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Chosen PeopleThe Rise of American Black Israelite Religions$

Jacob S. Dorman

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780195301403

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195301403.001.0001

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“I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”

“I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”

Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

(p.152) 5 “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”
Chosen People

Jacob S. Dorman

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter demonstrates the transnational and polycultural nature of African American religions through the faith formulated by one of Rabbi Ford's associates, Wentworth Arthur Matthew. Matthew, who was born in Nevis-St. Kitt's and immigrated to New York as a young man, composed his version of Black Judaism from a bricolage of Christian, Jewish, Afro-Caribbean, Masonic, and esoteric sources, as part of a wide community of ministers, Freemasons, conjurers, occultists, healers, and “Professors of Mystic Science.” Yet although he incorporated such diverse sources, his movement arose at a brief historical moment when white Jews and Blacks of many nationalities and religions lived together in close proximity in New York's Harlem. Partly in order to gain the financial and institutional support of white Jews, Matthew gradually adopted many of the liturgical standards of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, even as he kept his own polycultural faith going behind closed doors in what ethnographer James Scott refers to as the “hidden transcript.” It is important to recognize that the public transcript, the partial transcript, and the hidden transcript of religious communities seldom completely coincide.

Keywords:   African American religion, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, Black Judaism, religious movement

With Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford's death in Ethiopia in 1935, another West Indian, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, became the Black Israelite torchbearer. From the 1930s to the 1970s, a visitor to the Ethiopian Hebrew Commandment Keepers congregation in Harlem on a Saturday morning would have found Rabbi Matthew leading a room of African Americans engaged in Hebrew prayer, the men wearing Jewish prayer shawls and skull caps, the women sitting in a separate section at the rear. At the midpoint of the service the diminutive, bearded rabbi would remove the Torah from its enclosure and lead others around the synagogue as the congregation sang the hymn “We Are Marching to Zion,” a favorite of the Wesleyan camp meeting revival movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1 For the most part, these worshipers were not converts to Judaism, nor did they even describe themselves as Jews, preferring the terms “Hebrew” or “Israelite” (see fig. 5.1). By the 1930s, their congregation was the oldest remaining Israelite synagogue in New York, a holdover from the First World War years, and it included former members of Rabbi Ford's congregation. One evening after Friday night services had concluded, Matthew turned to the dozen worshipers in the audience and began speaking on the familiar theme of his magical abilities. Turning to Brother William, Matthew asked for corroboration that he had made himself invisible with a wave of the hand.

“Yes, you did,” corroborated Brother William. “I saw you disappear with my own eyes.”

Immediately, the rest of the worshippers (all women) rose from their seats and shouted ecstatically, “Hallelujah, the Lord loves our teacher.”

“Let us sing ‘Adon Olam’, ” the Rabbi roared. “Let us sing so that all our enemies will know that we are the chosen sons and daughters of Jehova”2


                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.1 Rabbi Matthew and the rabbis and members of the Commandment Keepers of Harlem. The women's headdresses and robes are similar to those worn in Black Spiritual churches and in the Church of the Living God, while the men's head coverings are like those worn in Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues. New York Historical Society. Photograph by Alexander Alland.

Rabbi Matthew's “Commandment Keepers Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of Truth and the Faith of Jesus Christ” began as a Christian church in 1919, and progressively incorporated more Jewish rituals and decreased the prominence of Jesus as the decades passed. There were many sects of Black Jews during the 1920s, in a range of American cities, and many of these had more members than Matthew's Ethiopian Hebrews or gained more wealth and notoriety. But like Rabbi Ford, Matthew practiced a religion that was not only Black Israelite but was explicitly Jewish. He preached descent from the ancient Israelites while incorporating Jewish ritual, Hebrew language, and kosher dietary practices.3 During the five decades Matthew was active, he ordained a dozen or more rabbis, making him the torchbearer for Black Judaism in the United States. Yet despite this long career, his movement probably never numbered more than a few thousand followers at the most, split among a handful of small congregations.

Black Jews did not simply imitate white Jews, but rather they were bricoleurs who constructed a polycultural religion that creatively reworked threads from (p.154) religious faiths, secret societies, and magical grimoires. This microhistory of the development of Rabbi Matthew's theology reveals how the Jewish ritual that he presented to the world was undergirded by Holiness Christianity and magical practices borrowed from esoteric sources such as Freemasonry and Spiritualism. When one combines the study of Rabbi Matthew's Black Israelism with similar studies of Black Israelism, Black Islam, Rastafarianism, Father Divine's Peace Mission movement, and various New Thought-based Black religions operative in the 1920s, it is possible to appreciate a remarkable wave of overlapping esoteric religious creativity that accompanied the much more famous artistic creativity of the Harlem Renaissance.4 Like other religions of the African diaspora, Black Israelism drew on Caribbean carnival traditions, Pentecostal Christianity, Spiritualism, magic, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, and Judaism, in a polycultural creation process dependent not on imitation or inheritance of Judaism as much as on innovation, social networks, and imagination.

Understanding Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who died as “Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Hebrews of the Western World,” is made more difficult because of what scholar James Scott called the public, partial, and hidden transcripts, Matthew's rhetoric when whites were present was different from that when his audience was exclusively African American, and it was different again when his audience were all Black Israelites; one of the items he taught at his religious school was “speech in front of mixed congregations.”5 Similarly, what he told a Black newspaper was different from what he told a white newspaper. Toward the end of his life, frustrated at what he perceived as the injustices dealt him by reporters and scholars, he refused to make statements to outsiders at all. Moreover, Rabbi Matthew left few papers or interviews, and he protected the secrets of his past even from his followers. It is, therefore, necessary to unearth and decipher the partial and hidden transcripts in order to understand the cultural world of early Black Israelites, the intellectual wells from which they drew, and the social meanings they gave to their practice and identity.6 Like other subaltern histories without abundant written sources, the task of reconstructing and interpreting Rabbi Matthew's religion forces the scholar himself to be something of a bricoleur, piecing together an intellectual history from a handful of clues gleaned from a small body of surviving documents, membership lists, and pamphlets, as well as a limited number of secondhand accounts.7

The amount of Judaic ritual in Matthew's church and the importance of Jewishness to his faith rose as the number of white Jews in Harlem declined. In 1923 he celebrated his first Passover; in 1929 his synagogue was receiving (p.155) some financial aid from white synagogues; and in 1930 “Bishop” Matthew celebrated Rosh Hashanah with six Jews of European origins among the 175 congregants. In the same year the congregation purchased a Torah.8 What made “bishop” and then “rabbi” Matthew's Black Israelism different from many other varieties of Black Israelism that arose in Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Jamaica, South Africa, and even New York in later decades was the fact that Matthew, like Rabbi Ford before him, adopted the ritual forms of Judaism to augment his Israelite identity. The congregation retained a belief in the divinity of Jesus, but began to incorporate elements of Jewish worship, including the use of Jewish prayers such as the Shemma and the observance of holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A newspaper story from 1929, entitled “Negro Sect in Harlem Mixes Jewish and Christian Religions,” described how Matthew ate kosher meat, wore a skullcap and a prayer shawl, and used some Hebrew. However, the congregation thought of Jesus either as a prophet of the rank of Moses or as divine, and the service itself resembled that of the sanctified church more than that of a Jewish synagogue.9

In addition to mixing beliefs, Matthew was actively combining Jewish rituals with customs and rituals derived from African American Christianity—as well as from conjuring, as we shall see. For example, Rabbi Matthew's observance of the Jewish holidays mixed in aspects of African-American religious culture not usually found in Jewish practice (fig. 5.2). On Rosh Hashanah, each congregant received a small bottle of oil. The Tashlich ceremony, in which Jews throw breadcrumbs into a body of water, symbolizing the release of their sins, became embellished by placing petitions into apples and throwing them into the river. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur alike, the Commandment Keepers burned incense, filled a bowl with oil, and placed two silver coins into the oil. On the festive holiday of Simchat Torah, a glass of whiskey was given to each reader before the reading of the Torah. On Passover, Matthew convened a community seder and feast, and chose a “beloved son of the year.” In a nod to his past in sanctified churches, Matthew also incorporated foot washing into the Passover ritual.10

There is no doubt that as the twenties progressed, Matthew and his followers sincerely came to believe themselves to be Jews, the physical and spiritual descendents of the ancient Israelites. Bishop Matthew attended services at Rabbi Ford's congregation, Beth B’nai Abraham, and interacted with other Israelite teachers in Harlem. Eventually, Matthew adopted the Israelite teaching himself. Near the end of his life, looking back on this period during a rare conversation about his Christian past, Matthew emphasized (p.156)

                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.2 Members of Harlem's Commandment Keepers Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. New York Historical Society. Photograph by Alexander Alland.

the individual nature of his religious odyssey: “I got tired of Christianity, of going from church to church,” he said. “Got the spirit it wasn’t right. Just found this by myself because I wanted Hebrew. Like I was reaching out and discovered this.”11

When Rabbi Matthew died on December 3, 1972, his death certificate matched the story he had told as far back as 1937—that he had been born in Lagos, Nigeria, on June 23, 1892, to a Falasha father and a West Indian mother. However, government documents hidden from public view tell a very different story. In 1918, 1920, and even as late as 1969, when he applied for a social security number, Matthew reported that he was born on June 23, 1892, on St. Kitts in the British West Indies, and immigrated to New York in 1913.12 Community leader Rabbi Hailu Moshe Paris reported that members were upset to discover that Matthew was not born in Africa. “Later when he passed on a lot of people did not like that he was from St. Kitts,” Paris related.13

