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Forged in the Fiery Furnace

Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality
by Diana L. Hayes
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012
213 pages
Reviewed by Therese Taylor-Stinson

Spiritual directors will encounter African American spiritual directees in search of someone who can prayerfully listen and hold space for them with grace and generosity of spirit. Diana L. Hayes has taken significant parts of the African American spiritual journey, as documented by prominent writers in the field of African and African American spirituality, theology, and the Black Church, and placed them brilliantly into one place in Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality.

Hayes takes the reader to the root of African American spirituality in Africa to current thought on this subject. Africans believed in one Supreme God and many lesser deities, with no separation between the sacred and the secular. The Africans who were brought through the Middle Passage into slavery brought these beliefs into what was the forerunner of the Black Church. These were the beginnings of African American spirituality and culture. Hayes writes, “What is most amazing about the spirituality of African Americans is the simple fact that it exists in spite of the myriad trials and tribulations they have experienced in the course of their centuries-long sojourn in the United States” (49). She looks at both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions of the Black Church.

In describing the slaves as “oral rather than literate people,” she explains that music in the form of “sorrow songs,” known today as the Negro spirituals, were a central aspect for expressing and transmitting their faith. Hayes writes, “These songs were the best example of this ability to ‘speak’ their faith into action” (69). With the end of slavery, the Black Church emerged. Hayes writes, “The major aspect of black Christian belief was embodied in the word freedom” (92).

After slavery, Reconstruction and the “Jim Crow” era led to the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was a spiritual movement. The roots of the movement’s spirituality were the deeply contemplative writings of Howard Thurman. The civil rights movement triggered other non-Christian and secular movements in the fight for freedom. It was also the inspiration for the development of new liberation theologies by black scholars, such as James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore.

The last two chapters cover the contributions of women, notably the “womanist” movement—a term coined by Alice Walker in response to feminism—and the many interpretations of modern African American spirituality that have emerged from noted scholars.

Forged in the Fiery Furnace would be an excellent primer for spiritual directors who wish to understand more fully the spirituality of African Americans. The information in Hayes’s book, however, will serve to give a glimpse at only one experience that may influence an African American spiritual directee’s journey. Hayes writes, “African American spirituality was forged in a fiery furnace, one that shaped and molded a disparate people, Africans of many nations and tribes, languages and traditions, beliefs and cultures, into a single people—African Americans” (169). African American spiritual directors and seekers would find good grounding in the history and origin of African American spirituality and culture in Forged in the Fiery Furnace.

Therese Taylor-Stinson, a native of Washington, DC, USA, is an ordained deacon and elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a certified lay pastoral caregiver, a convener and organizer of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, and a graduate and associate of the Shalem Institute. She is a member of the Coordinating Council for Spiritual Directors International. Her article “Black Spirituality and the Art of Spiritual Direction” was published in Presence in December 2009.

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