Working in the 1970s and ’80s, his scholarship helped to cement African-American studies as an academic discipline.
Oct. 13, 2021Updated 6:32 p.m. ET
Albert J. Raboteau, whose work on the history of Christianity among enslaved Black people transformed the study of both Black culture and American religion, helping to cement African-American studies as a rigorous academic discipline, died on Sept. 18 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 78.
His daughter, Emily Raboteau, said the cause was Lewy body dementia.
Dr. Raboteau, who spent 30 years teaching at Princeton, was among the first historians to demonstrate that enslaved Black people did not simply adopt the Christian faith of their white oppressors. Beginning with his first book, “Slave Religion” (1978), he documented how they blended elements of African religious traditions with a sui generis theology that saw in the story of Christ a reflection of their own suffering.
“Divine election brings not pre-eminence, elevation, and glory, but — as Black Christians know all too well — humiliation, suffering, and rejection,” he wrote in The Boston Review in 2005. “Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross.”
In that faith he found a way of talking about the Black experience in America writ large — the legacy of Africa and the oppression of slavery, as well as the joy that came from the rich culture that enslaved and freed people created for themselves.
“What he did was to bring together all streams of religion that Africans brought with them, and then how they developed once they arrived,” Anthea Butler, the chairwoman of the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview.
His academic training, in the 1970s, coincided with the florescence of African-American studies programs, and high-profile work like his helped the emerging field gain legitimacy. Dr. Raboteau also pushed it forward, insisting that this secular, often radical discipline make room for theology and religious history.
Much of his work was shaped by his own deeply held religious beliefs. Born into the Roman Catholic Church, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s, finding in it an appreciation of what he called the “sorrowful joy” that he found in Black Christianity, as well as a perspective of existing on the margins of mainstream life.
“In both there is a quality of sad joyfulness, a sense that life in a minor key is life as it is; an emphasis on the importance of suffering as a mark of the authenticity of faith,” he wrote in The Boston Review.
Albert Jordy Raboteau II was born on Sept. 4, 1943, in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on the Gulf Coast. Three months earlier, a white man shot and killed his father. There were no witnesses, and the man, claiming self-defense, was never prosecuted.
When Albert was still an infant, his mother, Mabel (Ishem) Raboteau, a teacher and domestic worker, moved with him and his two sisters to Ann Arbor, Mich., both to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow-era Deep South and to find new opportunities in the North.
His family being Roman Catholic, Albert attended parochial schools, both in Michigan and in Pasadena, Calif., where his family moved in 1958. By then his mother had married Royal L. Woods, a former priest from Mississippi who had left the clergy over racism within the church.
Mr. Woods taught Albert Latin and Greek, and despite his own fallout with the Catholic Church, he influenced Albert’s childhood interest in becoming a monk, as did Albert’s avid reading of progressive Catholic writers like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Though Dr. Raboteau never joined the priesthood, his interest in theology shaped his academic and professional career. He attended Loyola University, today Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution in Los Angeles, and later received a master’s degree in literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966.
His time at Berkeley coincided with the tumult of the counterculture and antiwar movements, as well as the blossoming of Black political consciousness on college campuses. At Marquette University, where he went for a master’s degree in theology, he helped lead a protest that shut down the school for two weeks, calling on Marquette to bring in more Black students and faculty.
After graduating from Marquette, Dr. Raboteau taught theology at Xavier University in New Orleans. But the courses ground him down, forcing him to confront questions about his own beliefs that he was not ready to answer.
“Teaching theology,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “A Sorrowful Joy,” “was leading me to lose my faith.”
He left Xavier in order to pivot to history, entering a postgraduate program at Yale in 1970. There he studied under Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a pre-eminent historian of American religion, and John Blassingame, a pioneer in the study of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people.
Up until the 1970s, most historians had looked at slavery through the perspective of white people, overlooking how Black people had experienced it. Dr. Blassingame, along with historians like Leon Litwack and Eugene Genovese, took the opposite tack, poring through archives to find accounts of how enslaved and newly freed people had lived, resisted white oppression and developed their own culture.
These historians were soon joined by Dr. Raboteau. He turned his Yale doctoral dissertation into “Slave Religion,” using sources that many scholars had insisted simply did not exist but that in fact had been overlooked by them. Other scholars, whether focused on Black religious life or not, have been influenced by his emphasis on how the lived experience of believers had shaped the history of religion.
“He taught me to listen to my sources, to the voices of people that the archives had disempowered,” Judith Weisenfeld, who studied under Dr. Raboteau and is now the chairwoman of the department of religion at Princeton, said in an interview.
Dr. Raboteau received his doctorate in 1974 and later taught at Yale and Berkeley before arriving at Princeton in 1982 as a visiting professor, which became a permanent position the next year. He remained there until his retirement in 2013.
His first marriage, to Katherine Murtaugh, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Julia Demaree. He is survived by his wife, Joanne Shima; his children Emily, Albert, Charles and Martin; and seven grandchildren.
Dr. Raboteau wrote several books after “Slave Religion,” including “A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History” (1995) and “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice” (2016).
He often said that he struggled with the tension between his religious calling to contemplation and his belief, as a Black historian, that he must put his skills to use in the struggle for Black freedom.
One way he did that was to show how Black Christians offered a powerful critique of the belief that America’s founding values set it apart from other nations and that slavery represented a deviation from that norm.
“Their voices contradicted the proposition that America is the story of the gradual expansion of freedom and opportunity to a wider and wider group of people,” he wrote in the Jesuit magazine America in 1995. “The moral claim laid upon us by their ancestors’ insistent voices is continual awareness that racial inequity was interwoven into the fabric of our society from the start.”