Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Church

Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Church

Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Church

Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Church


Dreams and visions, prophetic words from God about "dusty souls," speaking in tongues while "in the spirit "narratives of these and similar events comprise the heart of Every Time I Feel the Spirit. This in-depth study of a Black congregation in Charleston, South Carolina provides a window into the tremendously important yet still largely overlooked world of African American religion as the faith is lived by ordinary believers.

For decades, scholars have been preoccupied with the relation between Black Christianity, civil rights, and social activism. Every Time I Feel the Spirit is about black religion as religion. It focuses on the everyday experience of religion in the church, congregants' relationships with God, and the role that God and Satan play in congregants' lives not only as objects of belief but as actual agents. It explores the concepts of religious experience and religious ritual, while emphasizing the attributions that people make to the operation of spiritual forces and beings in their lives.

Through interviews and field work, Nelson uncovers what religious people themselves see as important about their faith while extending and refining sociological understandings of religious ritual and religious experience.


It was mid-August when my wife and I first went to the Saturday night prayer service at Eastside Chapel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The summer evening was oppressively humid—the kind of weather that once led local novelist Pat Conroy to describe a stroll through the streets as akin to “walking though gauze”—and the Palmetto bugs (large, cockroach-like creatures with the disconcerting ability to fly) lazily scuttled across the sidewalks. We were transplanted Northerners—“Yankees” now—new to the South Carolina Lowcountry and not acclimated to the heat, the moisture, or these repugnant-looking insects who seemed to migrate to the pavement on hot summer evenings with alarming regularity. We were to be in Charleston for exactly one year, my wife to interview low-income single mothers for her project on welfare and work, and me to begin my research on African American churches.

The prayer service was scheduled to begin at 10:30 p.m., which is exactly when we arrived. Upon entering the sanctuary we were surprised to discover that we were the first ones there. Well, almost the first. Reverend Wright, Eastside Chape's thin, dark-skinned, and serious-looking pastor, was on the dais in a lime-green Fila sweat suit, adjusting the microphones and playing a gospel tape over the sound system. He greeted us warmly (both of us had met him in his study earlier that week) and we chatted for a few minutes before sitting down in one of the front pews to wait for everyone else to arrive. After a few minutes a young twenty-something man came into the church and settled into the pew right behind us. My wife and I turned to greet him. He introduced himself as Ronald and gave us a brief but bright smile followed by a handshake. Ronald then immediately went down to the floor on both knees, squeezing his eyes shut and praying silently for a few minutes. Observing this ritual (which some others, though not everyone, performed as they entered the sanctuary later), I worried that our own entrance had been too casual (we didn't stop to . . .

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