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Albert J. Raboteau, scholar of African American faith from slavery on, dies at 78

In a pioneering academic career, Albert J. Raboteau probed the religious lives of enslaved African Americans — the voices of people he said “had been through fire and refined like gold.” (Kyle Christy/Loyola Marymount University)

Albert J. Raboteau, a preeminent authority on the religious experience of African Americans from slavery on, a field of study that scarcely existed before he took it on in the 1970s with writings distinguished by both their scholarship and their spiritualism, died Sept. 18 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 78.

His death was announced by Princeton University, where he taught for more than three decades before his retirement in 2013. The cause was Lewy body dementia, said his daughter, Emily Raboteau.

Dr. Raboteau, who was African American, was born in Mississippi three months after a White man fatally shot his father. The shooter claimed self-defense and, in an outcome typical of the Jim Crow era, was never brought to trial. Thus marked from birth, Dr. Raboteau devoted nearly his entire professional life to documenting the faith of Black people subjected to slavery and its legacy of racism — people, he observed, “who had been through fire and refined like gold.”

His most noted work was the book “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South,” published in 1978, an era when African American studies departments were still beginning to take shape on university campuses across the United States. In the field of religious studies, there was a conspicuous lacuna that Dr. Raboteau — and the later scholars he inspired — began to fill.

“Efforts to understand the [African American] past had been minuscule,” Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a Yale historian who mentored Dr. Raboteau, wrote in the National Book Award-winning volume “A Religious History of the American People” (1972). “Specialists in religion were proportionately more remiss than the others, considering the importance of the churches in [African American] life and the uniqueness of black religion.”

Before Dr. Raboteau, the few scholars of religion who considered the lives of enslaved Africans regarded them as “a kind of blank slate to whom Christianity was imparted by White people,” Judith Weisenfeld, a former student of Dr. Raboteau’s and the chair of Princeton’s department of religion, said in an interview.

Dr. Raboteau, she said, “gave a really profound sense of the religious and spiritual resources enslaved Africans brought with them, and how those resources contributed to the religious world that they made in the context of slavery.”

He was particularly interested in the personal lives of enslaved people and studied first-person accounts, seeking to recover the intimate experiences and private visions often overwhelmed by the facts and figures of history.

Their voices “seemed to speak directly to me,” he wrote. “They rang with the authenticity of those who had endured the brutal violence of racism, and triumphed over it. I tried to capture those voices, their tenor, their rhythm, and especially the wisdom they conveyed.”

Dr. Raboteau’s later works included the essay collection “A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History” (1995) and the volume “Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans” (1999).

In “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice” (2016), he examined the lives of figures including the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Raboteau explored his own experience in the memoir “A Sorrowful Joy: A Spiritual Journey of an African-American Man in Late Twentieth-Century America” (2002). That journey took him from the Roman Catholicism of his youth through a conversion to Orthodox Christianity, from the study of American slavery and its resonance with biblical accounts of the Israelites in bondage to the religious faith that helped animate the civil rights movement.

“African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism,” Dr. Raboteau once wrote in the Boston Review, a publication devoted to arts and politics. “Perhaps the most troubling was this: ‘If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?’ ”

Albert Jordy Raboteau II was born in Bay St. Louis, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, on Sept. 4, 1943. After his father’s death, Dr. Raboteau’s mother, a domestic worker, moved him and his two older sisters north, to Ann Arbor, Mich., in search of life beyond the reach of Jim Crow. The family later settled in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Raboteau found a paternal figure in his stepfather, a former Catholic priest who left the order because of the bigotry that he encountered in the church. Dr. Raboteau, too, knew it from an early age. He recalled kneeling at the altar as a 7-year-old boy, just two months after he received his first Communion, and waiting for the priest to distribute the Eucharist to the White parishioners before finally acknowledging him.

“I stumbled back from Communion in a blur of hot-faced shame,” Dr. Raboteau wrote in a publication of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964. (At the time the school was known as Loyola University.)

Dr. Raboteau had considered entering the monastery but ultimately pursued marriage and an academic career. He studied English literature at the University of California at Berkeley and theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, then enrolled at Yale University, where he received a master’s degree in 1972 and a PhD in 1974, both in religious studies. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1982, chairing the religion department from 1987 to 1992.

Dr. Raboteau’s marriages to Katherine Murtaugh and Julia Demaree ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of eight years, Joanne Shima Raboteau of Princeton; four children from his first marriage, Albert Raboteau III of Blacksburg, Va., Charles Raboteau of Philadelphia, Martin Raboteau of Ewing, N.J., and Emily Raboteau of the Bronx; and seven grandchildren.

Dr. Raboteau wrote that he was drawn to Orthodox Christianity by what he saw as its similarity to African American Christianity. “In both there is a quality of sad joyfulness,” he reflected, “a sense that life in a minor key is life as it is; an emphasis on the importance of suffering as a mark of the authenticity of faith.”

“The witness of African American Christianity constitutes a major spiritual legacy not only for slaves’ descendants but also for any who take the time to heed the testimony of their words and lives,” he wrote as he reflected on his career, “voices that reveal the capability of the human spirit to not only endure bitter suffering but also to resist and even transcend the persistent attempts of evil to strike it down.”

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