During a discussion at the Faith Angle Forum 2015, he addressed reporters on the subject “Forgiveness and the African American Church Experience. Raboteau said small face-to-face interracial gatherings, such as Bible studies and shared meals, might be more important than anti-racism apologies by predominantly white faiths.

“Who we are as a nation is a collection of disparate stories, an ever more exfoliating set of separate stories and what we need to unite is to be able to hear the stories of others in a face to face meeting, ”he said. . “And it can be sponsored by churches; churches would be a natural place to sponsor this kind of face-to-face contact.

Raboteau was known for his writings on the African American faith, most notably the book “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South” as well as “Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History” and “Canaan Land : A Religious History of African Americans.

a Tribute “In Memoriam” to Princeton described his 2002 book “A Sorrowful Joy” as a volume that reflected “the challenges of studying African American religious history as a black man from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi whose father was murdered by a white man before his birth and as a Christian believer whose religious training took place first in the Roman Catholic Church and later in Eastern Orthodoxy.

On social media this week, religious scholars described Raboteau’s personal influence on them.

Professor Albert Raboteau. Photo courtesy of Princeton

“For me, Al was not the usual kind of mentor,” tweeted Anthea Butler, professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. “He was to me an ideal for both scholarship and spirituality.”

She added, in the last tweet in a thread it seemed to be a nod to his conversion to Orthodox Christianity: “Well (and I don’t know if he has. like that or b. would chastise me) but I would pay dearly if someone painted Al Raboteau as an icon. . To me, he is the patron saint of the study of African American religion. May he rest in eternal peace and bliss. “

Cornel West, Professor Emeritus of Princeton who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary, tweeted after the death of his colleague of more than four decades that Raboteau “was the godfather of African-American religious studies and the north star of deep Christian political sensibilities!” I will never forget him !

Raboteau was also the author of “African American Religion”, a 1999 volume in the “Religion in American Life” series published by Oxford University Press.

He wrote in his first chapter on the historical role of slave preachers and other black pioneers whose sermons reached free blacks as well as slaves.

“The growth of Baptist and Methodist churches between 1770 and 1820 changed the religious complexion of the South by attracting large numbers of slaves into the church and by introducing even more the bases of Christian belief and practice”, a- he writes. “The black church was born.”

In 2016, when the U.S. Postal Service honored African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen with a postage stamp, Raboteau told Religion News Service: Allen and (clergyman Absalom) Jones for founding independent black churches .

Late in his life, Raboteau continued to interpret lessons in religious and racial history in his 2016 book “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice”. He said the book, which included chapters on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, was based on his “Religious Radicals” seminar he taught to undergraduates at Princeton for several years.

Raboteau wrote the book’s introduction as the United States marked the 50th anniversary of Selma’s election march in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Memory and mourning combine in a prophetic emphasis on inner change and outer action to reform the systemic structures of racism,” he said.

Raboteau added an anecdote about his own visit to Selma several years earlier with alumni and Princeton students who visited a museum near the city’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where activists had once been repulsed by soldiers from the ‘State. On the trip, a black museum guide who was beaten up on the bridge as a young girl encountered a retired white Presbyterian minister who had joined the protests after King asked for clergy support from the country.

“It was a moment of shared pathos that transcended time,” he recalls. “For me, it was the highlight of the trip. I no longer needed to cross the bridge.


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