American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice.
In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. Raboteau traces how their paths crossed and their lives intertwined, creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed the attitudes of several generations of Americans about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas and the surprising connections that linked them together. He discusses their theological and ethical positions, and describes the rhetorical and strategic methods these exemplars of modern prophecy used to persuade their fellow citizens to share their commitment to social change.
A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics. This book is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about social justice, or who wants to know what prophetic thought and action can mean in today's world.
Brief studies of 20th-century Americans whose deep faith led them to challenge injustice are offered by Raboteau (Slave Religion), a scholar of African-American religious history and professor emeritus of religion at Princeton University. Beginning with the work of Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described a prophet as "one who is impelled to speak because he feels the divine pathos like a fire in the bones,' " Raboteau then explores the prophetic lives of six Christian activists, some famous (Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton) and others perhaps less well known to the general reader (Fannie Lou Hamer, A. J. Muste, Howard Thurman). His concise, skillful analyses show how each of these individuals, drawing inspiration from biblical sources as well as modern exemplars like Mahatma Gandhi, addressed poverty, racism, and militarism. Raboteau draws connections throughout between these "religious radicals," who addressed common causes during 20th-century America's tumultuous history. In his afterword, remembering the nine African-American churchgoers murdered in Charleston in 2015, Raboteau asks and leaves for the reader to answer whether last century's prophets for social justice can provide models for future action. This scholarly yet accessible primer to the role of faith in the lives of American activists challenges contemporary notions of the role of religion in politics and argues that empathy is a critical first step in addressing the suffering of others.