book cover imageAmerican Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice
by Albert J. Raboteau.
Princeton University Press, 2016.
Cloth, 248 pages, $30.

One does not have to agree with the teachings of these seven “radicals” to be inspired by their lives. They tend to make one uncomfortable in the same way saints of whatever persuasion do: they ask us to change our lives, our societies. As in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan, we laud them when they die, but if, as in that play, one came back from the dead, we would be horrified and look posthaste for the nearest exit.

Albert J. Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University, has written an overview of the lives and works of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. He is very adept at weaving the lives and teachings of these prophets together to show how they influenced and encouraged one another. Heschel,a rabbi whose family died in concentration camps, for instance, became convinced the civil rights movement was a work of God and marched with Dr. King. A. J. Muste, leader of the pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation, often participated in protests with Dorothy Day, who corresponded with Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

All of these prophets were pacifists and either supported socialism or were, like Day, apolitical. Several of them were imprisoned many times and one, Fannie Lou Hamer, was imprisoned and tortured for a week in a Mississippi jail. Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience and Gandhi’s idea of nonviolent resistance inspired them all, either directly or through one another’s work. Almost all of these figures had some sort of mystical experience of the oneness of the universe with human life, much like the experience of Alyosha Karamozov in The Brothers Karamazov.

That Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoyevsky, an ardent nationalist who thought Russia would save the world—“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams”—points to the complexity of these issues. Raboteau doesn’t deny that—Day’s proclaiming, at a retreat he attended, that the United States should unilaterally disarm appears to still bother him—but he does remind this reader of an alleged Nietzschean quote, to wit that Christians spend much of their time trying to explain why the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really mean what it says.  

Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.