Sensbach, Jon F.
Sensbach, Jon F.
PERSONAL: Male. Education: University of Virginia, B.A., 1980; Duke University, Ph.D., 1991.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of History, 025 Keene-Flint Hall, P.O. Box 117320, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611-7320. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Taught at College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA; University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, assistant professor of history; University of Florida, Gainesville, associate professor of history, 1998–.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships at National Humanities Center and Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture.
A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1998. Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Jon F. Sensbach teaches early American history, and his books focus on African Americans and their relationship with religion in history. A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840 looks at the lives of black slaves and the evolution of race relations within a community of Moravians, an idealistic, insular Protestant sect that originated in Germany. Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World deals with a former slave whose work with a Moravian mission on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas helped found the black church in the Western Hemisphere. Some reviewers have praised these books for bringing attention to subjects that had been largely unexplored.
A Separate Canaan tells the story of the Moravian settlement of Wachovia, established in 1753 in the area that is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Moravians meant to be self-sufficient, and they emphasized social equality but used slave labor. However, while Moravians happily converted blacks to their religion and for a time held integrated church services, forces of nationalism, capitalism, and above all racism led to greater black-white distinctions and a separate black congregation developed. Still, Sensbach writes, the black Moravians managed to develop a supportive social order, with institutional religion that "conflated worship, family, and community."
Several critics found A Separate Canaan a significant scholarly work, well-researched and well-written. "Sensbach reminds us that it was hardly a foregone conclusion that American churches would be segregated by race, or that African-Americans would use churches as a basis for communal and individual identity," remarked Dylan Penningroth in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. The work, in the words of Journal of Religion contributor Mozella G. Mitchell, is "a very revealing historical analysis and interpretation of one Protestant evangelical movement and the outcome of its religious vision within the emerging American context." Mitchell continued, "Very rich and resourceful and highly readable, the book is a demonstration of superb scholarship. The author is meticulous and thorough." Alan D. Watson, writing in History: Review of New Books, described Sensbach's effort as "thoroughly researched, highly analytical, and fully documented," drawing on "a sweeping array of sources," some previously published but many not. "A bonus for readers," Watson added, "is Sensbach's felicity of style."
Rebecca's Revival explores the story of blacks and the Moravian Church through the life of Rebecca Protten. She was born into slavery in the West Indies in 1718 and freed while in her teens. She joined St. Thomas's Moravian missionaries in the 1730s and eventually became an evangelist, preaching Christianity among Caribbean blacks and in Europe and Africa. "Rebecca, along with other black folk free and enslaved, established what Sensbach claims is the earliest bulwark of black Protestantism—no less than the first black church—in the Americas," reported Jonathon Kahn in Books & Culture.
Kahn deemed Sensbach a bit too eager to make Rebecca emblematic of black Christianity; the critic noted that she and other missionaries tried to discourage blacks from mixing African and Christian beliefs, but this mixing endured nonetheless. However, he thought Sensbach succeeds in "providing in riveting detail the sorts of religious and racial ambiguities that characterized the beginnings of Rebecca's church" and "recovering from utter obscurity a remarkable woman whose story cried out to be told." Booklist commentator Margaret Flanagan deemed the work "an insightful biography" with "indispensable" information on African-American history. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Sensbach's research "astonishing" and his writing "fluid and graceful" concluding that the author has produced "a rare gem."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 15, 2005, Margaret Flanagan, review of Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, p. 1039.
Books & Culture, May-June, 2005, Jonathon Kahn, "A Preaching Woman: The Remarkable Story of a Former Slave Sheds Light on the Origins of African American Christianity," p. 32.
History: Review of New Books, fall, 1998, Alan D. Watson, review of A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840 p. 17.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, spring, 2000, Dylan Penningroth, review of A Separate Canaan, p. 701.
Journal of Religion, April, 2000, Mozella G. Mitchell, review of A Separate Canaan, p. 329.
Publishers Weekly, January 16, 2005, review of Rebecca's Revival, p. 50.
University of Florida Department of History Web site, http://web.history.ufl.edu/ (September 29, 2005), brief biography.