Fortress Press

Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History

Down in the Valley

An Introduction to African American Religious History

Julius H. Bailey (Author)


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African American religions constitute a diverse group of beliefs and practices that emerged from the African diaspora brought about by the Atlantic slave trade. Traditional religions that had informed the worldviews of Africans were transported to the shores of the Americas and transformed to make sense of new contexts and conditions. This book explores the survival of traditional religions and how African American religions have influenced and been shaped by American religious history. The text provides an overview of the central people, issues, and events in an account that considers Protestant denominations, Catholicism, Islam, Pentecostal churches, Voodoo, Conjure, Rastafarianism, and new religious movements such as Black Judaism, the Nation of Islam, and the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. The book addresses contemporary controversies, including President Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, and it will be valuable to all students of African American religions, African American studies, sociology of religion, American religious history, the Black Church, and black theology.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781451497038
  • eBook ISBN 9781506408040
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 286
  • Publication Date February 1, 2016

Author Interview

Read what Julius H. Bailey has to say about his new book!

Q: What was your inspiration behind writing this book? What do you hope it accomplishes for students? What do you want the book to accomplish in the study of African American religious history?
A: Having taught the introduction to African American religions course several times, I was always searching for a central textbook for the course.  When I was unable to find one, I decided to write a textbook that would combine the latest research in the field of religious studies with the classic studies of African American religious life. My hope is that students will be excited about the vast variety and diversity of African American religious life. While the study of African American religious history has tended to focus on Christianity, my goal was to write a book that engaged the diversity within black churches, the various world religions that black Americans have been a part, as well as black new religious movements that have sometimes been marginalized in the study of African American religions.

Q: Can you briefly describe the organization of your book, and explain how Down in the Valley stands apart from other historical introductions to African American Religions?

A: The book begins by considering the various theoretical frameworks that scholars have brought to the study of African American religions and then moves historically from African Traditional Religions, the religious life of enslaved Americans, African American religious institutions, enduring themes in nineteenth-century African American religious life, African American new religious movements, and contemporary developments in African American religions. While many surveys of African American religions end with the Civil Rights Movement, Down in the Valley expands the timeframe that most books cover beginning with African Traditional Religions and bringing the central themes and issues into the twenty-first century.

Q: Briefly speak to the difficulty with defining African American religions. How you address in your book the nuanced perspective of “authentic” religions and how “American” (or not) these religions are?
A: Defining African American religions is one of those concepts that seems straightforward upon initial consideration, but becomes more challenging the longer you consider the question. There have been religions that emerged from within African American communities, but African Americans have also brought a distinctive understanding and practice to a range of world religions. So rather than trying to definitively define the boundaries of "authentic" black religion or determining how "American" it is, the book moves fluidly between the big picture umbrella term "African American Religions" and the amazing diversity across traditions and localities.

Q: What has the relationship of historical (the Civil Rights Movement) and recent (Black Lives Matter) social and political movements been with African American religious traditions?
A: Much like during the Civil Rights Movement, black churches have been a central source of support for members of their communities and this has extended into the present with movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Q: What do you find most fulfilling about the study of African American religions and their history?  
A: I really enjoy studying African American religions for a number of reasons, but perhaps most prominently is that you learn something new every day. There is always more richness to uncover and finding new sources and creative ways to engage and understand voices from the past that are all too often silenced or marginalized in the study of American history is an ongoing challenge. 

Q: What do you find most fulfilling about the study of African American religions and their history?  
A: I really enjoyed writing the book and describing the diversity of African American religious life. The chapter on black new religious movements, in particular, highlights the creativity of many African American communities to be able to construct stories of the past that empower people in the present that go beyond the trauma of the Middle Passage and the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade.


Reviewed in Reading Religion (AAR)


"This extraordinary treatment of African American religions introduces pivotal themes in the historical formation of African American religions. Down in the Valley elucidates a sweeping range of religious movements while attending to the larger context of social structures at work in the United States. Through skillful interpretation and a creative display of scholarly knowledge, Julius Bailey has written an exceptional book that transcends the restrictive paradigm of the Black Church to examine Black religions up to the twenty-first century. Bailey's path-breaking volume will reshape the way students and scholars understand African American religions."

Sylvester A. Johnson | Northwestern University

"From African traditional religions through Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, this lively introduction to African American religions reliably informs and enlightens its readers. The full variety of African American religions is clearly and concisely explained here. This may well become the standard text on African American religious history."

Stephen W. Angell | Earlham School of Religion

"In this engaging and accessible study, Julius Bailey offers a rich portrait of African American religious life. Providing an efficient and yet detailed account of the significance of Christianity and black churches, Bailey's text also provides readers with a sense of the variety and creativity of African American religious life and highlights a range of political and social issues that shape and challenge black religious communities. It is an enormously useful introduction to the field."

Judith Weisenfeld | Princeton University

"Julius Bailey's probing look at African Americans and religion demonstrates how communities have interwoven ideological and material aspects of religion in ways that conserve and enrich tradition, even while black new religious movements have emerged throughout American history to challenge those traditions. This is a fascinating, rewarding, and eminently readable overview."

John Corrigan | Florida State University