Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1921) Professor at Interdenominational Theological Center of the Atlanta University Center; accepted position in 1960 on the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, went to Boston University in 1972, then Colgate Rochester Divinity School/Crozer Theological Seminary in 1974, and New York Theological Seminary in 1983; ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Wilmore is one of the leading figures in the scholarly study of African American religion in the United States as well as an early proponent of Black Theology. His experiences in the Italian campaign during World War II prompted him to become a minister as a means to address human cruelty. Wilmore has conducted extensive research on social ethics, African Americans in the Presbyterian church, and ecumenism. His first book was The Secular Relevance of the Church (Westminster 1962). In his now-classic Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People (Orbis, second edition, 1983), Wilmore explores the historical struggle for freedom in African American religion during the antebellum and post-Civil War eras, the "deradicalization" of the black church during the first half of the twentieth century, and the rejuvenation of social activism in African American religion as part of the civil rights and Black Power movements. His book provides a moving chronicle, celebration, and critique of black religion in its variegated forms. According to Wilmore, African American religion exhibits a paradoxical nature in that "it is at once the most reactionary and most radical of black institutions; the most imbued with the mythology and values of white America, and yet the most proud, the most independent and indigenous collectivity in the black community" (p. x).

When Black Religion and Black Radicalism first appeared in 1972, relatively little scholarly attention had been given to African American religion. This book served as a seminal work in stimulating a renaissance in the scholarly study of black religion in the United States. As a committed social activist, Wilmore personally became acquainted with many of the progressive voices in the "black church" who were involved in the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. He and James H. Cone, another renowned historian-theologian-activist, edited two anthologies titled Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979 (Orbis 1979) and Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1980-1992 (Orbis 1993).

In Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage of Hope (Geneva 1983), Wilmore explores the status of blacks and race relations in his own denomination. He observes that "no church was more high-sounding and profound in its Biblical analysis of slavery and did less about it" (p. 62). With Wilmore's input, black Presbyterians organized into new caucuses in 1963 with the creation of the Concerned Presbyterians group and in 1968 with the creation of the Black Presbyterians United. He also has served as the editor of Afro-American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Duke University Press 1989).

Hans A. Baer


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