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Cone, James H.

Cone, James H.

August 5, 1938


Theologian James Hal Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1938 and was raised in Bearden, Arkansas. He received degrees from Philander Smith College (B.A.), Garrett Theological Seminary (B.D.), and Northwestern University (M.A., Ph.D.). His intellectual, emotional, and racial identities developed out of two threads of his childhood experiences. First, the wholesome encouragement and support of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Bearden's black community reinforced his fundamental sense of self-worth and his Christian convictions. Second, the negative effects of segregation and white racism left him with an intolerance for discrimination.

Born into a family of modest means (his father cut wood), Cone experienced poverty and grew to appreciate the problems of the poor in American society. His father became his decisive role model for what it meant to be a poor, proud African-American man in a predominantly white society.

Cone's theological reflections are products of both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Although he earned his Ph.D. in 1965 and taught at Philander Smith College and Adrian College, Cone's theological creativity bore fruit with his first book, Black Theology and Black Power (1969). This text catapulted Cone, then a little-known college professor, to the prestigious and internationally recognized faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Black Theology and Black Power was the first scholarly work published on black theology. Cone contended that the 1960s Black Power movement was the revelation of Jesus Christ. Conversely, North American white churches represented the Antichrist and therefore were non-Christian. Similarly, all black churches siding with white Christianity were evil. Basically, religious institutions could find God's presence only in urban rebellions and community organizing among poor black Americans. Only when the poor obtained their full humanity could everyone be free; hence the universal dimension of black theology.

A further systematic treatment of the poor and the Christian faith appeared in Cone's next book, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). This work marked the first attempt to develop a black theology by investigating major church doctrines through the eyes of the African-American poor. It made black religious studies into a systematic theology. In reaction to his overreliance on white religious systems of thought, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972), Cone's third book, indicates black theology's major turn toward religious sources created by the African-American church and community. If black theology was a faith expression of poor African Americans, Cone believed, then such a theology must arise organically from the African-American experience itself.

His fourth text, God of the Oppressed (1975), marks Cone's second systematic black theology of liberation, this time based on his personal experiences and black resources.

Cone closed out the 1970s by coediting (with Gayraud Wilmore) Black Theology: A Documentary History, 19661979 (1979). After My Soul Looks Back (1982), For My People (1984), and Speaking the Truth (1986), Cone published Martin and Malcolm and America (1991), a pioneering advancement of black theology into mainstream popular discussion.

In 1999, Cone published Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, tracing the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s to the end of the twentieth century.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; Black Power Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.

Bibliography

Cone, James H. For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984.

Cone, James H. Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Hopkins, Dwight N. Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.

Satya. "Malcolm and Martin: Still Teachers of Resistance: The Satya Interview with James H. Cone." Available from <http://www.satyamag.com>.

dwight n. hopkins (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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