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Dr. James Melvin Washington

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 passion.

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."

The 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."

None 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."

Conversations With God:
Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans
(HarperCollins, 1994)

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.

Grant 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 (Editor)

A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther Jr. King, James Melvin Washington (Editor)

Afro American Protestant Spirtuality; J. Washington

Frustrated Fellowship : The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power; James Melvin Washington

Charles Henderson

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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.

For further information about Charles Henderson.