Black history month is about celebrating, uplifting, and amplifying the history, contributions, and experiences of Black folks in the United States. As the saying goes, Black history is American history, and that is certainly true when it comes to the Church. Black theologians have eloquently critiqued and articulated harmful theological theories and nurtured new approaches calling the Church out of complacency and into Jesus’ footsteps to shatter racial divisions and prioritize communities at the margins.
Though by no means exhaustive, below is a list of seven influential Black theologians who have impacted the world for good.
An author, philosopher, theologian, educator, mystic, and civil rights leader, Thurman was a prominent religious figure who played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century. Thurman's theology of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. He was known as “one of the greatest spiritual resources of this nation.”
Recommended Reading: Jesus and the Disinherited
The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is the first out Black lesbian elder in The United Methodist Church. From her position in academia, Lightsey has become a prominent activist, educator, author and blogger on a range of social justice issues. Lightsey has advocated within the LGBTQ community for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy and to ensure marriage equality. As a board member of the Reconciling Ministries Network she has critiqued Christian churches for their homophobic policies and practices. Among other activist work, she traveled to the 2012 and 2016 United Methodist General Conferences to speak out strongly for justice for LGBTQ persons.
Recommended Reading: Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology
Karen Baker-Fletcher is professor of systematic theology at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of numerous writings on womanist thought, christology, and the relationship between God and creation. Her writing cultivates the earthy potential of Black womanism through poetry, prose, and rich reflections on her own journey. Some of her work includes Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation, considered by many as one of the seminal texts of eco-womanist theology.
Recommended Reading: Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective
The founder of black liberation theology, Dr. Cone was best known for his ground-breaking works, Black Theology & Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970); he was also the author of the highly acclaimed God of the Oppressed (1975), and of Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991); all of which works have been translated into nine languages. An American theologian, best known for his advocacy of black theology and black liberation theology. His work provided new ways to comprehensively define the distinctiveness of theology in the black church. Cone's work was influential from the time of the its initial publication and remains influential today. His work has been both used and critiqued inside and outside the African-American theological community.
Recommended Reading: God of the Oppressed
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 (1994), Black Bodies and Black Church: A Blues Slant (2012) and Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015). Her book Sexuality in the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (1999) was groundbreaking for openly addressing homophobia within the black church.
Recommended Reading: Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective
Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet. She is known principally for her novel The Color Purple, which was made into a major motion picture and a Broadway play. Although some do not consider her a theologian, Walker defines herself as a dedicated activist, theologian, and speaker. Her writing is imbued with a deep sense of spirituality. This is intimately tied to one of her most sweeping impacts, the promotion of "Womanism." Womanism refers to a form of feminism and social theory concerned with the experiences of women of color, and with black women in particular. The theory centers on the intersections of feminism, sexism, and anti-black racism in an effort to address the deeply oppressive realities of life for women of color. While Walker was the first person to have used the term Womanism publically, her words ignited a movement that continues to shape the work of numerous authors and theologians such as Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, and Nyasha Junior.
Recommended Reading: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
Barbara A. Holmes
Barbara A. Holmes is a contemplative, activist, writer, and theologian focused on African American spirituality, mysticism, cosmology and culture. She is President Emerita of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (2012-2016), and also served as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Memphis Theological Seminary (2005-2010). Prior to ministry, she was an early childhood educator, a professional actor, and corporate lawyer. Her life is “committed to the struggle for justice, the healing of the human spirit, and the art of relevant and radical creativity."
Recommended Reading: Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church
Any theologians left out that you thought should make the list? Let us know below!