"Race, Space, and the Sacred: Cultural Identity in the Sermons of Rev. Vernon Johns" by Péter Gaál-Szabó
Péter Gaál-Szabó is associate college professor at the Ferenc Kölcsey Teacher Training College of the Reformed Church, holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Debrecen. He has published in African American Studies, Gender Studies, and Intercultural Communication. His research pertains to African American Studies, with special emphasis on the interrelation of space/place and (religio)cultural identity. Email:
The black Baptist preacher Rev. Vernon Johns (1892-1965), a long forgotten culture hero of the African American community, has only recently been rediscovered. Being the leader of his community, he naturally became the interface representing the African Americans for mainstream America in a time of social turmoil leading to the Civil Rights Movement later to be associated with Martin Luther King. As a forerunner, or as he has become identified, the father of the movement, he was forced to lead and represent, thus to communicate in various directions and from diverse positions even in his sermons: in the Christian framework—an intercultural context of the sacred—he negotiates identity for the black subject and bridges over social/racial differences.
Rendering the sacred an intercultural arena may initially appear dubious, since sacred space has often been conceptualized as homogeneous and unambiguous. Émile Durkheim’s definition of religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things [. . .] that unite its adherents into a single moral community [. . .]” (46) reveals that the supposedly uncontested stance of the “natural order of things” (28) and of religious beliefs as well as rites represents “the most immediate way of conceptualizing and understanding” (27), which is socially determined. Similarly, Eliadian conceptualization of the sacred renders it univocal through “cosmicising a space by projection of the horizons or by installation of the axis mundi” (52). However, it is exactly Durkheim’s formulation of the religious community as church (see Durkheim 46), which allows for the problematization of sacred space. The social aspect renders it also socially constructed as “(social) space is a (social) product” (Lefebvre 26). It is then also inherent in sacred spaces as in Lefebvre’s absolute spaces that, despite their homogenizing nature, centrifugal fissures appear. The understanding of sacred spaces as possible heterotopia is supported by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow, who argue in Contesting the Sacred: the Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage that sacred sites are contested for the “multiplicity of religious discourses” (15) in the course of pilgrimage, since “ritual space [is] capable of accommodating diverse meanings and practices” (15).
Their argument proves seminal in establishing a meaningful African American religio-cultural space for a number of reasons. Most importantly, African American Christianity, which itself cannot be regarded as homogeneous, communicates with American religiosity, claiming a very distinct place in the American religious landscape. Furthermore, the Black Church as a cultural institution constitutes, in C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s coinage, a “Black Sacred Cosmos” (2)—a label offering racial/cultural, theological, but even politico-cultural distinctiveness. Alone such capacities endow African American Christianity with a potential to add an aspect of difference to American Christianity representing the white mainstream in the first half the twentieth century.
Contestation of sacred space crystallizes as “the expression of a diversity of perceptions and meanings” (Eade and Sallnow 10). In this way, African American perception of the sacred represents a not necessarily political event, but much rather a phenomenological process. Differing cultural universes offer thus overlapping and altering interpretations of the sacred, seeking validation and negotiating identity in it even if with different social valence. As Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson claim: “For if one begins with the premise that spaces have always been hierarchically interconnected, instead of naturally disconnected, then cultural and social change becomes not a matter of cultural contact and articulation but one of rethinking difference through connection” (35). Connection presupposes some sort of common ground, which in the case of sacred space may mean a shared object of identification. Sacred space serves thus as heterotopous, yet common ground enabling to create intercultural/textual ties between the African American and the white Christian community.
In his sermons Vernon Johns positions the black subject in the sacred in order to redefine black identity in “safe space.” The latter concept appears in Patricia Hill Collins’s terminology in another context, defining it as a space “dedicated to reproducing African-influenced, gender-specific resistance traditions” in which “the Black feminist consciousness [is] nurtured and articulated” (206). Translated into religio-cultural terms, establishing a culturally motivated genealogy in the sacred in this way, Johns is able to revoke African American cultural memory and thus to claim the sacred as his own territory. As Jan Assmann puts it regarding cultural memory, it is “a collective concept for all knowledge that directs behavior and experience in the interactive framework of a society and one that obtains through generations in repeated societal practice and initiation” (126). In this way, idealizing sacred space as safe haven for African Americans, Johns manages to find a way of self-expression, a common ground for intracommunal communication, whereby he strengthens the cultural self. In his sermon “Religion and the Open Mind” he declares, “The truly religious person will always be waiting, with open mind, for the new disclosures of truth which the Infinite Spirit must be forever making to finite, unfolding souls” (86). The qualitatively narrowing adverb “truly” has a centripetal connotation in that it draws the hearers in the discourse and, in this way, closer to each other in a space of nurturance, since divine truth is betrothed upon the worthy only in this axis mundi, where God communicates with them. Participating members form a community of bearers of divine truth, but further than that, they become objects of divine communication, since it is them who are capable of effecting change, when sent forth: “True religion provides humanity with both the revolutionary ideals and the revolutionary power which become the bone and sinews of progress” (86). The quote reveals that “unfolding souls” are transformed in response to the divine call spatialized by the worshipping African American community and, consequently, endowed with the potential to enforce (social) change for the better. In this way, Johns positions African Americans as holy in Biblical terms, which also means that he renders them as a referential point within Christianity. The viewpoint is supported by Johns’s other sermon “The Men who Let Us Drink,” in which he claims that “Mighty men are the cause of progress” (91), emphasizing the role of individuals (even though not only African Americans, as I shall address it subsequently). The importance of presenting African Americans as culture heroes lies in their potential to enable the African American community to reassert its ideas about itself. In the process of “concretion of identity,” the role of culture heroes is similar to Assmann’s understanding of cultural memory, since they “preserve the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its unity and peculiarity” (130).
Johns presents thus the African American community as a moral community. As he says, “He regenerated our conception of greatness by revealing an eternal identity of the Great and God. He gives us new ambitions for old” (“We Beheld” 97). However, it is established not only on the basis of a very distinct religio-cultural identity, but since African American cultural memory entails self-definition in relation to the other; it also takes form by positioning itself in contrast to white society, or even the white church, by shedding negative light on it. In the intercultural discourse involving race issues Johns practices “strategic distancing” (Orbe and Spellers 176) as he proclaims in his sermon “Rock Foundation”:
The church has not formally denounced the Sermon on the Mount. It has merely let it slide. The church has formally proclaimed the sovereignty of Jesus; but it persistently inflicts the movement of Jesus with disastrously mistaken emphasis. It has shown the builders sand instead of rock. (61)
The true believer he focuses on in “Religion” stands in sharp contrast with the church, which worships God in word, not in deed. Genuine openness to the divine call is contrasted with the empty rhetoric of Pharisees. The emphasis on praxis returns here as essential: “The basis of an enduring civilization will not be ‘Sound Doctrine’ but a certain kind of practice” (61). Much as texts can also create space, action proves performative regarding Christian identity in Johns’s estimation for two reasons: a) the response of contemporary church to social/racial issues offers a handy analogy with the Bible; b) the true believer performs Christian identity and thereby transforms space around it to his/her likeness. What Johns in fact achieves is claiming place in the sacred by reasserting identity in a self-reflexive manner and by “dissociating” (Orbe and Spellers 176), i.e., defining the self in contrast to the white church.
By identifying the sacred as lieux de mémoire for African Americans, Johns not only finds a cohesive means of community building, but he also allows for the contestation of the sacred. By presenting the African American church as moral community, he automatically questions the ordering of the sacred suggested by the social ranking of African Americans in contemporary American society. As he claims in a straightforward manner, “We have sent structure after structure towering in the air, [. . .] Any structure built on foundations less broad is foredoomed to failure by nature and nature’s God” (“Rock Foundation” 64). Echoing Jeffersonian principles, Johns coins his statement collectively, including the African American community and white churches also. Yet it is obvious on the emphasis laid on praxis that it is issued as “identificatory determination [. . .] in a negative [. . .] sense” (Assmann 130); i.e., as a critic against established, legalistic churches representing the societal mainstream. It comes to the foreground that he ardently criticizes the white (religious) communities anyway for unchristian double measure: “Is it not the South, at once, our most zealous ‘defender of the faith’ and our most fertile soil of fragrant inhumanities?” (“Religion” 85). Self-identification by contrast is part of “a process of interior decolonization” (Dixon 18), yet in terms of communication in the sacred, it signifies an attempt to negotiate place in it, but, further than that, to contest established conceptualizations by offering centrifugal interpretations for the normative core.
In fact, in a reciprocal movement the rhetorical suturing of African Americans in the sacred constructs place, but place-making generates Johns’s rhetorical reassertion of African American identity. As Philip Sheldrake also observes, “If place lends structure to, context and vividness to narratives, it is stories, whether fictional or biographical, which give shape to place (17). Johns’s enforced genealogy of African Americans in the sacred creates history in Assmann’s sense. As Assmann states, “fixed points [in cultural memory] are fateful events of the past, whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and institutional communication (recitation, practice, observance)” (129). Such “figures of memory”—as he calls them—are not necessarily memorable historical events, but communal events (church services as cultural events) that provide for a continuum in the life of the African American community. In the chain of services the narrative becomes analogous with memory. The importance of memory in constructing place in the sacred is revealed in Melville Dixon’s insistence on memory for African American writers: “Memory becomes a tool to regain and reconstruct not just the past but history itself” (18-19). For a community robbed of its past in many ways and for which oral culture was predominant for centuries, as well as for whom slave narratives were bearers of history, narrative of/in the sacred is an identificatory mechanism constructing and expressing encultured place. The Biblical narrative becomes a personal and communal recollection and thus “historicized memory” (Nora 14) as in the case of Toni Morrison, who insists that “I must trust my own recollections. I must also depend on the recollections of others” (par. 13). The collective aspect of Morrison’s statement echoes Johns’s embededness and culturally motivated identity politics expressed in his sermons: by negotiating place in the sacred on textual level also, Johns creates a contested textual space, reasserting identity in/through sacred text.
