Influential Black Religious Studies Scholars

Our list of influential Black religious studies scholars is comprised of leaders in the field who are developing ideas in areas such as activism, political theology, poverty, racial reconciliation, and more. They are paving the way for the next generation of religious studies scholars.

Influential Black Religious Studies Scholars

Top 10 Black Religious Scholars from the Last 30 Years

  1. James H. Cone
  2. Warith Deen Mohammed
  3. Roderick L. Evans
  4. Barry Black
  5. Jacquelyn Grant
  6. Prathia Hall
  7. C. T. Vivian
  8. Katie Cannon
  9. M. Shawn Copeland
  10. Jamie T. Phelps
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Religion seeks to connect people to that which is ultimately real, sacred, and of ultimate value. According to the American Academy of Religion, religious scholars in the field of Religious Studies inquire into how these religions develop their ideas and how those ideas relate to our lives in the world. Religious faith continues to play a vital role in the Black community. According to the Pew Reasearch Center, 79% of Black Americans identify as religious. This devotion carries over into Black academic studies of religion.

Historically, liberation and freedom from oppression have been the main topics within Black religious scholarship. Prominent theologian James H. Cone (1938–2018) is seen as the founder of Black Liberation Theology, which argues that God identifies with the marginalized and oppressed.seen as the founder of Black Liberation Theology, which argues that God identifies with the marginalized and oppressed. According to Theos:

God in Black Theology is the active force that overthrows injustice and releases the captives from their oppression. Black theology seeks to promote the significance of Black people within the sacred story of God’s interaction with humankind (i.e., the Bible) and as a means of promoting ideas of reconciliation and living together in unity, in a world that transcends racism.

Contributions by current scholars investigate issues of poverty (West), liberation (Cone, West, Roberts), racial reconciliation (West, Roberts), and black political theology (West, Roberts). Womanist theologians, such as Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, have focused on issues of theology and violence from the perspectives of women of color. Religious Studies scholars often seek to connect scholarship and activism, building bridges between the academy, the church, and the larger society.

Influential Black Leaders in Religion

Black scholars of religious studies have found their inspiration in these historical figures:

  • Richard Allen — Founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1794. The AME was the first independent Black Christian denomination in the United States.
  • Nannie Helen Burroughs — Suffragette, activist, and co-founder of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, an early pro-feminism Christian organization.
  • William J. Seymour — Holiness preacher instrumental in the Azusa Street Revival, a seminal event in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.
  • Wallace Fard Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X — Key leaders in the Black Muslim group The Nation of Islam.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. — American Baptist minister, first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and prominent civil rights leader.
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25 Influential Black Religious Studies Scholars From the Last 30 Years

The Black scholars in our list were identified as highly cited and searched people using our machine-powered Influence Ranking algorithm, which produces a numerical score of academic achievements, merits, and citations across Wikipedia/data, Crossref, Semantic Scholar and an ever-growing body of data.

Find out more about our Methodology.

List is arranged alphabetically

  1. Lewis V. Baldwin

    1949 - Present (73 years)
    Lewis V. Baldwin is a historian, author, and professor specializing in the history of the black churches in the United States. He is an acknowledged expert on the Spencer Churches, the oldest black denominationss in the country. He currently teaches at Vanderbilt University.
  2. Barry Black

    Barry Black
    1948 - Present (74 years)
    Barry Clayton Black is the 62nd chaplain of the United States Senate. He began serving as Senate chaplain on June 27, 2003, becoming the first African American and first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the office. The Senate selected its first chaplain in 1789.
  3. Katie Cannon

    1949 - 2018 (69 years)
    Katie Geneva Cannon was an American Christian theologian and ethicist associated with womanist theology and black theology. In 1974 she became the first African-American woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church . She is credited with founding womanist theology and ethics as a field.
  4. James E. Cheek

    James E. Cheek
    1932 - 2010 (78 years)
    James Edward Cheek was president emeritus of Howard University. He was born in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Howard University President In 1989, Cheek appointed Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater as a member of the Howard University Board of Trustees. Students rose up in protest against Atwater’s appointment, disrupting Howard’s 122nd anniversary celebrations, and eventually occupied the university’s administration building. Within days, both Atwater and Cheek resigned.
  5. James H. Cone

    James H. Cone
    1938 - 2018 (80 years)
    James Hal Cone was an American theologian, best known for his advocacy of black theology and black liberation theology. His 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power provided a new way to comprehensively define the distinctiveness of theology in the black church. His message was that Black Power, defined as black people asserting the humanity that white supremacy denied, was the gospel in America. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed, advocating the same thing as Black Power. He argued that white American churches preached a gospel based on white supremacy, antithetical to the gospel of Jesus....
  6. M. Shawn Copeland

    M. Shawn Copeland
    1947 - Present (75 years)

    Mary Shawn Copeland was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1947. Her B.A. in English is from Madonna College, and her Ph.D. is in systematic theology from Boston College. Her work has focused on theological anthropology, and particularly the implications of the doctrine of humanity for political theology and African American theology.

