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Seven Ground-Breaking Black Womanist Theologians

Although a relatively recent discipline, womanist theology offers important insight and perspective for the Church to learn from and take into the future. The term ‘womanism’ has roots in Alice Walker’s writings, while the phrase ‘womanist theology’ was first used by Delores S. Williams in 1987. Womanist theology centers the experience and perspectives of Black women, particularly African-American women. This theological area developed as a corrective to early feminist theology written by white feminists that did not address the impact of race and class on women’s lives. These theologians also highlighted the ways in which Black theology, written predominantly by male theologians, failed to consider the perspective and insights of Black women. 

Though by no means exhaustive, here are seven theologians formative to the expansion and development of womanist theology.

Wilda C. Gafney

Also known as Wil Gafney, she is an American biblical scholar and Episcopal priest who is the Right Rev. Sam B. Hulsey Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She specializes in womanist biblical interpretation and teaches the Hebrew Scriptures emphasizing archaeology, comparative ancient Near Eastern literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among her research interests are feminist biblical studies, rabbinic studies, and issues in translation. Her interest in the ancient Near Eastern and biblical portrayals of Lilith and other night-stalking creatures led to her participation in two HBO documentaries on the origin and evolution of vampire mythologies, True Bloodlines: Vampire Legends and True Bloodlines: A New Type in 2008, airing before the series premiere of True Blood.

Recommended Reading: A Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne

Jacquelyn Grant

Jacquelyn Grant is an American theologian and Methodist minister who is one of the founding developers of womanist theology. Grant was the recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ministry Award in 1986 and has been nominated as the Woman of the Year in Religion by the Iota Phi Lambda sorority. A successful author, Grant has written or edited several books, including White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, the all-time best selling book released by Scholars Press, and her most recent book, Perspectives on Womanist Theology. Grant currently has a research project that examines African-American understanding of the divine through black theology and black art.

Recommended Reading: White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response

Renita J. Weems

The first African American woman to earn a doctorate in Old Testament studies, Rev. Dr. Weems has taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Spelman College. She is one of the founding Pastors and Chief Servants at the Ray of Hope Community Church located in Nashville, TN. She has lectured and written widely on topics of religion, women in the bible, and women’s spirituality. Among her written works includes the award-winning Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt (2000), which won the Religious Communicators’ Council’s prestigious 1999 Wilbur Award for “excellence in communicating spiritual values to the secular media.”

Recommended Reading: Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets

Delores S. Williams

Delores Seneva Williams was 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 discussed how the intersection of race, gender, and class played a role in black women's lives. Williams earned a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in 1991, where she later became the first Black woman to hold a named chair at the school as the Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture. She had four children and was married to Robert C. Williams, who died in 1987. Over her life, she wrote several essays, articles, and book chapters that helped establish womanist theology, which she defined in Sisters in the Wilderness as theology that takes the “faith, thought, and struggle of Black women seriously as a ‘primary theological source.’”

Recommended Reading: Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

M. Shawn Copeland

Mary Shawn Copeland, known professionally as M. Shawn Copeland, is a retired American womanist and Black Catholic theologian, and a former religious sister. She is Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Boston College and is known for her work in theological anthropology as well as political theology. A professor in the Theology Department and African and African Diaspora Studies program, Copeland has made groundbreaking contributions to the fields of theological anthropology and political theology as well as the African and African American intellectual history and religious experience. Her book Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being has been called a modern theological classic.

Recommended Reading: Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience

Emilie Townes

Emilie Maureen Townes is an American Christian social ethicist and theologian, currently Dean and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman and the author of the groundbreaking book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Townes was the first African American woman to be elected to the presidential line of the Society of Christian Ethics, which she will lead in 2024. In 2008, she was the first African American woman to serve as president of the American Academy of Religion and she was president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion from 2012 to 2016. Townes was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. In 2021, she was inducted into the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers, Sponsors and Collegium of Scholars.

Recommended Reading: Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation

Diana L. Hayes

Diana L. Hayes is an African-American Catholic theologian specializing in womanism and Black theology. The first African-American woman to earn a pontifical doctorate in theology, she is professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University. Dr. Hayes is the first African American woman to receive the Pontifical Doctor of Sacred Theology degree (S.T.D.) from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) and has also received three honorary doctorates. She is the author of 6 books and over 50 articles. Hayes is a member of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, and has contributed to National Catholic Reporter.

Recommended Reading: Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology

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