Much as it is impossible to detach performance from the delivered text of sermons in the African American church to give a valid account of communication dynamics, it is nevertheless possible to identify at least some of its elements on textual level. Conventionally, “the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy” (DuBois116), or the “call-response” pattern (“Communication Dynamics” 29) are identified as major characteristics of the African American sermon, which cannot be easily pinpointed in published sermons; however, the structure, the means of communication, and the handling of the subject revealing African American worldview express intracommunal communication dynamics.
Johns was a well-educated preacher, a graduate of the Virginia Seminary (see Cooney and Powell), who became the reverend at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama up to 1952—thus a direct predecessor of Martin Luther King’s in the congregation. On the basis of his record, he might be considered a moderate reverend unlike DuBois’s fiery African American preachers; however, he was regarded as a passionate and spirited speaker also renowned for “thunderous oration[s]” (Branch 21). The sermon “And We Beheld His Glory” reveals the communication style characteristic of African American preachers. The steady building up of tension to be exploded in cathartic relief is achieved through the recitation of well-known Biblical verses and passages as anchors to provide the structure of the sermon. Ensuring familiarity with the text for listeners is an important communicational means since in this way Johns manages to incite response from hearers, which is intensified through calls seeking confirmation (“Amen” ). The call-and-response pattern is further established by the exhorting challenges built in the sermon (“if you dare” ) and the series of subsequent questions to focus emotions. The conversational style (yet not vernacular in Johns’s case) renders the interaction personal and grant “unity between spiritual and material” (“Communication Dynamics” 30)—a rather African American feature. Heightening by repetition and enumeration ensures rhythmic discourse, a significant element of African American communication dynamics (see “Our Mothers’ Churches” ).
Even though Johns appeared to alienate the white audience with such sermons as “Segregation after Death,” seeking to scourge them for social change, it can straightforwardly be shown that his ultimate goal is to claim place for African Americans; however, in dialogue with the white community. Other, more accepting sermons of his reveal a Vernon Johns, who seeks for inclusion, developing intercultural ties. Sermons like “Transfigured Moments”—a sermon of his to be included in the Annual Best Sermons anthology of 1926—prove a belief in a Christian community, in which racial and social differences vanish. In “Rock Foundation” he observes, “An enduring civilization must be one that exists for the good of all. Such a civilization none will wish to overthrow, for none will profit by its downfall” (64). His stand goes further than the practice of “interactants [who] modify their messages in response to their conversational partners” (“An Afro-American Perspective” 106-7) to exhibit speech convergence, but stages his firm belief in the “community of nations” (“Religion” 82) (or ethnic/racial groups for that matter) and the “universal availability of . . . [Jesus’s] blessings” (“We Beheld” 100). His sermons reveal that African American identity is not rooted in a tightly-knit ethnocentric interpretation of the sacred, but it is contextualized in a broader cultural/societal framework, allowing for heterotopous juxtaposition. As he puts it regarding America, “For all the limitations, it is in a very real sense the land of the free. Nowhere else on earth are such masses of people accorded an opportunity to win the things that make for fullness of life” (“The Men Who Let Us Drink” 91).
By establishing a framework of acceptance, Johns identifies the common ground on which he can build intercultural ties. His strategy is multifaceted, but in his sermons what comes to the foreground is the illumination of common cultural items, proving that, as Michael L. Hecht et al observe, “African American culture is the amalgam of the cultural traditions, values and norms of the indigenous African slaves as well as the European settlers” (African American Communication 9). In sermons like “The Men Who Let Us Drink” he heavily relies on European culture from ancient to modern times (from ancient Greeks to Schopenhauer or Zola), exhibiting cultural knowledge of the other, but also claiming it. In this way, Johns manages to strengthen his position since demonstrating familiarity with European culture he proves to be familiar/visible for its members. It is, however, not sheer other-orientation: the way he treats the sacred, by successfully claiming grounds in a cultural realm and becoming an insider in the discourse, he is able to contest preconceptions that the other group maintains about itself. In particular, by insisting on “mighty men” such as Columbus or Lincoln, he acknowledges, yet also identifies them as culture heroes for African Americans. In a dual maneuver, Johns thus strengthens intercultural ties by strengthening other-face, but, at the same time, contests it by rhetorically including African Americans in the national myth, thereby dispelling African American stereotypes.
Ultimately Johns seeks mutual face, i.e., while maintaining his own African American identity, he simultaneously aims at upholding the face of the other cultural group. Even as he expresses community with white brethren, it fits in with African American world view according to which “Instead of a perception of opposites, there is a perception of complementary, interdependent, interacting forces” (Cultural Communication 32). It is exactly on these grounds that he seeks to negotiate a place in the sacred: validating his presence there serves to communicate the African American self as an insider, yet encultured subject, who is able to establish and maintain rewarding and mutually benefiting cultural contact with the white community in a larger sanctifying framework.
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