James Melvin Washington Biography
Historian, educator, minister
The church is recognized as an institution of paramount importance in African-American life, and its character and development have been traced in detail by historians and popular writers. The lives of individual African-American religious believers, however, received less attention until the Rev. Dr. James Melvin Washington published Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans in 1994. That book became a bestseller and, according to the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. of the Riverside (New York) Church, speaking to the New York Times, was "a source of inspiration to many" that "reflected the dignity and power of the African-American religious heritage." Conversations with God was the last of several influential books by Washington, who was a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary.
Born on April 24, 1948, Washington was a native of Knoxville, Tennessee. His family was poor, and his mother, unable to make a rent payment, once dreamed of a lottery number, played it, and won, crediting the narrow escape to divine intervention. Washington's path to the ministry began with the religious faith of his mother and her disabled friend, Helen Grady, who would sometimes turn to Washington (as he told Knight-Ridder Newspapers) and say, "Honey, let's talk to the Lord." The two women, Washington said, "taught me that it is a privilege to call on God. It is not simply for the privileged. No, it is the most radical form of democracy conceivable."
After having preached to congregations for several years as a teenager, Washington was ordained as a Baptist minister in Nashville at the age of 19. He grew up when the South was still segregated, and he remembers riding in the back of Knoxville city buses and seeing Western films at a theater with blacks-only entrances. By the time he began his preaching career, however, Southern universities were beginning to open up slowly to African-American students, and Washington enrolled at the University of Tennessee. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1970, he moved on to the prestigious Harvard Divinity School, finishing a master's in theology in 1972.
With the help of fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and other funders, Washington completed two advanced degrees at the Yale Divinity School, receiving his Ph.D. in 1979. He began his teaching career at Yale in 1974, and in 1976 he was hired as an associate professor at the Union Theological Seminary. He spent the rest of his life there, rising to the rank of Professor of Modern and American Church History in 1987. Washington was also much in demand as a visiting professor, teaching along the way at Columbia University and Haverford College in 1984, Oberlin College in 1985 and 1986, and Princeton University in 1982, 1989, and 1990.
Washington's career was notable for his involvement in public spheres in addition to these academic posts. He remained active in his ministry as a board member of the American Baptist Church denomination and, from 1985 to 1987, of the National Council of Churches, where he served on the executive committee of the Faith and Order Commission. Beginning in 1989, Washington was an associate editor of the American National Biography encyclopedia series.
His publications, too, addressed both academic and public audiences. His first book, based on his Yale doctoral dissertation, was Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power, published in 1986. That book examined the development of the African-American Baptist church in the years after the civil war, focusing on the trend toward separatism as blacks' dreams of social equality were violently dashed. As he looked back on the years around 1900, Washington told Knight-Ridder Newspapers, he thought that despite his belief in the power of prayer, "there was too much patience.… Between 1889 and 1920 there were 3,900 black people lynched and burned in this country. That's almost one a week. That's terrorism."
That book, primarily intended for academic audiences, was reissued after Washington's death with a new afterword by scholar Cornel West. Washington also edited a collection of articles, Afro-American Protestant Spirituality, published in 1986. That same year Washington edited A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., a popular one-volume compendium of the great civil rights leader's words. The book won the Christopher Award in 1987 and was later issued as I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World.
In the early 1990s, Washington set to work on Conversations with God without any idea that it would become a publishing blockbuster. In fact, he had mixed feelings about entering an arena that he saw as dominated by stereotypes. "As a historian of African American religion," he wrote in the book's introduction, "I was quite aware of the cynicism that has often made the spiritual life of my people part of a cultural menagerie. This indecency callously subjects genuine spiritual struggles to ridicule, dismissing them as superstitions and escapist, or reducing them to various doctrinaire theories of group frustration."
The book was published in 1994 by HarperCollins, however, and rose onto bestseller lists. It reproduced prayers offered by 190 African Americans, from all walks of life and throughout America's violent history. Some were famous preachers; some key figures in the antislavery and civil rights struggle such as Frederick Douglass; some were literary figures who included the prayers of characters in their books; and some were ordinary people whose prayers had moved observers to write them down. "Here are verse and prose, folk English and high oratory, and a growing awakening that if God is good, slavery must be wrong and must fall," noted the Christian Science Monitor in one of many positive reviews the book received.
In his book, Washington quoted a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "When storms arise // And dark'ning skies // About me threat'ning lower, // To thee, O Lord, I raise mine eyes, // To Thee my tortured spirit flies // For solace in that hour." But Washington deplored trends in contemporary African-American life that, he believed, sapped the strength prayer had historically given the community through times of trouble. One, he told the Seattle Times, was "a kind of pseudo-intellectual approach to Scripture" that could not succeed in addressing "questions relating to the tragedy of life, which cannot be answered through a rational means.…" More disturbing still were people "walking around and spreading death" because of the prevalence of violence and drug abuse.
Washington reached a new level of prominence after Conversations with God was published. But as he turned his attention to new projects, he was felled by a stroke on May 3, 1997. He had suffered from high blood pressure. Washington was survived by his wife, the former Patricia Anne Alexander, by five of his six siblings, by one daughter, Ayanna Nicole Washington, and by his mother Annie, to whom Conversations with God was dedicated.
(Editor) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1986 (reissued as I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, Harper, 1992).
Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power, Mercer University Press, 1986.
(Editor) Afro-American Protestant Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1986.
Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, Harper, 1994.
Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1996, p. 14.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 25, 1995.
New York Times, May 8, 1997, pp. D26, D46.
Seattle Times, January 7, 1995, p. A12.
Washington Post, December 17, 1994, p. D7.
"James Melvin Washington," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 7, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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