Professor of church history at
Union Theological Seminary 1976-97, Washington was an ordained Baptist minister
and earned a doctorate in religious studies from Yale. Among his published works
are "Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches and Writings of Martin Luther King,
Jr." (Harper, 1990), and "Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by
African-Americans" (HarperCollins, 1994). These books are essential reading. An
absolute must read for anyone who wishes to understand contemporary American culture.
In them Dr. Washington succeeds in illustrating how the eloquence of one man and
one people reverberate through the very heart of American peity, infusing within
it, as its saving essence, a redeeming combination of evangelical zeal and prophetic
Of Dr. Washington, Ronald F. Thiemann, formerly dean
of the Harvard Divinity School, said: "His most extraordinary quality as a historian
was his ability to capture the way people have actually lived out their faith
in everyday life.". Thiemann said Washington's great gift was for identifying
with and understanding the importance of lives "both great and small."
Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., the senior minister of New York's Riverside Church
where Washington was a leader, said that the book, "Conversations with God," was
a source of inspiration to many, including himself, and that it powerfully echoes
both "the dignity and power of the African-American religious heritage."
of these public tributes matches the quiet respect with which Dr. Washington was
held by his colleagues at Union Seminary where he was one of the most warmingly
regarded members of the faculty. We are happy to be able to feature on these pages,
the following review of "Conversations With God."
With God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans (HarperCollins,
For anyone interested in understanding both the
depth and the breadth of religion in America, this
book is essential. Professor Washington has assembled a wonderful collection of
prayers spanning more than two centuries, beginning with the years of slavery
and continuing through the Civil War and Civil Rights movement to the present.
Included are simple petitions passed down from the shadows of a slave's quarters,
to the elegant words of prominent leaders such as: W. E. B. Du Bois, Sojourner
Truth, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr and James Baldwin. The rich variety
of this spiritual tradition very much continues into the present, as indicated
by the prayers of contemporary figures including Alice Walker and James Alexander
Forbes, Jr. Washington opens with an introduction to this material which itself
makes the book worth reading. Here he traces the close relationship between African-American
spirituality and the struggle for both freedom and redemption in a racist land.
In the course of this discussion, he raises questions which clearly transcend
the concerns of a particular people. "Why," he asks, "do people who suffer continue
to believe in a God who supposedly has the power to prevent and alleviate suffering?"
And in the course of wrestling with such questions, he has much to say about prayer
itself. For example, "Prayer is an attempt to count the stars of our souls. Under
its sacred canopy, an oratory of hope echoes the vast but immediate distances
between who we are and who we want to be. This peculiar trek sentences its devotees
to an arduous discipline. Prayer demands focus and obedience, as well as intimacy
and faithful nurture. A certain civility is inherent in this transaction." The
book itself reflects the various shades and hues of such civility, certainly,
and the passion, poetry, pain and beauty of the life of prayer as well. Just two
examples. The first, by Esther Papel, becomes a prayer of benediction honoring
Dr. Washington himself; the second, by Frederick Douglas, speaks of that
final freedom which is for both these brothers of the soul to now enjoy.
Me Strength (1934) by Esther Popel
Give me the strength Of
verdant hills Washed clean by summer rain; Of purple hills At peace when
weary Day Sinks quietly to rest In Night's cool arms; Of rugged, wind-whipped
hills That lift their heads Above the petty, lowland, valley things, And
shake their shoulders free Of bonds that hold Them close to earth; Of
snow-capped hills Sun-kissed by day, by night Companioned by the stars; Of
grim volcanoes Pregnant with the fires Of molten fury! Grant me strength, Great
God, Like that of hills!
O God, Save
Me (1893) by Frederick Douglas
Our house stood within
a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails
from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in white,
and so delightful to the eyes of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts,
to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often,
in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the banks of
that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless
numbers of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affecting
me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience
but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint in my rude way with an
apostrophe to the multitude of ships.
"You are loosed from your moorings,
and free. I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the
gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip. You are freedom's swift winged
angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bonds of iron. O, that I were
free! O, that I were one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing.
Alas! betwixt me and you the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on; O, that I could
also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to
make a brute! The glad ship is gone: she hides in the dim distance, and I am left
in the hell of unending slavery. O, God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free!
-- Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get
caught or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well dye with ague as with fever. I
have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only
think of it; one hundred miles north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping
me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the
water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.
Here's a list
of additional books by Dr. Washington.
I Have a Dream : Writings and
Speeches That Changed the World Martin Luther King, James Melvin Washington
A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin
Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther Jr. King, James Melvin Washington (Editor)
American Protestant Spirtuality; J. Washington
Frustrated Fellowship : The Black
Baptist Quest for Social Power; James Melvin Washington
Other related and recommended
sites you might want to visit:
you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.