African American Studies | History of Religion | History of Religions of Western Origin | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion
Walter F. Pitts died July 20, 1991. I did not know him personally; I came to know only a part of him through the manuscript-obviously an important part of his life-that has been transformed into the book now before the reader. If that which is created is in the image of its creator, I suspect that had I met Walter Pitts I probably would have liked him very much; I know I would have been impressed by him, and would have learned a great deal from him.
At first, when I was asked by Oxford University Press to review Pitts's manuscript while it was under consideration for publication, I remember thinking that I really could not afford the time to take on more commitments. Besides, although I have taught courses in, read widely, and pursue scholarship in African-American religious traditions, it is not my primary field of specialization, and I very much needed to stick to my primary scholarly agenda in New Testament and Christian Origins.
But the title of the manuscript was my undoing-Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora. "Old Ship of Zion"? "Afro-Baptist"? "Ritual"? The "Old Ship of Zion" metaphor immediately struck a chord; it reminded me of the old song that was a favorite of my grandparents in their worship experiences ("prayer band") at home and in church. During visits, my sisters and I were often allowed on the sidelines at such events. We were awe-struck observers, picking up on the rhythms, the harmonies and idiosyncracies of the worshippers. "Old Ship of Zion" was one of the haunting songs I recall from those days. It is associated with so powerful and vivid a memory that after reading only a few pages of Pitts's manuscript I could not restrain myself from humming the tune, the tune that I recognized as part of the devotional period of my grandparents' Afro-Baptist folk church and house worship experiences. So I knew I had to know more about the manuscript. Once it was atop my desk I could not put it aside. It was, after all, in some sense about me and the sacred world to which I was introduced in my youth.
©1993 Oxford University Press
Wimbush, Vincent L. Foreword to Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora, by Walter F. Pitts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.