    Copeland is Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Boston College, where she taught for more than a decade before retiring in 2019. Copeland was awarded the prestigious John Courtney Murray Award in 2018, and was the first African American theologian to receive that honor. She holds a number of honorary degrees, and has served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and as convenor of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. She is a prolific author and speaker, having written over 100 scholarly articles and delivered lectures throughout the world.

    Notable works from Copeland include The Subversive Power of Love: The Vision of Henriette Delille, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, and Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience.

  7. Kelly Brown Douglas

    Kelly Delaine Brown Douglas is an African-American Episcopal priest, womanist theologian, and the inaugural Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. She is also the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral. She has written five books, including The Black Christ , Black Bodies and Black Church: A Blues Slant and Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God . Her book Sexuality in the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective was groundbreaking for openly addressing homophobia within the black church.
  8. Michael Eric Dyson

    Michael Eric Dyson
    1958 - Present (64 years)
    Michael Eric Dyson is an American academic, author, ordained minister, and radio host. He is a professor in the College of Arts and Science and in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. Described by Michael A. Fletcher as “a Princeton Ph.D. and a child of the streets who takes pains never to separate the two”, Dyson has authored or edited more than twenty books dealing with subjects such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Marvin Gaye, Barack Obama, Nas’s debut album Illmatic, Bill Cosby, Tupac Shakur and Hurricane Katrina.
  9. Roderick L. Evans

    Roderick L. Evans
    Roderick Levi Evans is an author, lecturer, bible teacher, and Christian apologist. Evans is the founder of Abundant Truth International Ministries. Evans has written numerous books, articles, blogs, and poetry. His writings focus on orthodox Christianity, evangelical doctrines as well as charismatic/Pentecostal studies. He is best known for his teachings and books on apostolic and prophetic ministries, apologetics, doctrinal studies, as well as leadership. Evans is also a psalmist, singer-songwriter, acoustic guitarist, and poet. He currently resides in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
  10. Leah Gaskin Fitchue

    Leah Gaskin Fitchue
    1940 - 2019 (79 years)
    Leah Gaskin Fitchue , also known as Leah Gaskin White and Leah Gaskin Coles, was an American city official, professor of religious studies and college administrator. She was president of Payne Theological Seminary from 2003 to 2015.
  11. Jacquelyn Grant

    1948 - Present (74 years)
    Jacquelyn Grant is an American theologian and Methodist minister who is one of the founding developers of womanist theology. Womanist theology addresses theology from the viewpoint of Black women, reflecting on both their perspectives and experience in regards to faith and moral standards. She is currently the Callaway Professor of Systematic Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Grant has written the book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus .
  12. Prathia Hall

    1940 - 2002 (62 years)
    Prathia Laura Ann Hall Wynn was an American leader and activist in the Civil Rights Movement, a womanist theologian, and ethicist. She was the key inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
  13. Vincent Harding

    Vincent Harding
    1931 - 2014 (83 years)
    Vincent Gordon Harding was an African-American historian and a scholar of various topics with a focus on American religion and society. A social activist, he was perhaps best known for his work with and writings about Martin Luther King Jr., whom Harding knew personally. Besides having authored numerous books such as There Is A River, Hope and History, and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, he served as co-chairperson of the social unity group Veterans of Hope Project and as Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. When Harding d...
  14. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan

    1951 - Present (71 years)
    Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan is an African-American womanist theologian, professor, author, poet, and an elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. She is professor of religion and women’s studies and director of women’s studies at Shaw University Divinity School. She is the author or editor of numerous books, including the volume Women and Christianity in a series on Women and Religion in the World, published by Praeger.
  15. Warith Deen Mohammed

    Warith Deen Mohammed
    1933 - 2008 (75 years)
    Warith Deen Mohammed , also known as W. Deen Mohammed, Imam W. Deen Muhammad and Imam Warith Deen, was an African-American Muslim leader, theologian, philosopher, Muslim revivalist, and Islamic thinker who disbanded the original Nation of Islam in 1976 and transformed it into an ostensibly orthodox mainstream Islamic movement, the Bilalians , World Community of Al-Islam in the West , American Muslim Mission which later became the American Society of Muslims. He was a son of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam from 1933 to 1975.
  16. Hugh R. Page

    1956 - Present (66 years)
    Hugh Rowland Page Jr. is professor of Africana studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has previously chaired the Africana studies department. He also served as dean of the First Year of Studies, and as vice-president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs. He is a scholar of esotericism in African-American religious experience.
  17. Jamie T. Phelps

