Review by Charles Demm, 2002
Johnson, Clifton H. (ed.). God Struck Me Dead. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: United Church Press, 1969. xix + 172 pp. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 78-77839.
Clifton Johnson, the editor of the 1969 edition of God Struck Me Dead, writes in his preface that no reinterpretation or reevaluation of American history could be complete if it failed to take into consideration the pioneering research spearheaded by Fisk University under the leadership of Charles S. Johnson and Paul Radin into the role of minority groups in our rich history. No doubt, the copious research and writing by Johnson and Radin exploring the impact of African-Americans on the shaping of America since the Civil War warranted the editor’s conclusion. Between 1928 and 1940 Johnson and Radin investigated the life and culture of African-Americans by the Social Science Institute at Fisk. Their research led to the publication of twenty-three books and numerous journal articles based on the oral histories of older African-Americans recounting their days as slaves and in the first few decades after the war. While acknowledging the value of this scholarship for students of religion, anthropology, sociology and social psychology, the editor concludes that God Struck Me Dead is primarily of a historical nature. These autobiographical narratives, he asserts, help fill the gap in American history of a large, but largely silent, minority group. They not only contain a treasure of primary information for the study of “Southern Negro life”, but they also render any attempt to close the book on US history without an account of this segment of the population both too hasty and shortsighted.
Neither Radin in his ‘Forward’ comments nor Charles Johnson in his ‘Introduction’ would disagree with the overall perspective of the editor, but their own introductory remarks reveal their belief that this work also provides a great deal of primary data for those interested in cataloging various personal accounts of both religious conversions and ecstatic religious experiences. Radin claims that to understand the history of the African-American one must understand the developments that took place across the south in the post-Civil War era. The new reality of life as an ex-slave often led to a bewildering breakdown of former senses of order and value causing states of disorientation, demoralization and neurosis. Radin believes that the evidence shows that of those who survived this transitional period relatively unscathed were most often those who had undergone some type of religious conversion either in the antebellum South or in the first few years after the war. The abrupt change in orientation and attitudes produced by these ecstatic episodes provided the necessary internal set of values and norms from which they could then navigate their way through the new landscape.
Radin notes that forty conversion experiences were gathered from both black men and women, although the book records thirty-eight. Each narrative evokes images of life in a now extinct rural South, but the protagonists and their stories are widely divergent in gender, age, personality, and type of experience. In some cases runaway slaves experience life altering religious events while on the lamb and suffering from a lack of shelter and food. In others women recall the first time they heard voices and had visions. Dispersed throughout the text are brief autobiographical accounts of the narrator’s conversion experience. They usually include hearing voices, travels into the depths of hell, and the cooling forgiveness provided through God’s grace after a life of gambling, drinking and cheating. These experiences produced a new sense of faith allowing the recipient to wade through the muck and mire of the world with a new sense of love for everyone and everything (in some cases even towards former owners). Many of the men were compelled to begin preaching on the spot, while the women continued to experience voices, visions and miraculous events. Interspersed throughout these brief accounts are six longer autobiographical sketches offering richer details of the life preceding conversion, and the new birth and life stemming from God’s grace.
God Struck Me Dead also includes a brief chapter at the outset describing the rituals of worship as the existed in the early African-American churches. For anyone interested in phenomenological descriptions of religious experiences this book yields data that would otherwise be neglected.