RELST 338 / WES 300 – African American Religious Experience: Course Description


This course will examine the history and variety of African American religious experiences, from its African roots to contemporary religio-cultural expression. Heavily influenced by its encounter with Protestant America, the African American religious experience is one of great depth and breadth, and incorporates elements not found in European Protestantism but brought into the matrix of experience from Africa, the Caribbean, and various non-Protestant religious traditions. The African American religious experience has been as much as response to surrounding conditions as it has been a creative blending of old world and new; as much a response to racism as it has been to universal religious aspirations.

Students will encounter various aspects of African American religious experiences, and will explore some of the dilemmas members of these communities have faced as they have grappled with the religious, social, economic, and political landscapes of country, and encountered other religious traditions, cultures, and ideas.

For those registered for the course as a Wesleyan Seminar (WES):

The Wesleyan Seminars is an immersion into liberal arts education. Within the seminars, students will learn how to identify complex problems and issues, consult expert sources, question assumptions, consider disparate points of view, develop complex personal positions, and present conclusions. The three seminars are progressively more sophisticated in their approaches and expectations. This course, designated as a WES 300-level course, is expected to be the most sophisticated in approach and expectations of the series.

This seminar may be used to count towards the major in Religious Studies; however, if you chose to do so you will be required to complete another WES 300-level course to fulfill the general studies requirements for graduation.

Unless otherwise noted, students enrolled in this course as a Religious Studies course (RELST) have the same requirements and are expected to meet the same expectations as those students who are enrolled in the course as a Wesleyan Seminar.


By the end of the semester, students enrolled in this course:

Should be familiar with some of the history and variety of African American religious experiences in the United States;

Should understand some of the connections between elements of that history and the range of experiences expressed in contemporary American society; and

Should understand the complexities involved in grappling with the multiform expressions and the interaction of religious communities of all sorts in American society.

In addition, upon successful completion of this course, those enrolled in this course as a Wesleyan Seminar (WES) are expected to be able to:

Critically consider an issue or problem;

Consult sources and consider expert opinions;

Question assumptions and attend to relevant contexts when presenting a position;

Develop a specific position while acknowledging different sides of an issue; and

Articulate conclusions effectively before an audience.

Texts & Readings

The following texts are available at the VWU bookstore. You are free to purchase them elsewhere, but should check with me to be certain you are purchasing the proper edition(s).

Cone, James H. Black Theology & Black Power. (CONE)

Frazier, E. Franklin. The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier. (FRAZIER)

Harvey, Paul. Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity. (HARVEY)

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, updated ed. (RABOTEAU)

The texts by CONE, FRANKLIN, and RABOTEAU are also available digitally on the free online resource

[Instructions for using]

In addition, articles may be distributed occasionally in class or linked to the class Web site.



Class Participation (15% + 15% = 30%)

Your grade in this category will be evaluated in two ways:

Attendance (15%): You are expected to attend all scheduled classes. Your grade will be calculated by dividing the number of classes attended by the total number of classes. There are no exceptions; there are no excuses.

 Discussion participation (15%): You are expected to participate fully in regular discussions, and engage the materials in class. Regular and thoughtful participation in class, as well as enthusiastic participation in the assignments, will be rewarded in this category. Mindless blather will not.

Reading Responses (5 x 5% = 25%)

Five times during the semester you will submit before class a response to the reading assigned for that class. This response should only briefly summarize the reading; most of the response’s energy and space should be occupied by an analysis of the reading in terms of what it might mean in terms of contemporary religious experience / society.

[PROMPT: after you have completed the reading, answer the following question: What one sentence in the assigned reading expresses the most important element of this author’s understanding of the African American religious experience? (Please provide the quote and page number.)]

Semester-Long Research Project (20% + 25% = 45%)

Over the course of the semester, you will be engaged in various activities in anticipation of submitting a final research paper.

By the date specified on the syllabus, you are expected to have chosen an important figure from African American religious history (from those listed below) as the subject for your research. Your selection must be approved by me.

Possible Individuals (listed alphabetically by last name):

Ralph Abernathy
Richard Allen
Isabella Baumfree
William Saunders Crowdy
M.J. Divine
Timothy Drew
Henry Highland Garnet
Marcelino Manuel da Graça
Prathia Laura Ann Hall
James Augustine Healy
Leonard Howell
Vincent Leaphart
Jarena Lee
John Marrant
Elijah Muhammad
Pauli Murray
William Joseph Seymour
Maria W. Stewart
John Augustus Tolton
Denmark Vesey
Phyllis Wheatley

[Alternative individuals may be investigated only with my explicit permission.]

The Presentation (20%)

On the date identified on the syllabus, you will make a brief (10 minute) presentation of your research which will provide: 1) an introduction and brief description of be your topic, 2) a brief description of the issue or argument you hope to address in your paper, 3) a brief description of your sources, and 4) a brief summary of your conclusions. You will also submit to me a brief (3-5 page) summary of your presentation before your begin.

The Paper (25%)

By the date specified on the syllabus, you are expected to have submitted a draft of your final paper, in a proper format and with all the traditional requisite elements (introduction, evidence with proper citation, evaluation, conclusion). Failure to submit the draft by the specified date will result in a penalty of 9.0 points.

On the date designated on the syllabus, you will submit the final paper, incorporating comments and suggestions offered during the presentation and from the evaluation of the submitted draft. The final paper should be no less than 2500 words (approximately 10 pages, double-spaced), including citations and notes.

This final written paper will serve as “an assessable artifact” – it will be used to evaluate the success of the course in getting students to engage with the Wesleyan Seminar objectives. [This is an evaluation of the course and is done independent of your evaluation as a student in the course, with your name removed, and after the conclusion of the semester.]

Unauthorized assistance or evidence of any willful breech of the standards of academic integrity will be dealt with in the most aggressive manner.

Schedule of Readings & Assignments

General Classroom Policies