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Abstract

This dissertation analyzes how black Protestants in mid-twentieth century Chicago developed notions of spiritual redemption that critiqued the tendency to portray the black freedom struggle as a movement from slavery to freedom analogous to the biblical Exodus. As African Americans entered Chicago from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, the persistence of antiblackness in Chicago sapped the hope that the city would be a Promised Land of equality and prosperity. However, black Chicago Protestants believed they could still thrive within oppressed urban neighborhoods if they kept faith in Jesus Christ’s redemption. During the first decades of the Great Migration, painter William Edouard Scott epitomized how black Chicago Protestants developed a conception of redemptive black labor as oriented by rest rather than movement by identifying theologically with the labor of biblical and apocryphal Ethiopian disciples. This Ethiopianism inspired messianic and apocalyptic critiques of how the Exodus analogy framed the labor ideologies of Booker T. Washington’s followers, the black Popular Front Left, and what historians often call the long civil rights movement. Black Chicago Protestants’ visions of apocalyptic divine violence and conceptualizations of foreign missions during the Italo-Ethiopian War, World War II, decolonization, and the Cold War problematized attempts to align African American internationalism with U.S. foreign policy. In their gospel music, black Chicago Protestants’ understanding of Jesus as a mother for the motherless evinced an alternative to prophetic religion’s melding of biblical invocations of social justice as justice bestowed upon the fatherless and the widow with sociological theories of the social disorganization of the black family. As racial inequality deepened into an urban crisis, gospel music’s mothering of redemption manifested a transgressive limning of the limits of civil rights religion’s emphasis on overcoming, rapprochement with liberal public policy, and normative gender and sexual politics. By the 1960s, this faith motivated black Protestants in Chicago to resist the plan of the municipal government to clear black church space for urban renewal, and to challenge the approach to housing desegregation undertaken by the Chicago Freedom Movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The dissertation contributes to African American religious history by demonstrating that in the mid-twentieth century, black messianic, apocalyptic, and evangelical notions of redemption through Christ inspired radical critiques of prophetic religion and the social gospel, rather than only conservative or escapist alternatives to them. The dissertation draws conceptually from black theology, womanist theology, recent debates in black studies over questions of black being and black non-being, messianism and apocalypticism in Jewish thought, and the theological turn in continental philosophy. It uses methods from cultural history, social history, and urban history to interpret paintings, sermons, gospel music, church ephemera, newspapers, municipal archives, and the records of ordinary worshippers.

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