This article explores the ways rural followers of Marcus Garvey crafted and adapted a theological understanding of African redemption in the South during the 1920s and early 1930s. Members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association rarely spoke in concrete terms about the process of redemption or African state-building. Rather, when rural members talked of African redemption, they did so in eschatological terms, that is, as a theory of the end of the world. Above all else, they understood "redemption" to mean both their own individual salvation and the collective deliverance of black people. Their interpretations ranged from postmillennial visions of a climax of the history of the race bringing earthly peace and prosperity to a premillennial interpretation that plotted sudden, often violent, deliverance of the most race-conscious. These variant and seemingly contradictory readings of African redemption reveal an ontological shift among black Christians in the rural South during these years. African redemption provided rural Garveyites an existential language for reappraising notions of redemption, retribution, and the fate of the race in this world and the next that had profound implications for ongoing efforts to seek political and economic justice. This struggle over meaning and purpose lay at the very heart of rural black politics in this period as both an ideological constraint and a vehicle for innovation.
- ©© 2010 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture