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The African-American Religious Experience

Learn about the role religion plays in the African-American community.
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Updated: June 9, 2019
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Thomas A. Dorsey

Not the white jazz star of similar name, but the legendary “Georgia Tom” widely regarded as the father of modern gospel music. Thomas Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1899. The son of a Baptist preacher, he lived a rough-and-tumble life as a young man; he spent time playing piano in a speakeasy owned by the gangster Al Capone and headed up the band that backed up the legendary singer Ma Rainey. In the late 1920s, Dorsey began a collaboration with a guitarist with the colorful name of Hudson Tampa Red Whittaker. The result was a blues hit, “Tight Like That.”

Dorsey soon tired of the lifestyle he had set up for himself, however, and experienced a powerful religious conversion. His musical output continued in a new vein, and he began writing religiously themed songs. Recalling his own experiences of white exploitation of African-American artists, he founded the Dorsey House in 1932, thereby becoming the first independent publisher of African-American gospel music. Dorsey was also the founder—and the first president—of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.

A vitally important figure in both contemporary religion and contemporary music, Dorsey is widely credited with bringing an unapologetic blues influence to twentieth-century African-American religious observance. Of the many gospel classics he wrote, Dorsey is most famous for “Precious Lord,” composed in 1932 following his first wife's death during childbirth. It was recorded by countless performers—including Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley—and was a special favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dorsey was the first African-American elected to the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame.

Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman

Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman were instrumental in founding the groundbreaking Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first American church founded explicitly on ideas of racial tolerance and nondenominational inclusion. The two also played a key role in disseminating Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of passive resistance and nonviolence in a Christian context—ideas that would later be put to practical application by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others within the modern civil rights movement.

The influence was direct, not theoretical—because Sue Bailey Thurman had been, for a time, an important adviser to Gandhi. She was also the first editor of the influential Afro-American Women's Journal.

Her husband Howard was an extraordinarily influential theologian who won praise for his work as pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, and later for his promotion to the post of Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines at Boston University. In winning the post, Thurman became the first African-American to hold a top ministry position at a prominent white institution of higher learning.

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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