New World A-Coming

Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration

Cover of 'New World A-Coming' by Judith Weisenfeld

NYU Press
Feb. 7, 2017


Shows how early 20th-century resistance to conventional racial categorization contributed to broader discussions in Black America that still resonate today

When Joseph Nathaniel Beckles registered for the draft in the 1942, he rejected the racial categories presented to him and persuaded the registrar to cross out the check mark she had placed next to Negro and substitute “Ethiopian Hebrew.” “God did not make us Negroes,” declared religious leaders in Black communities of the early twentieth-century urban North. They insisted that so-called Negroes are, in reality, Ethiopian Hebrews, Asiatic Muslims, or raceless children of God. Rejecting conventional American racial classification, many Black southern migrants and immigrants from the Caribbean embraced these alternative visions of Black history, racial identity, and collective future, thereby reshaping the Black religious and racial landscape.

Focusing on the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and a number of congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, Judith Weisenfeld argues that the appeal of these groups lay not only in the new religious opportunities membership provided, but also in the novel ways they formulated a religio-racial identity. Arguing that members of these groups understood their religious and racial identities as divinely-ordained and inseparable, the book examines how this sense of self shaped their conceptions of their bodies, families, religious and social communities, space and place, and political sensibilities.

Weisenfeld draws on extensive archival research and incorporates a rich array of sources to highlight the experiences of average members. The book demonstrates that the efforts by members of these movements to contest conventional racial categorization contributed to broader discussions in Black America about the nature of racial identity and the collective future of Black people that still resonate today.


“For too long Christianity has reigned over our histories of African America. This book definitively establishes the plurality of Black religious experience and the definitive role religions had in the formation of 20th-century racial identity. Reading unconventional sources and unearthing forgotten (but now unforgettable) figures, Weisenfeld offers an exemplary study of religion as a form of social and cultural criticism. There is no historian working with greater precision in the study of religion in America today.”

— Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

“Innovatively researched, elegantly written, and persuasively argued, Judith Weisenfeld’s new history of African American religious groups is a major contribution to the study of African American religions during the Great Migration. Weisenfeld deftly uses draft records, death certificates, immigration forms, and other bureaucratic documents to breathe life into the stories of Southern migrants, Northern residents, and Caribbean immigrants who joined Jewish, Muslim, and other prophetic religious movements. These new religious movements, Weisenfeld reveals, resisted racial identities imposed upon them by an increasingly powerful state and fellow American citizens alike. Their religious commitments, expressed not only in a rich theological imagination but also in material culture, ritual activity, and institution-building, created new collective racial identities invested in the redemption of Black peoplehood. Weisenfeld’s beautifully rendered story will engage both scholars and general readers interested in religion, U.S. history, and Africana studies.”

— Edward E. Curtis IV, Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

“Weisenfeld’s richly informative and analytically sharp social history resurrects worlds of Black American new religious movements in the interwar years. With particularly adept use of bureaucratic records, she gives us a new picture of the lives of African Americans who rejected categories given to them and sought to redefine their own lives and reinvent their own identities. Meticulously researched, provocatively written, and beautifully detailed.”

— Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

“A magnificent, thoughtfully researched work which breaks new theoretical ground on race, religion and the great migration. These compelling, exquisitely researched stories of the lives of devoted participants in the Moorish Science Temple, Ethiopian Hebrews, Father Divine and the NOI reconfigure the cult/ sect status that has historically labeled these groups. Weisenfeld’s book redefines the contours of African American religious history, American religion, and race in American history, and is a must read for the casual reader and established scholar alike.”

— Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

New World A-Coming is exquisite history and enfleshed theory. Even more, it is a philosophical manifestation of lifework that results from the seasoned rigor and intellectual deft that come only through the long-term of labor. [The] book will certainly become a commanding guide for contemporary scholars and a classic source for future generations seeking to navigate the arduous craft of elucidating and interpreting the history of African American religions.”

Church History

“A groundbreaking volume...This vivid, theoretically rich, and well-executed work has much to teach scholars of American history and the history of religion about the ways that Black people in the 20th century engaged in far-reaching reconstruction of their own racial, as well as religious, identities.”

American Historical Review

“This book is the most thorough and sophisticated treatment of the emergence and early development of these religio-racial movements...Anyone seeking to understand the role of religion and race in American life, and in particular the religious imagination and religious practices of specific Black religio-racial movements in the interwar period would do well to read carefully Weisenfeld’s exemplary monograph.”

African American Review

“A comprehensive study of the formation of 20th-century Black religious movements...Weisenfeld’s wide-ranging study is eloquent yet succinct.”

Publishers Weekly

“[This] monograph is impeccably researched and paints a colorful picture of religious diversity among Black people. In so doing, she further dismantles...the standard narrative of Black religion as the Black (Christian) church.”

Journal of Africana Religions

“Weisenfeld’s new work is a breath of fresh air in studies of the Great Migration. She expands our knowledge of the religious landscape of African descended migrants and immigrants in new ways and demonstrates the ingenuity and intricacies of race negotiation by African peoples living during the interwar years in America.”

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Judith Weisenfeld’s thorough examination of the role of religion in shaping African American identity and community during the social and physical shifts of Black migration to the urban North emphasizes the multifaceted nature of religion for Black communities as a source of material and psychical sustenance.”

Journal of Southern Religion

New World A-Coming is a masterful work of religious history. Weisenfeld’s analysis pushes our understanding of the ways in which Black religioracial movements of the early 20th century functioned as far more than mere urban cults, inviting us to reimagine their meanings. The book is a significant contribution to the study of religious narratives and their role in shaping African-American identity and community in the past and the present.”

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

“Central to Weisenfeld’s study is her great, resolute fascination with the fact that these Black people believed rather than being fixated on what they believed. New World A-Coming is a welcome addition to a burgeoning field of books seeking to expand and eventually redefine the parameters of African American religious history writ large.”

Journal of American History

“Scholars are fortunate to have a book as rich, careful, and thoughtful as New World A-Coming to help raise these questions and point them in new directions.”

Reading Religion


  • 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, Journal of Africana Religions