Christopher Z. Hobson, The Mount of Vision: African-American Prophetic Tradition, 1800-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Christopher Hobson’s Mount of Vision is a discerning and valuable corrective analysis of the role of the prophecy in African-American thought (and American society more generally). Hobson aims to change a common view that black American prophetic traditions led to militant separatism and or emigrationism. Rather, he argues that they more often express a prophetic integrationism that sees hope in building a better America, one that may not yet be fully manifest.

Drawing on extended interpretations of four mainstream figures in black Christian thought of the 19th and early 20th century, and supported by cogent examinations of more than a dozen others, Hobson argues that the majority of black prophetic speakers and thinkers could hardly be called moderates—they were agitators who ardently believed that America was their land (as much as any one else’s) and who harnessed Biblical prophecy to fight for social equality. In this regard, Hobson breaks with those who see these leaders as secularist or moderate. As a contribution to American studies, readers will likely appreciate Hobson’s redefinition of the role of the jeremiad, a term which he shows has been oversimplified to obscure significant differences in prophetic thought.

Aside from his compelling thesis, perhaps the most significant element of Hobson’s analysis is his recognition of multiple Christian traditions of prophecy with very different emphases: in arguing that the majority of black prophetic thinkers imagined black identity as a present and future part of the nation’s body, Hobson freely grants that prophecy sometimes did express separatist philosophy as well. For Hobson, prophetic black nationalism is an important but less vocalized element of American prophetic discourse. Hobson’s willingness to recognize significant differences among groups of allied thinkers and his refusal to oversimplify the material is one of the great strengths of this book.

Although I am not myself an expert in prophetic literature, perhaps it will be valuable to remind readers that Christian prophecy is an interpretive act as much as it is a spiritual one. Drawn from the discourse of the Old Testament prophets, such as Ezekiel or Isaiah, prophecy is a divinely inspired public address that announces a vision of the future based on interpretation of the past and present, an act which straddles the realms of the spiritual and the mundane. As a literary form, prophecy is commonly recognized for both its hermeneutic (interpretive) and stylistic (artistic) elements, each of which can be appreciated outside a strictly religious context. Hobson’s analysis is valuable for defining the variety of forms that prophecy can take and yet insisting that the language of mainstream black prophecy is often connected to social action in this world, not merely a utopian or cynical spiritual critique of the iniquities of the present.

The title, The Mount of Vision, refers to Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land. Hobson defines four related modes of prophecy. The first, probably the best known to laypeople from gospel song and religious speech, is Mosaic prophecy from Exodus and Deuteronomy that compares black persecution to that of the Jews and which promises redemption for God’s chosen people based on the covenant. The key to Hobson’s study, however, is the second type of prophecy he defines: a tradition from Ezekiel and Isaiah that suggests the possibility of cultural atonement where people can “turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezek 18:30). Hobson identifies this “turning” discourse as the most popular strand of 19th-century black prophetic thought and one directly linked to social action. He also discusses two other forms: Jeremian thought, which often defines a culture as too wicked to be reformed for this world; and millennial or eschatological thought, largely based on the book of Revelation, where Christ’s future kingdom is envisioned. Although Hobson admits that this analysis can initially seem complex, it is important to keep these different prophetic emphases in mind.

For example, one of the surprising moves Hobson makes is his re-evaluation of the term, jeremiad. In American studies, the term was popularized by Perry Miller as a mode of religious cultural critique where the speaker emphasizes God’s punishment of the wicked, and reformulated by Miller’s student, Sacvan Bercovitch, to emphasize a rather self-congratulatory promise of cultural redemption if Americans can reform themselves. In the wake of Bercovitch’s work, it has become commonplace for scholars to use the term “black jeremiad” to illustrate the social critiques offered by figures such as Martin Luther King. In contrast, Hobson finds little in Jeremiah to ground an agenda of social action (16-17), and offers his reading of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, as an underappreciated part of black (and American) prophecy working to realize an American society whose promise has not been fully expressed. Hobson’s well-illustrated complaint seems to be that Bercovitch-school scholarship has emphasized the wrong part of the Bible.

The four body chapters of Hobson’s book each develop individual strands of Biblical prophecy, principally turning to analyses of Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Reverdy C. Ransom; and Frances Grimké. Chapter 2 focuses on the covenant relationship of African-American people to God, and examines the question of whether black thinkers presented suffering as redemptive (Hobson concludes not). Chapter 3, the core of the book, contrasts two modes of prophecy (the Ezekiel-Isaiah tradition, and the Jeremian tradition), emphasizing the deep pessimism of David Walker’s Appeal (1829) and alternative outlooks expressed by the major figures of the study. Along the way, Hobson deftly resituates the work of Frederick Douglass in line with his Methodism, and discusses a number of lesser known figures, such as the prophet Elizabeth. Hobson addresses a variety of points of view on black emigration and colonization and conclusively argues that mainstream prophetic thought was committed to remaining in the US and working to redeem that society, despite some noteworthy examples to the contrary (103; 108-116). Chapter 4 emphasizes the degree to which black millennialism can be viewed as socially engaged (the rather obscure term, postmillennialism, the belief in working to prepare for Christ’s millennium comes to mind), and culminates in a fresh and dynamic reading of John Jasper’s “The Sun Do Move”  and “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain Without Hands” sermons (130-144).  The penultimate chapter addresses the role of the prophet, where Hobson surveys his figures’ self-conscious awareness of their roles as prophetic speakers. The concluding chapter returns to the critical stakes of the study, offering both an appreciation of George Shulman’s American Prophecy (2008) and a call not to oversimplify the opposing faces of prophecy in American life.

Hobson’s book is a product of our political moment in the best sense: one subtextual voice in this study may be the widely held belief at the turn of the 21st century that the election of a black president would be impossible for decades, perhaps even longer. Hobson begins his text on an auspicious note about the possibility for such change in America. Reflecting on the “half-century anniversary of the civil rights movement, [and] the century-and-a-half anniversary of the Civil War,” Hobson sees the election of Barack Obama as fulfillment of the prophetic hopes of the figures he examines (ix-x). Although there are voices that see this achievement as illusory (such as Derrick Bell’s thesis that American racism is permanent), the strength of Hobson’s study is that it repeatedly reminds us of these competing voices as well. Hobson has done full justice to the varieties of American prophecy in this thoughtful and well researched book.

Reviewed by Granville Ganter
English Department, St. John’s University
Queens, New York
ganterg@stjohns.edu

 

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