Matthew's parents, Frances Cornelious and Joseph Matthew, raised him as a Methodist, and he later belonged to a “Jesus-only” Pentecostal church in the West Indies.14 As an adult, he later described a deep religious faith that was a (p.157) part of daily life in the Caribbean, writing that “the people of the islands were among the most enlightened, biblically,” and, in accordance with biblical prohibitions, would not eat animals that had died of strangulation or drowning.15 For Matthew, as for many working-class Protestants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Bible not only was a holy document to be read by a religious authority on Sunday but was also part of the fabric of daily life, a mystical roadmap that promised to guide one through the past, the present, and the afterworld. Like many other devout Protestants, Rabbi Matthew and the people who became his followers committed large portions of the Bible to memory.16

Matthew's Caribbean childhood provided the first of many opportunities to perform and embody biblical identities. Commenting on a passage from the book of Exodus, Matthew once wrote:

Here I am reminded of the Patriarchal plays at Christmas time, also of David and Goliath and the children of Israel, by which the people of [the] islands were reminded from year to year that they were the children of the house of Israel. In the stories of Joseph in Egypt, Solomon and Sheba, strictly Biblical, are vividly portrayed the same people in America who are “Negroes” and in most part of the British domain [are known] as “darkies.”17

The plays to which Matthew referred were a feature of Christmas celebrations in Nevis and St. Kitts, when roving bands of a dozen or more actors would act out various themes to the accompaniment of several types of music. When Matthew was growing up, Bible stories were part of the living, breathing life of the Caribbean islands. As a historian of the Christmas diversions in Nevis-St. Kitts commented, one of the striking things about them was “the dimension of biblical knowledge that is suggested that these ‘unschooled’ rural folk possessed, particularly at a time when there were no common media like the radio. The long passages from the Bible, or other narrative or verse that they memorized, are a credit to these artists, many of whom perhaps never had a chance to go to school.”18 The Christmas plays that Matthew later credited with forming the genesis of his Israelite identity were part of a rich tradition of weaving the Bible not only into the daily lives but also into the very identities of its readers. The celebrations were polycultural, popular, and riotously heterogeneous: topics ran the gamut of popular culture from the Bible to Hollywood movies, and had titles such as “Children of Israel,” “Clowns,” “Indians and Cowboys,” “Cakewalk with Japanese Girls,” “Samson and Delilah,” (p.158) “Julius Caesar,” and “Tarzan of the Apes.” Matthew referred to two of these plays in particular that transmitted the knowledge of Afro-Israelite identity—“David and Goliath” and “Children of Israel.” These biblical stories were adapted from plays by Hannah More, an English writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and were notable for their overwrought language. A small boy was usually picked to play David, which made his feat of memorization all the more impressive, especially when he had to deliver convoluted lines such as: “I bring of your aged Sir the gifts of such plain plates and rural vivands as suits his frugal fortune.” No doubt the strangeness of More's turgid language must have added to the pleasure and the power of their enunciation for performers and audience members alike.19

These Christmastime plays were a local Nevian variant of carnivalesque masquerade, which polyculturally recombined heterogeneous materials made available to local people by the transnational currents that delivered Hollywood movies and English poetry alike as flotsam on global cultural currents. As in many other forms of masquerade, actors became the characters they portrayed, and the entire community was drawn into the performance through the act of participating in the retelling of familiar biblical stories. When David slew Goliath, or when the Israelites escaped Egypt, the actors and their audience became identified with the time, space, and race of the pageants. The theatrical alchemy of Christmas productions provided one site where Afro-Caribbean peoples incorporated biblical identities not only into their religion but also into their very bodies.20

Rabbi Matthew's insistence that he had unwittingly practiced a form of Judaism in the Caribbean suggests that some piece of Afro-Caribbean religiosity had become identified with Judaism. Perhaps Seventh Day Adventism spread Judaic practices along with the Saturday Sabbath, or perhaps elements of Afro-Caribbean religions became identified with Judaism. In the middle of the nineteenth century, an occult practice known as Myal emerged in Jamaica that combated obeah, the sinister form of African spiritual power often equated with malevolent witchcraft. With the infusion of spiritual energies during the Great Revival in 1860, Myal was transformed into two variants, Zion and Pukumina (or Pokomania), both under the rubric of “Revival.” Of the two, Zion appeared first and retained more of the forms of Christianity. Adherents of Zion adamantly refused to show respect for dangerous spirits but sought to control them through ritual symbolism. In contrast, followers of Pukumina acknowledged the power of all spirits, good and bad.21 One source reports that followers of Pukumina were also known as “Black Jews.” Whether it was by observing certain dietary laws and taboos, by keeping the (p.159) Seventh Day Sabbath, by preserving memory of Caribbean Jewish ancestry, or by actually referring to themselves as “Black Jews,” some West Indian people thus developed religious identifications with Judaism before immigrating to the United States.22

The Caribbean was not just a border zone where cultures met and meshed; it was also a place whose people frequently left in search of jobs and opportunity. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the catastrophic collapse of world sugar prices, soil exhaustion, natural disasters, and population growth on the older British colonies of Barbados, Jamaica, and Nevis-St. Kitts led to mass migrations from the islands.23 Many West Indian sailors escaped the poverty of the Caribbean by traveling the world for a time in the merchant marine, and since Matthew claimed to have visited Palestine, Egypt, and Haiti, perhaps he was among them. Matthew was a stocky, powerfully built young man, 5'4” in height, and he once indicated he was trained as a carpenter. Steady work in the Caribbean was increasingly hard to find, however, and on May 9, 1913, just shy of his twenty-first birthday, Matthew once again boarded a ship, leaving St. Kitts on the SS Parima and arriving at Ellis Island in New York after a brief, two-day journey.24 It was probably in New York that Matthew met and married Florence Docher Liburd, also a native of the British West Indies, and together they had four children. In his first years in New York, Matthew earned a living by performing odd jobs, and by competing as a boxer and a wrestler.25

Meanwhile he studied to become a Christian minister. He studied theology in Harlem at a place he identified as the “Hayden Seminary” and received ordination. On April 15, 1919, he founded The Commandment Keepers Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. At the beginning, when he incorporated the church with the State of New York in 1921, the name included the phrase: “and the faith of Jesus Christ” an appellation that remained until the late 1960s. Matthew's church shared its long compound name with several other churches, all of which taught Ethiopianism, adherence to the Ten Commandments, and Black descent from ancient Israelites.26

The earliest of these, an offshoot of Bishop Christian's “Church of the Living God” active in Harlem after the First World War, was the “Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth,” founded by Mother Mary L. Tate in Tennessee in 1903. Mother Tate's church practiced foot washing, justification, and eventually incorporated sanctification by the Holy Spirit through glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. The Decree Book of Mother Tate's church related the biblical story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt to the “land that flowed with milk and honey” and God's anger at the Israelite's (p.160) fickleness, saying, “Let the present Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth use the commandments of God given through the anointed leaders of God which was appointed to lead Israel as a guide in our present and future state of conditions of times and in changes of times and places.”27 Notice that Israel is referred to in the present, the possessive, and the first person plural—our present and future state. Like Matthew's later Commandment Keepers Congregation, the Church of the Living God taught literal, not simply allegorical, identification with Israel, and blended biblical and contemporary time. In outlining the faith, Mother Tate's Decree Book stated, “we believe that eyes have not seen, neither have ears heard, what is in store in that city for those that love the Lord, do his will and keep His commandments.”28 It was certainly a sentiment that would have resonated with Matthew's church, which came to call themselves the “Commandment Keepers.”

Another Black Israelite pioneer with a “Church of the Living God” was Bishop R.A.R. Johnson. Johnson, who was born in New Bern, North Carolina, was an itinerant preacher based in Florida and a one-time follower of Mother Tate's who founded a church called Abyssinia before the First World War.29 In 1914, in Beaufort, South Carolina, Johnson founded the House of God, Holy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the House of Prayer for All People. The church was incorporated in 1918 and the same year spread to Washington, D.C. Soon the movement spread to the West Indies, West Africa, and southern India, bringing its twenty-four principles, including immersion, foot washing, women ministers, equality of races in the church, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. The church practiced Pentecostal Christianity and observed some Jewish festivals. Church members observed the Sabbath on Saturday and did not celebrate Christmas or Easter. Women wore white, including white headdresses, from Passover to Sukkoth, the harvest festival.30

In 1927, Bishop Johnson organized the Sister's Unity Gideon Band in Avenel, New Jersey. Wentworth A. Matthew retained the minutes of that first meeting, in which a West Indian-born fifty-seven-year-old woman named Annie Matthew, a dedicated evangelist, was named pastor of the small congregation, which consisted of seven women and two men. Evangelist Annie Matthew led the congregation in prayer and song at the start of each meeting, “After which the Commandments were repeated.” Evangelist Matthew preached on topics such as “Unity,” “Be Steadfast” and “The Effects of Unity.” This was very much a Christian church—the opening song at the May 7, 1928, meeting was “Since Christ My Soul Set Free.”31 Repeating the Ten (p.161) Commandments would become a standard part of Rabbi Matthew's Harlem Commandment Keepers’ practice, if it was not already. As an itinerant preacher of some talent and ability, and as an early pioneer of both Ethiopianism and Israelism, Bishop R.A.R. Johnson played an important and under-recognized role in the development and spread of the Ethiopian Israelite teaching from his base in Florida along the routes of African American migration.32

Despite Matthew's attraction to Jewish rituals and practices, his private records demonstrate his general practice of Holiness rituals and his acceptance of Holiness and esoteric patterns of affliction and healing, including belief in the danger posed by doctors, and belief in the hazards that could befall those who spoke ill of the minister. Baptism and a second baptism in the Holy Spirit were part of the practice of the early Commandment Keepers. All this is revealed in a record of deaths of members, where he noted that Philip Ellis “was not a Commandment Keeper. Only he was baptized in Jesus Name, but not in Holy Ghost.”33 In other words, the deceased had been baptized, but he had not received an experience of sanctification, the central experience of Wesleyan perfectionism that had led to a century of the Holiness movement. His interest in divine healing and a taboo against Western medicine, common to many Holiness, Pentecostal, and Spiritual ministers, is revealed when he wrote of Agnes Miles, who died in 1924, “She was a Holy and harmless child. She died from heart disease after taking doctors medicine.” According to Matthew's cosmology, not all supernatural power was benevolent. Irene Aleide died in 1922, and Matthew tersely noted next to her name and date of death, “She spoke abusively of the Minister and fell dead.”34 Reinforcing the church's Christianity, Matthew displayed a placard in the sanctuary reading, “Wait for the Power that Fell Pentecost,” and another one that proclaimed: “People Prepare to Meet Thy God. Jesus Saves.”35

Matthew, who used the title “Bishop” in the first decade of the Commandment Keepers, was part of a community of ministers that stretched across the Eastern seaboard and extended to the Caribbean. Matthew's personal correspondence and the congregation's record books demonstrate that he corresponded with these ministers and sometimes co-officiated with them at baptisms, which were a part of his ministry in its first decade. In 1926 he even co-officiated a baptism with Bishop R. C. Lawson, the founder of the “Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith,” which would become one of the major African-American Pentecostal denominations.36

In the first decade of the Commandment Keepers’ existence, Matthew, like many sanctified church ministers, incorporated syncopated “jazzed” music (p.162) into the prayer service. In at least the first decade of the Commandment Keepers, Matthew played guitar during services, and others played saxophone, piano, tambourines, triangles, and cymbals. A visitor in 1929 described how worshipers played tambourines, cymbals, triangle, saxophone, and piano.

