Book Review: This Far By Faith
Posted January 18, 2012on:
This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience, by Juan Williams and Quinton Dixie, William Morrow Press (HarperCollins), 2003, 326 pp.
This project is a follow-up to the marvelous documentary series Eyes on the Prize, a history of the Civil Rights Movement produced by Blackside for PBS. Juan Williams wrote the companion book for that series as well. This book is a companion to the documentary series This Far by Faith, also by Blackside, which looks specifically at African-American religious experience across the last 300 years. The book chapters do not map directly on to the documentary, so I suspect that the content is overlapping, but not identical.
I found this to be an easy, informative, interesting read. I had expected (and hoped) that the book would be a social history of African-American religious life. Instead, it was a traditional “great man” approach to history—detailing important men and women of great influence, critical historical events and institutional developments. The book focuses most intently on Christianity and Islam, the two most popular forms of religious practice in the African-American community, but it also attends to African traditions, Judaism and the African Orthodox Church.
Williams and Dixie tell compelling stories, and they reach beyond the most familiar narratives of African-American history. While Martin Luther King and Malcolm X receive significant attention, they are not given more time or attention than the stories of Denmark Vesey, Sojourner Truth, Henry MacNeal Turner, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman, Elias Camp Morris, Fred Shuttlesworth, Albert Cleage, Lucie E. Campbell, Howard Thurman and James Lawson. The book details the founding histories of the Nation of Islam and most of the major African-American Christian churches, including the National Baptist Church, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian (originally Colored) Methodist Episcopal, Church of Christ (Holiness) and Church of God in Christ. They also pay attention to controversial religious movements like Father Divine or the Church of Gods and Earths.
I had hoped for a greater perspective on the role faith played in the lives of non-famous people, and a deeper analysis of critical turning points in the development of faith in the African American community. Still, I thought this was an enjoyable and informative book. I have done a lot of reading on African-American history, yet I still learned a great deal of new information here, especially about the denominational history of the traditionally black churches. A good read.