Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition
Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow

Adele Oltman

A bold, counterintuitive analysis of black religion before the modern civil rights movement


"Oltman acutely, and at times brilliantly, illuminates the complex and fascinating lives of black Christians and their churches from the rise of Jim Crow to the early years of the civil rights movement. This is an extremely valuable historical work, surely one of the best and most sophisticated studies in black religious history that has ever been done. It should be a landmark in the field."
—Paul Harvey, author of Freedom's Coming: Religious Cultures and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War Through the Civil Rights Era

"Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition is a provocative book. Through its persistent sleuthing and its careful and sensitively modulated scholarly gaze-ing it gives a people back to us, makes them come alive as complex, layered agents striving to make sense of their lives, struggling, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, to respond with integrity and effectiveness to the structures of the society and culture in which they found themselves, working hard to reshape and improve their local worlds. I recognize the people Oltman researched and wrote about. Scholarly gaze-ing of and reporting on Black peoples and their religious orientations rarely bring about this effect. An impressive and fascinating project."
—Vincent L. Wimbush, editor of African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures

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Using Savannah, Georgia, as a case study, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition tells the story of the rise and decline of Black Christian Nationalism. This nationalism emerged from the experiences of segregation, as an intersection between the sacred world of religion and church and the secular world of business. The premise of Black Christian Nationalism was a belief in a dual understanding of redemption, at the same time earthly and otherworldly, and the conviction that black Christians, once delivered from psychic, spiritual, and material want, would release all of America from the suffering that prevented it from achieving its noble ideals.

The study’s use of local sources in Savannah, especially behind-the-scenes church records, provides a rare glimpse into church life and ritual, depicting scenes never before described. Blending history, ethnography, and Geertzian dramaturgy, it traces the evolution of black southern society from a communitarian, nationalist system of hierarchy, patriarchy, and interclass fellowship to an individualistic one that accompanied the appearance of a new black civil society.

Although not a study of the civil rights movement, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition advances a bold, revisionist interpretation of black religion at the eve of the movement. It shows that the institutional primacy of the churches had to give way to a more diversified secular sphere before an overtly politicized struggle for freedom could take place. The unambiguously political movement of the 1950s and 1960s that drew on black Christianity and radiated from many black churches was possible only when the churches came to exert less control over members’ quotidian lives.

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Page count: 264 pp.
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25

Read more about segregation in Georgia at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


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Adele Oltman is a historian living in New York City.