The woman in the white smock ran a few scales on the saxophone. The Bishop [Matthew], removing his cap and putting on a black skullcap, picked up a guitar. The girl at the piano struck a few chords; the Bishop tuned up. The tambourines, the triangle and the cymbals were passed out to the women. Some one in the audience called the number of a song in the hymnal. “106!” The Bishop sat in [the] rear of the pulpit, his hymn book on a small music stand, the guitar in his lap.37

The group started into the hymn, “The Cloud and the Fire,” which relates the exodus of the ancient Israelites through the desert—“So the sign of the fire by night. And the sign of the cloud by day; Hov’ring O’er—Just before—As they journey on their way.” As the hymn progressed, traces of syncopation slipped into the even march tempo, with the tambourines rattling and the triangle striking the off beats. On the third verse the pace quickened and the volume grew. “The piano gives a run in the bass chords—a trace of syncopation. The song rises louder. Bodies begin swaying to the time. It picks up, up to a quickstep.” The song continued with its tale of the deliverance of the Exodus: “Shall a guide and a leader be, Till the wilderness be past; For the Lord our God—in his own good time—Shall lead to the light at last.” “Over and over they sang it,” the visitor recounted. “They ran out of verses, and still they sang. The chorus again and again. Their feet beat time on the floor. They were jazzing it; evenly, an infectious swing. A large negress in a black fur coat rose from her seat and began slowly swaying in the aisle. There were shouts of ‘Hallelujah!’ ‘Praise the Lord.’ The music beat faster, faster.” Finally the music stopped and they pitched into another hymn, again starting slowly and working up to a cathartic peak.38 The predominance of women among the worshipers, the use of band instruments, and syncopation of the music, the swaying of the faithful, even the woman standing, swaying in her fur coat, are all descriptive of African American churches in general but of Holiness churches in particular, where band instruments, syncopated music, and physically demonstrative worship all found more acceptance than they did at the larger, older, and more prestigious Black churches. As the decades passed, the Commandment Keepers’ instrumentation became simpler—the piano remained, but the congregation discontinued use of the guitar, saxophone, and cymbals.39

(p.163) The curricula of two schools Matthew ran show his religious evolution toward Judaism, as he labored to train new rabbis and build relationships with other Black Israelite leaders. In 1934, a decade after his first Passover seder, “Bishop” Matthew ran the “Bishops’ Ecclesiastical School of the Commandment Keepers Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc,” which was “open to churchmen, and men of, and from educational centers.” In 1940, then using the title “rabbi,” Matthew published the similar “Curriculum of the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College of the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews and the Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God, Inc.,” along with a statement of the beliefs of the Commandment Keepers. The rabbinical school curriculum was essentially the same as that of the earlier ecclesiastical curriculum, except that it replaced “Jesus Christ” with “the cultural house of Israel” or “the kingdom to come.” Significantly, Matthew's later lesson plan replaced “Jews” in most places with “Israelites,” and “Israelitish ancient and medieval history” replaced “Jewish ancient and medieval history.” The new curriculum added “Hebraic ancient history” in addition to “Jewish ancient history,” thus making a distinction between the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Jews.40 These changes suggest that in the late thirties Matthew and his congregation were Judaizing their Christian beliefs. By the middle of the 1930s, Matthew's congregation celebrated all the major Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, and Passover; they also identified as “Negro Jews.”41 By 1944 the transition was complete, and Matthew had jettisoned his one-time belief in Jesus altogether, as when he brushed off questions about Jesus with the rebuke, “Your Jesus has been a long time dead.”42

Conjuring was for a long time part of the bricolage of the the Commandment Keepers’ beliefs. For decades after they began practicing elements of Judaism, they retained esoteric practices common to peers in the Holiness movement. And in the early fifties, observers recorded four elements of Matthew's belief system: healing and “cabalistic science,” a belief in Hebrew angels, theosophy, and cosmology. His claim to be able to make himself invisible was part of his mastery of what he called conjuring or “cabalistic science.” The best exposition of Matthew's belief in Kabbalistic science comes from Howard Brotz's work, published in 1952. He quotes from one of Matthew's sermons:

Years ago I gave a complete course in cabalistic science. I am a doctor of metaphysics and studied mental telepathy. I can tell your thoughts. It took seven years to complete the course: learned how to stop rain, heal the sick. I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I said, “I hear a (p.164) voice speaking to me right now.” Then I said, “Mother Johnson, please go see Mother Hubbard right now.” When I got back to New York I saw Mother Johnson who said, “I was working on my laundry when I heard the rabbi's voice to go see Mother Hubbard and it was a good thing I went because she was in trouble.” Is that conjuring? Is that sorcery?

Conjure, by the way, is a good word, meaning compel. Here, I take this match and strike it and compel it to light. The Negroes call it cunjur, the whites call it conjoor. The atomic bomb is a matter of conjuring, and so are all the forces. The word isn’t so bad. But the poor Negro from Africa was made afraid by the Gentile master. That was the only secret he had and the Gentile taught him to be afraid of ‘spirits.’

Cabalistic science is one of the branches of mental telepathy. Those who thought it conjuring had a dark cell in their minds. This is an angelic science—has nothing to do with rabbit's foot, spiritualism, or conjuring spirits out of a graveyard. The spiritualists set you against your best friends, lead you into the numbers racket. Use dirt and filth—dead man's fingers, grave dirt. Cabalistic things are parchment. The science of Israel is a big thing. It's why we use talesim [a Jewish prayer shawl with knotted fringes], candles, and incense. The Catholics faintly imitate us. Do you think the three Hebrew boys who went into the fiery furnace went in saying, “Lawdy Jesus?” They knew how to pray. They went into the furnace anointed with the oil of life, which we can’t take up tonight, and they tell me that when they came out they didn’t even smell of smoke.43

The two intertwined belief systems that Matthew referenced are spiritualism and African religions of the Caribbean. In truth it is not possible to speak of spiritualism and Afro-Caribbean religions as distinct heritages, because after spiritualism's efflorescence in upstate New York in 1848, it has entered many forms of Afro-Atlantic religions, becoming a major part of Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodou, and African American Black Spiritual churches. In the first paragraph, Matthew described a number of attributes of spiritualism. Mental telepathy, that is the transmission of thoughts from one person to another without the use of the five senses, is one aspect of the paranormal that is associated with spiritualism. Similarly, Matthew claimed the power of clairvoyance as well as the power to hear by means other than the ear. Healing was one of the major focuses of spiritualism, and spiritualism helped to spawn the divine healing movement of the late nineteenth century.

(p.165) Indeed, healing practices are a major part of many Afro-Atlantic religions, and such religions give Matthew's words further context. In the second paragraph, Matthew defends the concept of conjuring, defines “conjure” as “compel,” and chides the taboo against conjuring. There are, in fact, two parallel African spiritual traditions in the Caribbean, which are conjoined in Haitian Vodou but are separate and antagonistic in Cuban Santeria and in African-derived spiritual systems of the British West Indies, where Matthew grew up. In Vodou, this division is between the cool, familiar rada spirits, of West African (Fon) lineage, and the fiery, petulant petwo spirits, of Central African (Congo) heritage.44 In other parts of the Caribbean, these two pantheons of African gods do not share the same house, but are worshiped by separate and mutually antagonistic parties. Thus, when Matthew says that conjuring is simply compelling, what he means is that conjuring is simply the efficacious way of working the spirits. When he says, “the poor Negro from Africa was made afraid by the Gentile master. That was the only secret he had and the Gentile taught him to be afraid of ‘spirits,’” what he means is that the African practice of serving the gods was stigmatized by Europeans, and Africans lost a key part of their religious heritage—“that was the only secret he had.”

