OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Judith Weisenfeld

Portrait of Judith Weisenfeld

Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Her research focuses on African American religious history, with particular interest in migration and urbanization, film and popular culture, gender and sexuality, new religious movements, and the intersections of religion and race. Her books include New World a Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (2016), which won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949 (2007), and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905–1945 (1997). Her essays have been published in the Journal of Africana Religions, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, American Religion, and Religion & American Culture, among others. Her current research explores the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is an elected member of the Society of American Historians and an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, white American psychiatrists declared that mental illness among African Americans in the South had reached alarming proportions and argued that, in a notable percentage of these cases, “religious excitement” was the key precipitating factor. This talk explores late nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychiatric theories about race, religion, and the “normal mind” and shows how the emerging specialty of psychiatry drew on works from history of religions to make racialized claims about African Americans’ “traits of character, habit, and behavior.” This history of the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions sheds light on how ideas about race, religion, and mental normalcy shaped African American experience in courts and mental hospitals and on the role the racialization of religion played more broadly in the history of medicine, legal history, and the history of disability.
Focusing on the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine's Peace Mission movement, congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, and the Nation of Islam, the lecture explores how members promoted alternative understandings of black racial identity and collective history to the dominant narratives provided by mainstream black Protestant churches and in broader American society. Highlighting the experiences of average members in what Weisenfeld terms religio-racial movements, the talk explores the rich and complex religious systems that shaped members’ everyday lives and influenced black culture at large.
Father Divine's interracial, sex-segregated, communal movement captured the imagination of the American public in its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s when it counted thousands of followers who believed that Divine was God in a body, Christ returned to earth. In this lecture, Weisenfeld explores popular responses to the movement's theology of sexuality, often in the form of salacious conjecture about race and sexuality in what most characterized as a 'cult', and consider how devoted members understood the relationship between race and sexuality in what they believed was the Kingdom of God on earth.
This presentation focuses on the career of choral conductor and arranger Eva Jessye, who served as the musical director for the 1929 MGM film "Hallelujah", and whose choir appeared in the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess and the Virgil Tompson and Gertrude Stein opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. The talk considers the interplay of African American religious traditions, black folk music, and European classical literature and music in her work as a means to consider broader questions about the politics of African American religious cultures. I discuss her oratorios, including The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals (1932) and The Story of Job (1936), and her major work Paradise Lost and Regained: A Folk Oratorio (1930s).