W.E.B. Du Bois Of the Faith of the Fathers

Publication Year: 1903

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of the Faith of the Fathers.” In The Souls of Black Folk.

Source thumbnail image: Portrait of W.E.B. DuBois, 1904 (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Source note

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a civil rights leader as well as a sociologist, historian, writer, and editor. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts to a Haitian-born Bahamian father and a mother who traced her lineage to an African freedman who fought in the Revolutionary War. Du Bois was the first African American student to graduate from his racially integrated public high school, and went on to get his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (in history) from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote beautifully, effectively, and powerfully about the life of African Americans in America, and about the wide-ranging effects of racism that pervade the African American experience. Du Bois often wrote about African American religion, and in this 1903 essay, he explores the place of religion within African American life. Though critical of many aspects of African American Christianity, namely the passivity and blind trust that it engenders, Du Bois also recognized the immense social power and potential of the church.

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Reading questions
  1. Who is the author of this document? Who is the intended audience?
  2. What are the three elements of the “religion of the slave,” according to Du Bois (page 2)? 
  3. What makes the church so central to African American life (page 3)? 
  4. Why is the church “peculiarly the expression of the inner ethical life of a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere” (page 4)?
  5. In examining the contemporary African American with regards to religion, Du Bois observes that “conscious of his impotence, and pessimistic, he often becomes bitter and vindictive; and his religion, instead of worship, is a complaint and a curse, a wail rather than a hope, a sneer rather than a faith” (page 6). What conditions does Du Bois point to as creating this sense of impotence and pessimism that influence black Christianity? 
  6. What are the characteristics of the two “divergent” types of African Americans—southern and northern—that Du Bois describes on pages 6 and 7? 
  7. Du Bois suggests that “deception is the natural defence of the weak against the strong” (page 7). How have African Americans utilized deception as a tool, and how has that use affected African American churches? 
  8. What might Du Bois think of James W.C. Pennington and his 19th century Presbyterian church? What critiques of Pennington’s sermon (Document 2) would he be likely to offer?
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Source type
History Topics
Abolition and Anti-slavery
African American History
American Religious History