But while Matthew was willing to defend conjuring and even, secretly, to use it, the Kabbalistic science as he understood it was part of the “good” or morally unambiguous side of African spiritual power. This is what he means in the third paragraph when he says that Kabbalistic science is an “angelic science.” Moreover, the items he singles out for condemnation, such as human remains and dirt from a graveyard, are recognizably part of the petwo or obeah side of the spiritual pantheon. Even as Matthew practiced mental telepathy and other aspects of spiritualism, there were certain aspects of “black magic” such as communing with the dead, from which he disassociated himself. These paragraphs seem contradictory, and to a certain extent they are. Yet it is a contradiction that is consistent with Afro-Caribbean culture in the Spanish, Dutch, or British Caribbean, where few would admit to using sinister magic. At the same time, one might hint that one knew how to do so if necessary. In Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not at all unusual for Revival Shepherds to also practice obeah, either openly or secretly.45

“Cabalistic things are parchment,” Matthew says. “The science of Israel is a big thing. It's why we use talesim, candles, and incense.” Waitzkin correctly noted that there is no special use of candles or incense in Jewish Kabbalah. Parchment held the words of the Torah, but while the words themselves were treated as almost animate objects, the parchment was endowed with no (p.166) special significance. In contrast, Waitzkin notes, “parchment, candles, and incense have been very significant materials in voodoo, where they possess magical qualities,” a statement he supports with a quote from Zora Neal Hurston's work on Hoodoo in the American South. Both Brotz and Waitzkin interpret this passage (“This is an angelic science . . .”) as an example of an attempt by Matthew to differentiate himself from his African-American neighbors. Here is Brotz writing in Phylon in 1952: “The Cabalistic science, too, like the rest of their practices, is the basis of explicit self-differentiation from the stereotype of the Southern, rural Negro.”46 Although it is true that Matthew extolled middle-class values and in his later years referred to emotionalism in worship as “niggeritions,” Rabbi Matthew was not distancing himself from the cultures of his Southern and Caribbean-born neighbors by emphasizing the positive aspects of Kabbalistic science, but in fact was clearly and unambiguously embedding himself in those very cultures.47

Rabbi Matthew's “cabalistic science” drew on the stream of New Thought philosophy within Harlem's esoteric Holiness practitioners—especially those who gathered in the orbit of Marcus Garvey's Liberty Hall.48 One of the most important of the Garveyite esoteric religious circle was named Bishop John Hickerson, who also went by the names “The Rev. St. Bishop the Vine” and “Bishop Eshof Bendoved.” Before coming to Harlem, Hickerson had lived and collaborated with George Baker, the future Father Divine, in Baltimore.49 There they developed a New Thought-based doctrine that God dwelled inside the individual. New Thought was a philosophy of positive thinking that had developed in nineteenth-century New England, and which taught, according to historian Jill Watts, “that God existed in all people, that the channeling of God's spirit eradicated problems, and that unity with God guaranteed salvation.”50 In 1914 Hickerson founded yet another version of the “Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth” in Harlem—five years before Matthew founded his version. Hickerson, whose Hebrew name meant “son of David,” identified himself as an Ethiopian, and taught a variation of New Thought. One of his chants was: “God in you, God in me, You God, I God, Everybody be God.” Hickerson's students showed a similar pattern of New Thought beliefs. Hickerson claimed that he had taught Hebrew to Arnold Josiah Ford, and that Ford had then taught Matthew “everything he knows about Hebrew.”51 The association between Judaism and New Thought that Hickerson helped to establish can be seen in his most famous associate, Father Divine, whose “reputedly ‘Jewish’ doctrine was simply ‘God is within man’ , ” according to anthropologist Ruth Landes.52 In sum, Hickerson helped to spread the New Thought idea that God dwelled inside charismatic leaders (p.167) and their followers, a concept that was at the heart of the “Jewish,” “Hebrew” or Black Israelite beliefs of his followers and associates.

This Black Israelite/New Thought theology utilized the works of Lauron William de Laurence, a former hypnotist based in Chicago who made his name by publishing English translations of magical esoteric works from around the world. His books have been widely circulated and remain highly respected among practitioners of Afro-Atlantic religions such as Santeria, Vodou, Rastafarianism, and other Afro-Atlantic religions. De Laurence's works played critical roles in the genesis of twentieth-century alternative African American religions such as the Moorish Science Temple's Black Islam, Rabbi Matthew's Black Judaism, and Leonard Howell's Rastafarianism. The central theme in de Laurence's introductions and glosses, like the central theme in the beliefs of Bishop Hickerson, Father Divine, and Rabbi Matthew, is the New Thought concept of the immanence of God. De Laurence favored biblical quotations such as “The Kingdom of God is within you,” “You are the temples of the Living God,” “The Father is in me, I in Him and we in you,” all of which are strikingly similar to Father Divine's slogans, or other New Thought-based esotericism.53

Rabbi Matthew used an esoteric book to create magical rituals and a “Hebraic” creed that allowed him to be filled with God's spirit. He based what he

                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.3 Children of the Commandment Keepers study Hebrew letters and the Hebrew language. New York Historical Society. Photograph by Alexander Alland.

(p.168) called his “cabalistic science” on the most popular of De Laurence's books, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, a manual of magical seals and spells wildly popular among African American conjurers, which claims to divulge the cabbalistic secrets of the ancient Hebrews. The work purports to be a collection of ancient Hebraic sacred texts, diagrams, incantations, and prayers attributed to Moses and other biblical patriarchs, and includes instructions on the effective uses of the Psalms in between long glosses written by De Laurence.54 De Laurence's 1910 edition republished a German popular manuscript, or volksbuch, that had circulated since medieval times and been published in Stuttgart in 1849 and in the United States in the 1860s.55 The book was translated into English in four separate 1880 American editions, and it began to appear among West Indian obeah men the following decade.56 There were four undated editions in addition to the four 1880 versions, de Laurence's 1910 version, and a 1938 reissue. All told, the book was so popular among African Americans that the great folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston estimated that there were “millions” of copies “being read and consulted in secret because the readers believe in Moses.”57 Another folklorist estimated that sales of the book were “enormous” and that it was widely used among Southern African Americans in the 1920s.58 De Laurence's edition of the text appeared throughout Africa and the Afro-Atlantic world, and many colonial and postcolonial governments banned the work as subversive. According to scholar Patrick Polk, the acceptance of the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses in the African diaspora is due in part to the prestige of Moses within Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions, as well as the suspicion that whites have not shared the whole Bible but have hidden the most powerful portions for their own use.59 As a product of print culture, de Laurence's book helped create the imagined community of Black Israelism, while it was also a ritual manual that gives instructions for performing transformative, magical rites. Thus it was singularly effective in helping Matthew and others both to imagine and to inhabit Israelite identities.

Matthew's personal papers include two amulets combining diagrams and Hebrew words from The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses with Hebrew incantations for drawing God within oneself, in a manner consistent with New Thought theology. These amulets offer an unparalleled view into the hidden transcript and the private settings where Rabbi Matthew performed the most secret transformative rituals at the hidden heart of Black Israelism. The square amulet in Matthew's personal papers (fig. 5.4) was modified from “The Second Table of the Spirits of Fire,” found on page 16 of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses (fig. 5.5). What makes the derivation of Matthew's diagram (p.169)

                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.4 Square Hebrew Diagram, n.d. Wentworth A. Matthews Collection, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.5 Table of Fire. From Lauron William de Laurence, ed., The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, 2nd ed. (Chicago: de Laurence Company, ca. 1900), 16.

from de Laurence's diagram indisputable is the fact that de Laurence has included a calligraphic error in the Hebrew that Matthew has repeated. The word at the bottom, jbj‎ Ha-ko-ach, meaning “The Power,” has been miswritten. An errant vertical line closes the gap of the middle letter, b‎ kaph, making it look like an uppercase “D.” In fact, there is no Hebrew letter with that (p.170) shape, but in Matthew's diagram jbj‎ is in the exact same place, underneath the intersection of the diagonals, and Matthew has repeated the same mistake in the letter kaph, demonstrating that he used de Laurence's text as a source for his “cabalistic science.”

The two amulets shed light on Matthew's esoteric theology, part of the secret knowledge at the heart of his Black Israelite belief.60 Matthew wrote several phrases in fractured Hebrew on the diagram, the top one of which can be translated: “Rise and give me good luck.” Just below the median line the Hebrew can be translated: “Within the eighth fire you should give me life,” and the bottom line may read either: “The eighth God should be my father,” or “The eighth God, my God, my father.”61 At the simplest level, this diagram appears to be a good luck charm. But at a deeper level, this amulet amplifies and expands on Matthew's theology. In later decades, Matthew taught that there were seven “spirits” or elements of God, and twelve heavens, which his daughter explicated in the congregational newspaper in 1965:

Do you know how few of us, the Black Jews, know that G-d is Wind, Water, Fire, Life, Light, Power, and Mind? This is G-d—the seven elements. Each one of these elements are all gods among themselves, but the creator of these—the one ruler of these, is the one and only. He is G-d. He is in us, out of us, and is all about us; and without Him we wouldn’t exist. Without any one of these gods we would not exist.62

Given that Matthew believed in seven elements of God, this diagram appears to have been used to worship and invoke the power and presence of the supreme Creator God, an eighth god who appears through the medium of fire. The repetition of the number eight, the image of fire, and a personal filial relationship with God are noteworthy. Again, the amulet can be translated: “Rise and give me good luck/Within the eighth fire you should give me life/the eighth God, my God, my father.” Remembering that Matthew began in the sanctified church, he may have borrowed this fiery conception of God from the common “fire-baptized” Holiness-Pentecostal conception of God.63 The multiple “god-elements” in his theology, however, are what make Matthew's creed most like the pantheistic religions of the Black Atlantic.64

Moreover, the ritual use of these diagrams seems to have allowed Matthew to be filled with the presence of God, and to relate to the Creator God as a son relates to a father. The second, round, amulet (fig. 5.6) repeats and amplifies this sense of God's immanence and Matthew's own power. The diagram consists of several Hebrew sentences printed over a Mogen David, literally a (p.171)

                   “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes”Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage

Figure 5.6 Round Hebrew Diagram, n.d. Wentworth A. Matthews Collection, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

“Shield of David” or six-pointed star, which is a common cabbalistic referent. After some undecipherable words at the beginning of the prayer, the sentence continues: “Eighth God . . . come God, come to me in the flood.” The words overlaid on top of the Mogen David itself can be translated: “The Name of God is in me, the Lord my God Exalted Lord God is in me, my God will see me, my father God.”65 In this second amulet Matthew emphasizes and underlines the immanence of God in a manner that is consonant with the New Thought teachings of the de Laurence source text. After asking God to enter him “in a flood,” he triumphantly proclaims, “the name of God is in me!” What is especially notable here is not just the idea that God is inside Matthew, but his almost messianic connection with God. It is even possible that through the ritual use of these amulets and incantations, Matthew believed himself able to unify the triune parts of the Holiness-Pentecostal Godhead: God is the Father, he is the Son, and they meet via the medium of “the eighth fire,” or the Holy Spirit.

We know that Matthew used these and other diagrams and prayers; they did not simply end up among his personal papers. In 1938, a European Jewish (p.172) visitor mentioned “a prayer that the Rabbi has composed himself and which he speaks before he lifts the Torah. The sentences have lost their sense almost entirely because of the most impossible distortions, changes and confusions.”66 A reporter in 1946 described the Commandment Keepers congregation on the corner of 128th and Lenox as “a dingy three-story red brick building, every window of which displays the Star of David. Some of these stars have an eye in the center with the inscription underneath, ‘Royal Order of Ethiopian Jews.’”67 There is also a 1959 picture of Matthew's son-in-law Norman Dore pointing out a similar Mogen David with circular elements to Matthew's grandson Dovid Dore. Matthew's polycultural version of Judaism may have been unorthodox, but the fact that he began to practice Judaism distinguished him and his followers from the Holiness-based charismatic leaders who had come before.

During the interwar years, the Kabbalistic diagrams that Matthew based in part on the publications of de Laurence seem to have provided a ritual blueprint for the embodiment of divine power in a manner consistent with the “reputedly Jewish” New Thought–based practices of Bishop Hickerson and some of the other religious bricoleurs of the time. The “cabbalistic science” that could make one disappear or make God appear inside oneself was a form of both spiritual and temporal power, power that was particularly attractive to Matthew and his congregants.

There undoubtedly were other elements of Matthew's faith that escaped comment altogether. A visitor in 1966 gave the following account of Matthew's work environment:

His office is a jumble round a desk with an antique typewriter, a photograph of a grand-daughter in her graduation mortar-board, framed Hebrew prayers, two Coca-Cola bottles wrapped in tinfoil and holding the Stars and Stripes. “That's my smichah”: he points to his rabbi's certificate on the wall; it has been approved and signed in Gondar, Abyssinia.68

This description of the rabbi's office combines the mundane—a photograph of a grandchild—with the truly extraordinary—the certificate from Ethiopia. But the most highly charged objects in the room might be the tinfoil-wrapped Coca-Cola bottles holding the American flags. Both flags and covered bottles are not neutral items in Afro-Atlantic religions but in fact are highly potent means for attracting and containing spirits. There is a long history of their use in Haitian Vodou as well as in other African-based religions of the Caribbean. (p.173) In fact, American flags are commonly used in the altars of Black Hawk shrines among the Black Spiritualists of New Orleans, whose female members also wear white habits similar to those worn by female members of Matthew's congregation. Those flags and Coca-Cola bottles on Matthew's desk may have simply been patriotic emblems, but in the hidden transcript they could have been pledges of allegiance to the alternative religiosity of Black Spiritual churches.69

Like other forms of Black religion that upended Western history and placed Black people at its very center, Black Judaism was inherently political, and Black Jews joined in the political movements of their day. Like many of his working-class peers of Caribbean extraction, Matthew was a supporter of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.). As we have seen in the previous chapter, Garvey took to the streets and the lecture halls and captivated a large segment of Black America with a vision of a free Africa supported by a strong diaspora.70 Garvey's mixture of racial pride, Black nationalism, and messianism inspired thousands of Black men and women who considered alternatives to conventional Black Christianity in their search for economic and cultural self-sufficiency. As we have seen, the U.N.I.A.'s New York City headquarters, Liberty Hall, was a center for people interested in Black Judaism. It was through the U.N.I.A. and Freemasonry that Matthew's predecessors Arnold Josiah Ford, Mordecai Herman, and Samuel Valentine met each other and founded the Moorish Zionist Temple and Beth B’nai Abraham (B.B.A.), and it was the U.N.I.A. that brought Matthew in touch with his mentor, Rabbi Ford. Black Israelite identity was a spiritual means of cultural empowerment in the context of both racist discrimination and Black nationalist attempts to organize and uplift the race. Rabbi L. A. McKethan, Matthew's student, wrote in 1966 that Matthew had carried on the work of great race leaders such as Booker T. Washington, Hubert Harrison, and Marcus Garvey, as well as earlier Black Israelite teachers. “All these were great and learned men in the days of our Rabbi W. A. Matthew, within a space of 20 years they all died, and thus the full responsibility of rehabilitation, and salvaging of which was lost, was placed upon his shoulders,” McKethan wrote. “Many brilliant men fell by the wayside, and some committed suicide under the depression. It is here our leader, our emancipator, proved to be not just a man, but The man. Many have referred to him as being seven men in one, TRULY ANOTHER GREAT MOSES.”71 As in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses-based diagrams, we see the repetition of the number seven and the implication that Matthew is the successor to the great Moses. At times, Matthew's congregants seemed to view his powers as (p.174) supernatural. One female member is known to have shouted ecstatically: “Our Rabbi is an Angel! He will lead us all to Heaven.”

The majority of Matthew's followers were women, as has been the case historically with most churches, Black and white. Matthew instituted separate seating for men and women, with men in the front and women in the rear. This was a physical manifestation not only of patriarchy but also of the separate spheres for men and women mandated by the discourse of civilization. To be civilized meant to segregate the sexes; the alternative religions of Harlem in the 1920s inscribed within themselves the patriarchy of their time.72 Much as Jim Crow relegated African Americans to the balconies of New York's Broadway theaters and downtown movie palaces, the Black Israelites relegated women to the rear of the congregation, as was commonly done among all Jewish congregations at the time. African Americans may have suffered the indignity of segregation in public spaces, but within the zone of their own alternative churches, Black Israelites asserted their respectability by creating separate spaces for men and women.

Likewise, Black Israelites’ membership in the ancient mytho-historical community of Israel functioned as a form of anti-racism, an antidote to the virulent white supremacy, violence, and economic discrimination that people of African descent encountered in the Americas. Lawrence Levine has usefully employed Mircea Eliade's concept of the sacred in traditional societies to argue that “the slaves created a new world by transcending the narrow confines of the one in which they were forced to live. They extended the boundaries of their restrictive universe backward until it fused with the world of the Old Testament, and upward until it became one with the world beyond.”73 A very similar phenomenon is seen in the case of Rabbi Matthew and his followers, who were not only thinking with the Bible, but in a very real sense embodying the Bible and living in biblical time. The weekly ritual of the congregation reflected this journey as Matthew and his assistant rabbis would march around the congregation with the Torah, singing the Holiness revival favorite, “We Are Marching to Zion.”

Matthew's theology also had an apocalyptic edge, and the imagery of the end of days found in the book of Revelation took on a racial cast. A visitor to the congregation in 1938 observed that Matthew was preaching about a coming racial apocalypse:

Injustices which we (Negroes? Jews?) have suffered in the course of centuries will be atoned for at the end of the days. This idea gives the speaker new impetus; his eyes glow, the audience is gripped by attention. (p.175) There follows a fantastic, very primitive description of a war at the end of the time between the black and white world, a gruesome picture of the last judgment and of the final victory of the black skinned people.”74

The congregation participated in the call and response of the lecture with frequent “amens” and “that's rights”, binding the rabbi and the congregation into one insurgent whole: “Every word is accepted with devotion and faithfulness. Whatever the Rabbi says is valid. For all his statements he refers to the Bible. Everything that he desires he proves triumphantly by interpretation from the Bible. The biblical stories are easily identified with contemporary events as if they all had happened in the recent past.”75

For Matthew, Blackness was itself the mark of God's covenant with God's chosen people, and white Jews were necessarily usurpers or imitators. As Rabbi Matthew developed religious practices that were increasingly indebted to Judaism, he simultaneously became more embittered toward New York's white Jews and developed an ethnological theory that claimed that Black Israelites were the only authentic Jews. He taught that Black Jews were the real Jews, descended directly from Jacob, who was Black because the Bible says his skin was smooth. White Jews were descended from Esau, who was hairy, and like Esau, they had intermarried and assimilated Gentile ways.76 Furthermore, all Blacks were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, whom, he claimed, had been driven from Canaan and settled in Ethiopia.77 Indeed, numerous accounts report that Matthew taught that European Jews were descended from Edomites, the offspring of Esau who were ancient enemies of the Israelites. One careful observer remarked that “this topic was selected for the guests,” which explains why it shows up disproportionately in public transcript accounts of Matthew's theology.78

In addition to book groups, churches, salons, and Black Nationalist clubs, one of the new forms of sociability in Jazz Age Harlem was the flowering of benevolent associations and new varieties of secret societies. The Garvey movement provided a powerful mechanism for acting out new identities in the public sphere through its massive parades that wound through the streets of Harlem before its annual conventions during the 1920s. In these displays, proud Black men and women wearing flashy black uniforms or white nurse's outfits pulled their bodies erect in military bearing and marched with heads held high through the streets. On several occasions, Rabbi Matthew's followers joined other Black Israelites marching in these processions with thousands of spectators, and so publicly paraded their identities as Israelites, as Garveyites, and as political actors.79

(p.176) Matthew also tapped into the organizational structures and mythology of Freemasonry, which lay like a vast aquifer just below the surface of Jazz Age popular culture.80 Many founders of Black Israelite orders were either Masons or were strongly influenced by Masonic ideas, and almost all early Israelite orders incorporated the signs and symbols of Masonry in their rituals and organizations.81 Matthew, who founded the Commandment Keepers Church of the Living God in 1919, in 1924 launched the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews, the Sons and Daughters of Culture, Inc., as a Masonic order and benevolent association linked to the congregation's religious education program. In time, as the church de-emphasized its Christian past, the church and its Masonic affiliate became conflated, and the congregation became known as “The Commandment Keepers Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews.” In 1936, a newspaper reported that “In connection with the Commandment Keepers, there is the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrew Sons and Daughters of Culture, one of the oldest branches of the Masonic order.” Not surprisingly, African American Prince Hall Masons did not treat the Royal Order with the same respect. Harry A. Williamson, the preeminent Prince Hall historian, lists Matthew's synagogue in his index of “bogus” Masonic organizations.82

Freemasonry itself has a system of graduated “degrees” by which the initiate learns the secret mysteries of the order. The primary role of Matthew's Royal Order was as a mechanism to educate lay people and to train clergy members, as in the following account of the Beth Hamidrash or religious school that Matthew held after the Shabbat service (fig, 5.3). After drills on simple Hebrew phrases, the subjects were the Bible, civics, and, interestingly, architecture:

The biblical Books are enumerated and the contents of the individual Book defined. Some care is given to dates: How many years did such and such live, what are the names of the children of such and such, who followed King such and such (never: Why?). Then like in a catechism, important sentences from the Bible, ethical rules, confessions, laws, are being recited in Hebrew and English. The Bible is followed by the study of civics—Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, more important Presidents, forms of Administration, Regional Structure of New York, more important buildings. Nobody knew when the Brooklyn Bridge was built. The Rabbi laughed a great deal about this but he did not give any answer but offered to return “to this question the next time.”83

This obviously was not a typical Hebrew school curriculum, and it is that last detail, the date of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, that is most askew. (p.177) Why would Hebrew school students be drilled on statistics of “more important buildings” and bridges? Why, indeed, would they be drilled on civics, judicial documents, and “more important Presidents”? The form of this recitation (“like a catechism”) as well as the content—the Bible, presidents, civics, and major buildings, are borrowed from Freemasonry. Masons, as their name implies, imagined themselves to be part of a mythic community of builders stretching from the Egyptian pyramids to the present. Freemasons use such catechisms of facts and figures drawn from the Bible, civics, and architecture as a means of transmitting the secrets that comprise the graduated degrees of their orders. The catechisms are printed in books, as well as memorized and rehearsed orally, much as Matthew conducted his Hebrew school.

The seamless inclusion of Masonic trivia along with Hebrew phrases shows that Freemasonry provided not only the form but also some of the content of Matthew's teaching. Freemasonry's emphasis on cooperating economically with other Masons became for Matthew one of the most “Jewish” aspects of his religious worldview. One visitor described the economic element of Matthew's ideology: “In defense of his program, Rabbi Matthew explains that the philosophy of the Jews is to acquire wealth and command respect. It is this religion, he says, which impels a Jew to walk several miles from the Bronx to the Battery to spend a dollar with another Jew.”84 Matthew equates Jewish economic behavior with Jewish religion in a way that accords with Masonic principles of economic solidarity and uplift.

The Royal Order was a means of communication and proselytizing in addition to being an educational vehicle. In 1943, journalist Roi Ottley wrote, “Through membership in Masonic lodges, affiliated with the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews, they also march in colorful parades that provide the community with highlights during its marching season (from April to October). Through these lodges also they are in constant touch with other Black Jews throughout the country.”85 The Royal Order was one of the primary means that Matthew spread the Commandment Keepers’ Black Israelism to other cities, as Matthew explained in 1968, looking back on his creation at the Fifty-First Annual Conference of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregations:

The President, Rabbi W. A. Matthew . . . then gave a short history of the existence of this great work. In the year 1919 only eight (8) members were present. In 1923 the first Passover observance was held. In 1924–25 robes and costumes were ordered for the Royal Order and then the work began to spread from one State and City to another among the Black People of America.86

(p.178) The observation that mysteries transmitted by irregular branches of Prince Hall Masonry could have played an important role in the creation of Black Israelite sects makes sense, given the many similarities between Prince Hall Freemasonry and Black Israelism. Both systems of thought are exercises in counter-history: they replace common derogatory images of African Americans and the African past with an exalted identity rooted in the heroics of the ancient biblical past.87

Matthew built both a local and a national network of Black Israelites. In the thirties, Matthew claimed 250 active members and 650 total followers in New York, with offshoots in Brooklyn and Arverne-by-the-Sea (just beyond Far Rockaway, in Nassau County, Long Island).88 He also maintained ties with congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.89 Matthew built his network of congregations in part by recruiting Black Israelite churches and synagogues that had come out of different streams of the Holiness movement. Whereas Matthew had roots in the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the rabbi of the Youngstown, Ohio, branch, W. O. Dickens, had been ordained by Prophet William Saunders Crowdy of the venerable Church of God and Saints of Christ.90

Like the benevolent and fraternal organizations on which he partly modeled his organization, Matthew convened annual conventions during which Israelite leaders from around the country met one another. In 1934, Matthew welcomed nine Black rabbis to the thirteenth annual convention, held in September during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The fact that those rabbis were not tending their own flocks during the Jewish “high holidays” indicates that Rabbi Matthew's tradition of celebrating Jewish holidays was not then widespread among his Israelite peers.91 In 1936, the congregation received Rabbi E. J. Berson of Media, Pennsylvania, Rabbi A. W. Clark of Philadelphia, Rabbi H. C. Scott of Youngstown, Ohio, Rabbi Charles Harrel of Cullen, Virginia, and Rabbi Henry Forrest of Cincinnati, Ohio.92 In 1938 The New Yorker noted a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, as well.93 In 1942 there were new reports of congregations in Salt Lake City, Newark, and St. Louis.94 Rabbi Matthew did not found all of these synagogues or train their rabbis, but he was an organizer who kept in touch with the other rabbis and occasionally brought them together for conventions, reinforcing his claim of being “Chief Rabbi of the Black Jews in the Western Hemisphere.”

A detailed record of the twenty-eighth annual convention in 1948 demonstrates that Christian hymns helped to knit together disparate congregations that probably differed significantly in terms of theology and liturgy. The three-day gathering was punctuated by nineteen songs, two of which were (p.179) Hebrew hymns—“Adon Olom” and “Lkol Adonoy.” The other seventeen songs were hymns that were commonly used in many Christian denominations, such as “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Nobody But You Lord Can Make Me Holy,” “I’m Feeling All Right No Condemnation in My Heart,” and “O How Lovely.”95 The fact that these songs were shared among many denominations meant that members from all over the country and members who had once belonged to diverse Christian churches could all sing together in one voice at the convention of the Commandment Keepers. Matthew met with some limited success in spreading his version of Black Judaism to places such as Columbus, Ohio, and the West Indies, and by 1951 claimed six branches across the country.96 The following year, he visited Chicago to found a Hebrew school, which he put in the charge of a local rabbi, Abihu Reuben. In 1956 Rabbi Matthew started an official branch of his Commandment Keepers synagogue in Chicago, under the direction of Rabbi Joseph Lazarus.97

As Harlem lost its luster and became one of New York's most depressed neighborhoods in the 1930s, the Black Judaism it produced also changed. After the 1920s, the period of intellectual, religious, and political ferment known as the Harlem Renaissance that generated Rabbi Ford's colonization effort and Rabbi Matthew's emergence as a polycultural Black Israelite rabbi, the subsequent decades saw Matthew attempt to normalize and institutionalize his faith, build bridges to Black Israelite rabbis in other cities, and establish a suburban foothold outside of the depressed inner city. Yet he could not quite pull it off: Black Jews like Rabbi Matthew lost the prominence they had once held in the Black alternative religious tableaux, and they watched related alternative religious movements attain newfound prominence. With the emergence of Father Divine's “heavens” in the 1930s and the increasing popularity of the Nation of Islam in the late 1950s, newer and more overtly millenarian movements better addressed the anger of Black ghettos and the growing perception that Jews were white oppressors, not people to be emulated.98 Meanwhile, Detroit's Rev. Albert Cleage popularized the idea that Jesus Christ and other Hebrews were Black, an idea that spiritualists and Israelites had preached in Detroit since at least the First World War. But by stripping the concept of its spiritualist and Judaic trappings, Cleage made it more Christian, and therefore more palatable for a Black mass audience.99

Although in the later years of his life Matthew hid all of his non-Jewish practices and influences, we have seen that his religious practice was far more complex, and far more interesting. Hidden transcripts demonstrate that Matthew used personal networks and print culture to create a polycultural (p.180) religion, drawing on such sources as New Thought, Pentecostalism, Caribbean pageantry, and Kabbalah. Arising as his religious practice did out of the radical culture of the mystic scientists of the Harlem Renaissance, Matthew inverted the discourse of civilization and turned his religion into one of Black supremacy. Jewish ideas and rituals did not simply float into the Commandment Keepers by osmosis, heredity, or institutional affiliation. Rather, Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew was a bricoleur who, in several gradual and halting steps, and under the influence of ideas and mentors drawn from a variety of sources, transitioned from “Bishop” to “Rabbi” and from Holiness Christianity to Judaism. Israelite identity drew heavily from the culture of the 1920s mystic scientists. Matthew's congregants imagined and performed their religious identities through lectures on sidewalks and conversations about African history in Garveyite halls; they embodied them through Caribbean pageants, and acted them out through Garveyite and Masonic parades. Black Israelism was lived through secret spiritualist and Kabbalistic rituals, and taught openly through Masonic affiliates and Sunday schools. Finally, it was an identity that was formed and performed in a mixture of Holiness-Pentecostal and Jewish rites. Print culture, performance, and complex social networks were all important to the imagination and realization of this new Israelite identity.

Since Rabbi Matthew's passing in 1973, the rabbis he taught have gradually standardized their liturgical practice to match the version of Judaism practiced by Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Twenty years after his passing, one of Matthew's successors even called a beit din, or rabbinical council, to scrub the Commandment Keepers’ liturgies of the polycultural idiosyncrasies that Matthew had introduced. Rabbi L. A. McKethan, who had once called his teacher “another great Moses” changed his name to “Levi Ben Levy,” and called a series of rabbinical courts “to correct possible error committed in traditions applied to torah law” that had arisen out of following Rabbi Matthew's customs.100

Matthew's influences may have been disparate and polycultural, but the religious identity he helped to create was cohesive and persuasive for its hundreds of members. In 1999, one of the oldest remaining members of the Commandment Keepers remembered that in the late 1920s Rabbi Matthew preached to passersby from a stepladder, just like Harlem's more famous street speakers such as Hubert Harrison and Marcus Garvey. “It was 1927 when I first saw Rabbi Matthew on Lenox Avenue,” she recalled. “He was standing on a ladder with a yarmulke on, and he was speaking to a crowd of people. He was preaching that we were not Christians as they had told us, but that we (p.181) were the lost house of Israel.” Matthew's message resonated with the then-twenty-four-year-old woman, who spent her days scrubbing floors and making beds in Jewish households in the Bronx, and described conditions for Black people as “atrocious.” “I heard the call. And when I went to the temple on 128th Street I realized I was in the right place. I did not join the Hebrew faith—I returned. . . . In the Bible Jeremiah says he is Black. Solomon says he is Black. And David was and Samuel was and Jacob was. That's where I come from.”101


(1.) Samuel Freuder, A Missionary's Return to Judaism: The Truth about the Christian Missions to the Jews (New York: Sinai Publishing, 1915), 151

(2.) Arnold Sherman, “The Black Jews of Harlem,” Chicago Jewish Forum (Spring 1957): 173

(3.) James E. Landing, Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002).

(4.) On Black Islam, see Edward E. Curtis IV, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); Mattias Gardell, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). On Rastafarianism, see Ennis Barrington Edmonds, Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Hélène Lee, The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism, trans. Lily Davis and Hélène Lee, ed. Stephen Davis (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003); Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon, 2001), 90–91; Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., The Rastafarians (Boston: Beacon, 1997); Robert A. Hill, “Dread History: Leonard Howell and Millenarian Visions in Early Rastafari Religion in Jamaica,” Epoché: Journal of the History of Religions at UCLA, 9 (1981): 30–71. Works on Father Divine include Jill Watts, God, Harlem, USA: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Robert Weisbrot, Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).

(5.) James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) (p.239)

(6.) Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Black American: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 29–32

(7.) In the mid-1990s, Sholomo B. Levy, a scholar and rabbi from the New York Ethiopian Hebrew community, and Howard Smythe, an archivist at the Schomburg, collected the papers of Rabbi Matthew and the congregations he inspired. Those papers provide the core archival source of the present study.

(8.) Carl Helm, “Negro Sect in Harlem Mixes Jewish and Christian Religions,” New York Sun. January 29, 1929, Black Jews Vertical File, Schomburg Center; “Commandment Keeper Meeting Minutes,” April 7, 1930, “Ledger,” page 55, Kohol Beth B’nai Yisrael Collection, Box 2, Schomburg Center.

(9.) 1920 U.S. Census, M300, vol. 286, Enumeration District 1411, Sheet 7, Line 26, reel 1223. The dating of the first Passover in 1923 is given by Matthew in 1968. See Rabbi W. A. Matthew, “The 51st Annual Conference of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregations,” June 30, 1968, Beth Ha-Tefilah Collection, Schomburg Center.

(10.) “Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew and the International Israelite Board of Rabbis Inc., Customs and Traditions of the Black Jews of America (Harlem USA),” Bet Din #011793, January 5, 1993, p. 4, Beth Elohim Commandment Keepers Collection, folder “I.B.R.,” Schomburg Center.

(11.) J. David Bleich, “Black Jews: A Halakhic Perspective,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 15, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 1975): 65

(12.) Wentworth A. Matthew, application for Social Security Number, June 1969. Darrell Blevins, Social Security Administration, correspondence with author, August 30, 1999.

(13.) Hailu Moshe Paris, interview by author, Harlem, New York, May 17, 1999. Indeed, Matthew's African origins were still part of the biography written by Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the son of one of Rabbi Matthew's students. See Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, “Biography of Rabbi W. A. Matthew,” www.Blackjews.org/Bio_of_Black_Rabbis/Biographies_of_Black_Rabbis_in_ America.htm.

(14.) Edward Wolf, “Negro ‘Jews’: A Social Study,” Jewish Social Service Quarterly 9 (June 1933): 316

(15.) Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew, “The Truth about Black Jews and Judaism in America,” part 1, New York Age, May 17, 1958, Black Jews Vertical File, Schomburg Center.

(16.) Howard M. Brotz, “Negro ‘Jews’ in the United States,” Phylon 13 (December 1952): 334

(17.) Matthew, “The Truth about Black Jews and Judaism in America.”

(18.) Frank L. Mills, S. B. Jones-Hendrickson, and Bertram Eugene, Christmas Sports in St. Kitts–Nevis: Our Neglected Cultural Tradition (no city, no publisher, 1984), 38

(19.) Ibid., 13, 38. More's written original was slightly different—cates, not plates, and viands, not vivands; see Hannah More, The Works of Hannah More: First Complete American Edition, vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843), 85.

(20.) There is a voluminous literature on ritual, performance, and embodiment, including the groundbreaking Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1959); Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine, 1969).

(21.) Barry Chevannes, Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews (London: Macmillan, 1995), 20

(22.) Donald William Hogg, “Jamaican Religions: A Study in Variations,” Ph.D. dissertation, Anthropology, Yale University, 1964, iii

(23.) Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (London: Verso, 1998)

(24.) Alien Ship List Manifest, SS Parima, May 11, 1913, National Archives and Records Administration, New York City, microfilm.

(25.) Black Jews Vertical File, Schomburg Center; J. F. Heijbroek, “Matthew, Wentworth Arthur” in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 275–276

(26.) On Ethiopianism, see George Shepperson, “Ethiopianism and African Nationalism,” Phylon 14, no. 1 (1953): 9–18; Robin D. G. Kelley, “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do,” chapter 6 in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, Free Press, 1994), 129.

(27.) The Decree Book of the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, 61, found in the Sherry S. DuPree Collection, Box 6, folder 25, Schomburg Center

(29.) Sherry Sherrod DuPree, ed., Biographical Dictionary of African-American Holiness-Pentecostals, 1880–1990 (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 1989), 136; DuPree, ed., African-American Holiness Pentecostal Movement: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1996), 141, 148.

(31.) I have been unable to confirm whether Annie Matthew was related to Wentworth Matthew, who was twenty-four years her junior. See “Sister's Unity Gideon Band Notebook, 1927–8,” Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, (p.241) Box 1(1), Schomburg Center. On Annie Matthew's place of birth, see U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, 1920 Census, Borough of Manhattan, New York County, New York, Series T625, Roll 1201, p. 70, s.v. “Anna Matthew.”

(32.) Historian Robert Hill, editor of the Marcus Garvey Papers Project at UCLA, reports that Bishop Johnson influenced the early Jamaican Rastafarians, which makes sense, given that Rastafarianism shares the belief in descent from the ancient Israelites and a reverence and identification with Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, as Johnson named his first church. Conversation with Robert Hill, August 1999.

(33.) W. A. Matthew, Commandment Keepers Log, 1919–, Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation MS, Box 1(1), Schomburg Center

(35.) Carl Helm, “Negro Sect in Harlem Mixes Jewish and Christian Religions: Come from Abyssiania, Eat Kosher Meat and Have Three Synagogues in Which They Worship.” New York Sun, Tuesday, January 29, 1929.

(36.) Matthew, Commandment Keepers Log, 22, Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation MS, Box 1(1), Schomburg Center. Coincidentally, Lawson later became the head of the Ethiopian World Federation, in which capacity he often clashed with Rastafarians who had been inspired in part by photos of Rabbi Matthew and his followers marching in a Garveyite parade in the 1920s. See: “Ethiop Meet Marks Return of Eritrea,” New York Amsterdam News, January 6, 1951, 4.

(37.) Helm, “Negro Sect in Harlem.”

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) See also “Judaizing Sects are Increasing among the Negroes in Harlem: Mix Elements of Christianity with Jewish Rites; Believe Themselves Descendants of Judah,” Jewish Daily Bulletin, February 18, 1929, 3.

(40.) Roi Ottley, New World A-Coming (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1943)

(41.) “Jewish Negroes,” Foto, April 1938, Black Jews Vertical Clipping File, Schomburg Center.

(42.) Harry Bucalstein, “‘Black Jews’ in Brooklyn,” Religious Digest (Grand Rapids, Mich.), January 1945, 84

(43.) Matthew sermon quoted in Brotz, “Negro ‘Jews’,” 332–333.

(44.) Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): 100–101, 188, 246, 261, 324–325; Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953), 60–70.

(45.) Jean Besson, Martha Brae's Two Histories: European Expansion and Caribbean Culture-Building in Jamaica (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 242; Arvilla Payne-Jackson, Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Mona, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), 133, 233–274.

(46.) Brotz, “Negro ‘Jews’,” 332.

(47.) Albert Raboteau, “The Black Church: Continuity within Change,” A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 109

(48.) Randall K. Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion (Metchuen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Susan Nance, “Respectability and Representation: The Moorish Science Temple, Morocco, and Black Public Culture in 1920's Chicago,” American Quarterly 54, no. 4 (December 2002): 630–631; Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 143.

(49.) On Father Divine, see Watts, God, Harlem, USA; Weisbrot, Father Divine.

(50.) God, Harlem, USARichard Weiss, The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 144–145

(51.) T. R. Poston, “‘I Taught Father Divine’ Says St. Bishop The Vine: ‘And He is Not Doing Right by Theory,’ Prophet Holds,” New York Amsterdam News, November 23, 1932, 1. Roberson also turns up in David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue [1979] (New York: Penguin 1997), 222–224, although Lewis gives a stereotyped portrayal of the Black Jews as “weird” cultists and products of “religious hysteria.”

