Albert J. Raboteau, Who Transformed Black Religious Studies, Dies at 78

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Working successful the 1970s and ’80s, his assistance helped to cement African-American studies arsenic an world discipline.

Albert J. Raboteau successful  his bureau   astatine  Princeton University successful  2013. “What helium  did was to bring unneurotic  each  streams of religion   that Africans brought with them, and past    however  they developed erstwhile  they arrived,” a workfellow  said. 
Credit...Kyle Christy/Loyola Marymount University

Clay Risen

Oct. 13, 2021, 1:03 p.m. ET

Albert J. Raboteau, whose enactment connected the past of Christianity among enslaved Black radical transformed the survey of some Black civilization and American religion, helping to cement African-American studies arsenic a rigorous world discipline, died connected Sept. 18 astatine his location successful Princeton, N.J. He was 78.

His daughter, Emily Raboteau, said the origin was Lewy assemblage dementia.

Dr. Raboteau, who spent 30 years teaching astatine Princeton, was among the archetypal historians to show that enslaved Black radical did not simply follow the Christian religion of their achromatic oppressors. Beginning with his archetypal book, “Slave Religion” (1978), helium documented however they blended elements of African spiritual traditions with a sui generis theology that saw successful the communicative of Christ a reflection of their ain suffering.

“Divine predetermination brings not pre-eminence, elevation, and glory, but — arsenic Black Christians cognize each excessively good — humiliation, suffering, and rejection,” he wrote successful The Boston Review successful 2005. “Chosenness, arsenic reflected successful the beingness of Jesus, led to a cross.”

In that religion helium recovered a mode of talking astir the Black acquisition successful America writ ample — the bequest of Africa and the oppression of slavery, arsenic good arsenic the joyousness that came from the affluent civilization that enslaved and freed radical created for themselves.

“What helium did was to bring unneurotic each streams of religion that Africans brought with them, and past however they developed erstwhile they arrived,” Anthea Butler, the chairwoman of the section of spiritual studies astatine the University of Pennsylvania, said successful an interview.

His world training, successful the 1970s, coincided with the florescence of African-American studies programs, and high-profile enactment similar his helped the emerging tract summation legitimacy. Dr. Raboteau besides pushed it forward, insisting that this secular, often extremist subject marque country for theology and spiritual history.

Much of his enactment was shaped by his ain profoundly held spiritual beliefs. Born into the Roman Catholic Church, helium converted to Eastern Orthodoxy successful the 1990s, uncovering successful it an appreciation of what helium called the “sorrowful joy” that helium recovered successful Black Christianity, arsenic good arsenic a position of existing connected the margins of mainstream life.

“In some determination is simply a prime of bittersweet joyfulness, a consciousness that beingness successful a insignificant cardinal is beingness arsenic it is; an accent connected the value of suffering arsenic a people of the authenticity of faith,” helium wrote successful The Boston Review.


Albert Jordy Raboteau II was calved connected Sept. 4, 1943, successful Bay St. Louis, Miss., connected the Gulf Coast. Three months earlier, a achromatic antheral changeable and killed his father. There were nary witnesses, and the man, claiming self-defense, was ne'er prosecuted.

When Albert was inactive an infant, his mother, Mabel (Ishem) Raboteau, a teacher and home worker, moved with him and his 2 sisters to Ann Arbor, Mich., some to flight the horrors of the Jim Crow-era Deep South and to find caller opportunities successful the North.

His household being Roman Catholic, Albert attended parochial schools, some successful Michigan and successful Pasadena, Calif., wherever his household moved successful 1958. By past his parent had joined Royal L. Woods, a erstwhile clergyman from Mississippi who had near the clergy implicit racism wrong the church.

Mr. Woods taught Albert Latin and Greek, and contempt his ain fallout with the Catholic Church, helium influenced Albert’s puerility involvement successful becoming a monk, arsenic did Albert’s avid speechmaking of progressive Catholic writers similar Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Though Dr. Raboteau ne'er joined the priesthood, his involvement successful religion shaped his world and nonrecreational career. He attended Loyola University, contiguous Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit instauration successful Los Angeles, and aboriginal received a master’s grade successful lit from the University of California, Berkeley, successful 1966.

His clip astatine Berkeley coincided with the tumult of the counterculture and antiwar movements, arsenic good arsenic the blossoming of Black governmental consciousness connected assemblage campuses. At Marquette University, wherever helium went for a master’s grade successful theology, helium helped pb a protestation that unopen down the schoolhouse for 2 weeks, calling connected Marquette to bring successful much Black students and faculty.

After graduating from Marquette, Dr. Raboteau taught theology astatine Xavier University successful New Orleans. But the courses crushed him down, forcing him to face questions astir his ain beliefs that helium was not acceptable to answer.

“Teaching theology,” helium wrote successful his 2002 memoir, “A Sorrowful Joy,” “was starring maine to suffer my faith.”

He near Xavier successful bid to pivot to history, entering a postgraduate programme astatine Yale successful 1970. There helium studied nether Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a pre-eminent historiographer of American religion, and John Blassingame, a pioneer successful the survey of slavery from the position of enslaved people.

Up until the 1970s, astir historians had looked astatine slavery done the position of achromatic people, overlooking however Black radical had experienced it. Dr. Blassingame, on with historians similar Leon Litwack and Eugene Genovese, took the other tack, poring done archives to find accounts of however enslaved and recently freed radical had lived, resisted achromatic oppression and developed their ain culture.

These historians were soon joined by Dr. Raboteau. He turned his Yale doctoral dissertation into “Slave Religion,” utilizing sources that galore scholars had insisted simply did not beryllium but that successful information had been overlooked by them. Other scholars, whether focused connected Black spiritual beingness oregon not, person been influenced by his accent connected however the lived acquisition of believers had shaped the past of religion.

“He taught maine to perceive to my sources, to the voices of radical that the archives had disempowered,” Judith Weisenfeld, who studied nether Dr. Raboteau and is present the chairwoman of the section of religion astatine Princeton, said successful an interview.


Credit...Princeton University

Dr. Raboteau received his doctorate successful 1974 and aboriginal taught astatine Yale and Berkeley earlier arriving astatine Princeton successful 1982 arsenic a visiting professor, which became a imperishable presumption the adjacent year. He remained determination until his status successful 2013.

His archetypal marriage, to Katherine Murtaugh, ended successful divorce, arsenic did his second, to Julia Demare. He is survived by his wife, Joanne Shima; his children Emily, Albert, Charles and Martin; and 7 grandchildren.

Dr. Raboteau wrote respective books aft “Slave Religion,” including “A Fire successful the Bones: Reflections connected African-American Religious History” (1995) and “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice” (2016).

He often said that helium struggled with the hostility betwixt his spiritual calling to contemplation and his belief, arsenic a Black historian, that helium indispensable enactment his skills to usage successful the conflict for Black freedom.

One mode helium did that was to amusement however Black Christians offered a almighty critique of the content that America’s founding values acceptable it isolated from different nations and that slavery represented a deviation from that norm.

“Their voices contradicted the proposition that America is the communicative of the gradual enlargement of state and accidental to a wider and wider radical of people,” helium wrote successful the Jesuit mag America successful 1995. “The motivation assertion laid upon america by their ancestors’ insistent voices is continual consciousness that radical inequity was interwoven into the cloth of our nine from the start.”

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