Bound For the Promised Land

African American Religion and the Great Migration

Bound For the Promised Land

The C. Eric Lincoln Series on the Black Experience

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Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 2 tables Published: October 1997

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, History > U.S. History, Religious Studies

Bound for the Promised Land is the first extensive examination of the impact on the American religious landscape of the Great Migration—the movement from South to North and from country to city by hundreds of thousands of African Americans following World War I. In focusing on this phenomenon’s religious and cultural implications, Milton C. Sernett breaks with traditional patterns of historiography that analyze the migration in terms of socioeconomic considerations.
Drawing on a range of sources—interviews, government documents, church periodicals, books, pamphlets, and articles—Sernett shows how the mass migration created an institutional crisis for black religious leaders. He describes the creative tensions that resulted when the southern migrants who saw their exodus as the Second Emancipation brought their religious beliefs and practices into northern cities such as Chicago, and traces the resulting emergence of the belief that black churches ought to be more than places for "praying and preaching." Explaining how this social gospel perspective came to dominate many of the classic studies of African American religion, Bound for the Promised Land sheds new light on various components of the development of black religion, including philanthropic endeavors to "modernize" the southern black rural church. In providing a balanced and holistic understanding of black religion in post–World War I America, Bound for the Promised Land serves to reveal the challenges presently confronting this vital component of America’s religious mosaic.


Bound for the Promised Land offers a telling critique of African American religious history. . . . Sernett adds a fresh perspective on the Great Migration. . . . [A] solid contribution to scholarship. . . Scholars of African American and U. S. social and cultural history should welcome this book.” — Joe W. Trotter , Journal of Social History

“[A] rich and wide-ranging book. . . . Sernett provides multiple angles of vision on black church responses to migration. . . . This tale moves us a long way from an older critique of black church declension in the interwar years. . . . On the whole, concludes Sernett, black churches did help migrants, even as their own orientation shifted to become more politically involved and socially relevant. . . . Sernett’s reflections on sociological and historical discourse in the 1930s highlight the class and regional biases of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson, who examined the black church through an instrumentalist lens and found it wanting. Sernett rightly demonstrates that this still prevalent assessment must be tempered by a more balanced evaluation of both the continuities and discontinuities of black religious experience in the twentieth century.” — , American Historical Review

“Drawing extensively on contemporary studies and publications, government reports, and documentary sources . . . Sernett captures the magnitude of institutional chaos manifest in this critical period of change. Part of the book’s usefulness is its exhaustive rendering of the range of studies conducted and analyses offered by scholars and agencies. . . . The book’s strength . . . is its point that the black church was forever changed by the Great Migration. . . . Sernett’s contribution significantly enhances readers’ understanding of this intriguing dimension of the Great Migration.” — , North Carolina Historical Review

“Milton C. Sernett breaks new ground in the study of the Great Migration. . . . This book is notably useful for historians of the South and of the black experience in America. . . . Sernett writes in clear, crisp, and analytic prose and places his subject matter in the larger context of African American and United States history. He does so particularly well in explaining the cultural role played by the Great Migration in shaping the contours of the twentieth-century American religious landscape. . . . [T]his is a well-written and well-researched book that offers valuable new information and insights into an important area of southern and African American history.” — , Journal of Southern History

“Milton C. Sernett has taken on the daunting assignment of examining the emergence of ‘modern’ African American churches during the period of the Great Migration, and he has accomplished the considerable feat of providing both a work of encyclopedic range, based on prodigious research in primary and secondary sources, and a sense of the overall picture. The forest is not lost for the trees. . . . Sernett has accomplished a great deal with this volume. He has broadened the picture of migration so that it may incorporate all the complexity that African American churches and religion bring to the story.” — , Journal of American History

“Sernett shows us that there is still much to be learned about this sweeping demographic shift. He offers a fresh analytic look at the period and the phenomenon, casting his analysis of the dynamic vitality of African-American culture into a framework of broader events and processes. Sernett makes clear the connections between spirituality, community, power, oppression, and poverty within the cultural milieu, and examines how the Great Migration shaped the politics of American scholarship into the 1940s and 1950s. . . . Sernett’s examination of the development of African-American-clergy-politicians who emerged in urban areas during the Great Migration is first-rate, as is his probing analysis of the transformation of African-American urban spiritual culture. . . . Sernett has produced a splendid combination of good scholarship and a good read.” — , Georgia Historical Quarterly

“Sernett’s achievement here is admirable. In smooth, low-key . . . prose, he has succeeded in illuminating an extremely complex historical movement. His conclusions, thoroughly grounded in the historical sources, are thoughtful and judicious. . . . [A]s an overview of the Great Migration, and indeed as a general history of African American religion during the first third of the twentieth century, Sernett’s book is unlikely to be surpassed soon. It is highly recommended for classes in American religious history, and I suspect that most scholars in twentieth-century American and African American religion would find it indispensable.” — Stephen W. Angell , Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“The author has synthesized an enormous amount of information into accessible form for religious studies courses, African American studies courses, and scholarly reading. The timely quotes from migrants, ministers, and others enhance a riveting book. Bound for the Promised Land reminds the reader how little known people from towns such as Abbeville, South Carolina, and Macon, Georgia, transformed the social, economic, religious, and cultural traditions of the country.” — , History: Reviews of New Books

“This excellent and much-needed historical study of African American religion during the great migration of African Americans from the rural southern black belt counties to northern urban cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York draws on the census data on religion, church records, and studies by social scientists. Sernett has created a highly readable and informative portrait of the tensions and debates among northern black clergy and intellectuals such as the Rev. Richard Wright, Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois about how to respond to this tidal wave of migrants.” — , Choice

"Milton C. Sernett . . . provides in this volume for the first time a comprehensive social and intellectual history of the black Protestant denominations affected by the Great Migration. His scholarship is extensive, and attentive to change and development over time. . . . This is an important story, and Sernett tells it well. He has set the standard for future scholarship on black churches and the urban North." — Mike Ashcraft, Nova Religio

“This work. . . synthesizes important material that scholars of African American religious studies need in book form.” — Dennis C. Dickerson

“Sernett makes a persuasive argument for moving beyond an understanding of the Great Migration as a subfield of urban studies, concerned exclusively with issues of race and class, ghetto formation, and labor issues. The reader is reminded of the significant but often ignored impact of the Great Migration on culture and cultural institutions in the African-American context." — Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University


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Milton C. Sernett is Professor of African American studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of African-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, also published by Duke University Press.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1993-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1984-9
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