    Jamie T. Phelps
    1941 - Present (81 years)
    Jamie T. Phelps, O.P. is an American Catholic theologian. Phelps, who is African American, is known for her contributions to womanist theology. Biography Phelps was born in Alabama, the youngest of six children of a Catholic household. She became an Adrian Dominican Sister in 1959.
  18. Anthony B. Pinn

    1964 - Present (58 years)
    Anthony B. Pinn is an American professor working at the intersections of African-American religion, constructive theology, and humanist thought. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning in Houston, Texas, and Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in 1986, and earned his Ph.D. in the Study of Religion at Harvard University in 199...
  19. Albert J. Raboteau

    1943 - 2021 (78 years)
    Albert Jordy “Al” Raboteau II was an American scholar of African and African-American religions. Since 1982, he had been affiliated with Princeton University, where he was Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion.
  20. J. Deotis Roberts

    1927 - Present (95 years)
    James Deotis Roberts is an American theologian. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a pioneering figure in the Black Theology movement.
  21. J. Alfred Smith

    1931 - Present (91 years)
    James Alfred Smith Senior is the Pastor Emeritus of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California. Ebony Magazine chose Smith to be one of the “Most Influential Black Americans” and was one of the magazine’s Top 15 Greatest Black Preachers of 1993.
  22. C. T. Vivian

    C. T. Vivian
    1924 - 2020 (96 years)
    Cordy Tindell Vivian was an American minister, author, and close friend and lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Vivian resided in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
  23. Renita J. Weems

    1954 - Present (68 years)
    Renita J. Weems is an ordained minister, a Hebrew Bible scholar, and an author. in 1989 she received a Ph.D. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies from Princeton Theological Seminary making her the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the field. Her work in womanist biblical interpretation is frequently cited in feminist theology and womanist theology. She is credited with developing theology and ethics as a field.
  24. Cornel West

    Cornel West
    1953 - Present (69 years)

    Cornel West currently holds the title of Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School. Prior to this, he has held positions at Princeton University (where he maintains the title of Professor Emeritus), Union Theological Seminary, Yale University, and the University of Paris. West earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University in 1973, and completed his PhD at Princeton University in 1980, making him the first African-American to earn a PhD in philosophy from Princeton.

    West is well recognized as a social critic on racial and political issues, as well as a public intellectual. Indeed, his influence can be traced as much (or more) to his public activism and visibility as it can his academic work. West is often cited in mainstream media, and frequently makes public, television, radio, and print appearances. West is known as a strong voice of left-wing politics and social justice in America, though he has also frequently been critical of prominent left-wing politicians, including Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Also notable is the fact that West has established a public presence removed from politics and philosophy entirely, including cameos in films from The Matrix franchise, as well as a spoken word and hip hop albums.

  25. Delores S. Williams

    1937 - Present (85 years)
    Delores Seneva Williams is an American Presbyterian theologian notable for her formative role in the development of womanist theology and best known for her book Sisters in the Wilderness. Her writings over the years have discussed the role intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class have played in the situation of black women. As opposed to feminist theology as it was predominantly practiced by white women and black theology as predominantly practiced by black men, Williams argues that black women’s oppression deepens the analysis of oppression in theology.

This list is far from exhaustive; if you have a suggestion for someone to add, please contact us.

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Key Associations for Black Scholars in Religious Studies

Whether for their general contributions to the field of religious studies or for their particular impact within the Black experience, these organizations play an important role:

  • American Academy of Religion (AAR)fosters excellence in the academic study of religion and enhance the public understanding of religion, with a commitment to promoting academic excellence, professional responsibility, free inquiry, critical examination, diversity, inclusion, respect, and transparency in the study of religion.
  • Black Religious Scholars Group(BRSG) — is committed to creating dialogues that forge bonds of communication for partnership and innovation between Black peoples. At the core of its vision is “the conviction that dialogue and collaboration among scholars, churches, and community activist organizations is essential for cultivating transformative debates and promoting social justice.”
  • Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR)fosters interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration among more than a thousand scholars from sociology, religious studies, psychology, political science, economics, international studies, gender studies, and many other fields.
  • American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE)strives to be the premier organization to drive leadership development, access and vital issues concerning Blacks in higher education. In pursuing this vision, AABHE seeks to collaborate with other ethnic groups and organizations that have similar interests.

For more the most famous Black scholars of the last 30 years, visit our Influential Black Scholars page. If you want more on Religious Studies, visit our Religious Studies page to find more influential Religious Studies Scholars, top colleges and universities for Religious Studies, and more.

Other Influential Black Scholars by Academic Discipline

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