(52.) Ruth Landes, “Negro Jews in Harlem,” Jewish Journal of Sociology 9, no. 2 (1967), 187

(53.) De Laurence's The Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and Indian Occultism (Chicago: De Laurence, 1904, and in slightly different form, 1915) was a signal influence on Leonard Howell, one of the principal founders of Rastafarianism; see Prashad, Kung Fu Fighting, 90.

(54.) Lauron William de Laurence, comp., The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses (Chicago: De Laurence, 1910)

(55.) Kevin J. Hayes, Folklore and Book Culture (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 17

(56.) Johann Scheible, and Joseph Ennemoser, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses: or, Moses’ magical spirit-art, known as the wonderful arts of the old wise Hebrews, taken from the Mosaic books of the Cabala and the Talmud, for the good of mankind. Translated from the German, word for word, according to old writings (New York, 1880); Hayes, Folklore and Book Culture, 17.

(57.) Zora Neale Hurston, Moses: Man of the Mountain (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 8.

(58.) Hayes, Folklore and Book Culture, 18.

(59.) Patrick A. Polk, “Other Books, Other Powers: The 6th and 7th Books of Moses in Afro-Atlantic Folk Belief,” Southern Folklore 56, no. 2 (1999), 128; W. F. Elkins, “William Lauron de Laurence and Jamaican Folk Religion,” Folklore, 97 no. 2 (1986), 215–218. The fixation with Moses in the occult world was reinforced by his association with Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary figure who was alleged to have compiled a body of ancient Egyptian mysticism known as the Hermetica. Scholars have dated The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses to an anonymous grimoire produced in Germany in 1797. However, the nameplate of the book lists a date of 1686, which would place it in the era of the fervent messianism that followed the career of the false messiah Sabbatai Sevi as well as the uproar in Europe surrounding the rumors of a Rosicrucian conspiracy in the seventeenth century. Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 3, 11–28, 40, 42–50, 55, 84, 110–116, 141, 152, 173, 177, 182, 184, 223, 250, 267, 268, 351, 371, 378, 403, 404, 425, 437, 442; Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge, 1972), chapter 7; Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676, trans. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973); Jacob Barnai, “From Sabbateanism to Modernization: Ottoman Jewry on the Eve of the Ottoman Reforms and the Haskala Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries,” in History and Culture in the Modern Era, edited by Harvey Goldberg (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 75.

(60.) W. A. Matthew, Hebrew Diagrams, Wentworth A. Matthew Collection, Box 1 (folder 13), Schomburg Center. In the upper right hand corner over the Greek “Deus” is written ידש a name of God that implies God's magical power and is a common kabbalistic referent. In the upper left corner is הוהי‎, also known as the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable Hebrew name of God, which is also a common kabbalistic referent. In English הוהי‎ has been translated as Jehovah, which appears in the diagram below the Hebrew. See figures 2 and 3.

(61.) My great thanks goes to Professor David Myers of UCLA for his translation of the fractured Hebrew of these diagrams. The top line (reading from right to left) is: בוטלצמ ילנתּו סוק‎ The middle line is: יח ילנתּי נומש שיאהָ ךיׂחב‎ The bottom line is: יתובא יהי לא ינדא ינוטש‎.

(62.) Shirley Dore, “Who is this G-d We Worship?” Malach, (September 1965), 3–4; quoted inHoward Waitzkin, “Black Judaism in New York,” Harvard Journal of Negro Affairs 1, no. 3 (1967): 41.

(63.) Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1971), 61–68.

(64.) (p.244) Joseph M. Murphy, Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora (Boston: Beacon, 1994).

(65.) The first sentence is: לובּמהבּ ילאבּ ידש אהבּ ינוטש לוא ייא‎ The sentence overlaid on the Mogen David reads: יי יבא ליארי יליא םהלא ינדא ידש ידש יליכּ הוהי יכ םש‎. The message on the other figure is: יְָי יבא יליכּ ידש יכא יליא הוהי יכ םש‎.

(66.) Nahum N. Glatzer, “The Synagogue of the Negro Jews in New York,” trans., Almanach des Schocken Verlags, Berlin 1938/9, 121–129

(67.) Alfred Werner, “King Solomon's Black Children,” Chicago Jewish Forum 4 (Winter 1946): 89Chicago Jewish Forum

(68.) Smichah is the Hebrew word for rabbinical ordination. David Pryce-Jones, “The Black Jews,” August 1966, publication unknown, Black Jews vertical file, the Blaustein Library of the American Jewish Congress, New York City.

(69.) Patrick Polk, “Sacred Banners and the Divine Cavalry Charge,” in Donald J. Cosentino, Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum, 1995), 325–347; Elizabeth McAlister, “A Sorcerer's Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti,” ibid., 305–321; also see discussion and photographs of bottles and flags throughout the volume.

(70.) On Garveyism's educational and religious aspects, see James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, 79; Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement.

(71.) L. A. McKethan, “Another Great Moses,” Malach, March 1966, 1, quoted in Waitzkin, “Black Judaism in New York,” 19.

(72.) Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender & Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

(73.) Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 33

(74.) Glatzer, “The Synagogue of the Negro Jews in New York,” 128

(76.) Waitzkin, “Black Judaism in New York,” 20; Sherman, “The Black Jews of Harlem,” 172.

(77.) “Black Jews Celebrate Rosh Hashona with Hebraic World,” New York Amsterdam News, September 19, 1936.

(78.) Glatzer, “The Synagogue of the Negro Jews in New York,” 3.

(79.) “Jewish Followers to Mark Passover: U.N.I.A. and Christian Group Will Join in Tribute to King,” publication unknown, March 25, 1931, Black Jews Vertical File, Schomburg Center.

(80.) Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)

(81.) See Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews (New York: Garland, 1994); “Ford, Arnold Josiah—Rabbi,” in Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Persons of Negro Descent in America, ed. Joseph J. Boris (New York: Who's Who in Colored America (p.245) Corporation, 1927); Vertella S. Valentine Gadsden (daughter of Samuel Valentine), interview by author, August 12, 1995, New York, New York, tape recording.

(82.) “Harlem Leader of Black Jews Says Race Deserted Its Faith: Rabbi Matthew Hopes to Reconvert Millions to Hebrew Religion,” Afro-American, February 8, 1936, 18; Harry A. Williamson, “Bogus Masonic Organizations,” Harry A. Williamson MS, Schomburg Center.

(83.) Glatzer, “The Synagogue of the Negro Jews in New York,” 126.

(84.) “Harlem Leader of Black Jews Says Race Deserted Its Faith,” Afro-American, February 8, 1936, 18.

(85.) Ottley, New World A-Coming, 148.

(86.) Rabbi W. A. Matthew, “The 51st Annual Conference of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregations at 1 W. 123rd St.,” June 30, 1968, Beth Ha-Tefilah/Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation Records, Schomburg Center. If this dating is correct, then Matthew actually started his church in 1917, although the membership log begins in 1919. See “Membership Record,” Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, 1, Box 1, Schomburg Center.

(87.) George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971)

(88.) “Harlem Leader of Black Jews Says Race Deserted Its Faith,” Afro-American, February 8, 1936, 18.

(89.) Ibid.

(90.) Certificate in “Miscellaneous” folder of the W. A. Matthew Collection, Schomburg Center. Another intriguing possible link between the Church of God and Saints of Christ and the Commandment Keepers is the presence of one Alice Crowdy among the founding members of the Commandment Keepers. Federal Census records indicate that Alice Crowdy was born in Virginia to two Virginian parents, and that she had a son named William Crowdy.

(91.) Edgar T. Rouzeau, “Impressive Services Planned at Harlem Temple of Sect,” September 8, 1934, Black Jews vertical clipping file, Schomburg Center.

(92.) “Black Jews Celebrate Rosh Hashona with Hebraic World,” New York Amsterdam News, September 19, 1936.

(93.) “Israel in Harlem,” New Yorker, October 1, 1938, 15.

(94.) Roi Ottley, “The Black Jews of Harlem,” Travel (July 1942): 20.

(95.) Secretary Revivalist J. Reide, “Conference 1948” August 4–7, 1948, Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation Collection, Box 1, folder 1, Schomburg Center.

(96.) James H. Hogans, “Pews and Pulpits: Ethiopian Jews to Mark Advent of the New Year,” New York Age, September 29, 1951, 10.

(97.) Chicago DefenderArnold Rosenzweig, “Hebrews Here Find Link to Ethiopian Past,” Chicago Defender (National edition), February 2, 1963, 1.

(98.) New York TimesMartha F. Lee, The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

(99.) It is also true, however, that the Black Power era also featured condemnations of Christianity, linking it to slavery and Black oppression, much like the criticism of the New Negro period. See discussion below. On Israelites and spiritualists in Detroit who taught the concept of the Black Christ before Cleage, see Hans A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 82–83; James E. Landing, Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002), 66–69, 372–373; Jacob S. Dorman, “Black Orientalism and Black Gods of the Metropolis,” in Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler, eds., The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, June 2009), 116–142. On Cleage, see Albert B. Cleage, Jr., The Black Messiah (New York: Andrews and McMeel, 1968); Angela D. Dillard, Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

(100.) L. A. McKethan, “Another Great Moses,” Malach, March 1966, 1, quoted in Waitzkin, “Black Judaism in New York,” 19; Chief Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, “Bet Din 011793,” January 17, 1993, Beth Elohim Ethiopian Hebrews Collection, folder “I.B.R.,” Schomburg Center.

(101.) Maude McCleod, “‘I Did Not Join the Hebrew Faith—I Returned’, ” interview with David Isay, New York Times Magazine, September 26, 1999, 116.