Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel

Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel

Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel

Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel


Glenn Hinson focuses on a single gospel program and offers a major contribution to our understanding not just of gospel but of the nature of religious experience.

A key feature of African American performance is the layering of performative voices and the constant shifting of performative focus. To capture this layering, Hinson demonstrates how all the parts of the gospel program work together to shape a single whole, joining speech and song, performer and audience, testimony, prayer, preaching, and singing into a seamless and multifaceted service of worship. Personal stories ground the discussion at every turn, while experiential testimony fuels the unfolding arguments. Fire in My Bones is an original exploration of experience and belief in a community of African American Christians, but it is also an exploration of African American aesthetics, the study of belief, and the ethnographic enterprise.


“I wish I could just expose this so greatly to you that your heart and mind would set on fire. But if you know not this …” Elder W. Lawrence Richardson pauses, momentarily grasping for words. How does one convey the ecstasy of rapture to one whose soul is yet unsaved? How does one describe an experience whose depths render all descriptions inadequate? the elder tries again, this time addressing process rather than feeling. “It comes quick and it goes quick.” Another pause.

Our conversation is stretching into its second hour, as Elder Richardson patiently shares understandings granted him by God and confirmed by personal experience. the evening’s talk, like many before it, presses into the night. He, a Primitive Baptist elder and a singer of deep intensity, sits on one side of a small kitchen table. I, a folklorist seeking understanding of a power often witnessed and sometimes felt, sit on the other. Only the muted sound of the cassette’s turning wheels breaks the evening’s silence. I sit expectantly, respecting the pause, waiting.

Suddenly, a cry of “Hallelujah!” explodes from Elder Richardson’s lips, transforming his countenance from earnestness to undeniable joy. “Something hit me right then! Sure enough! I ain’t kidding you!” the phrases tumble forth with infectious exhilaration, pressing one after another through a widening smile. “Yeah! Something hit me just that quick!”

There’s no need to ask what that “something” was. If the preceding words hadn’t made it clear, the overall conversation certainly had. in those few fleeting moments, Elder Richardson had experienced the emotional transport of transcendence.

“It don’t stay with you,” Elder Richardson continues, his words still buoyed by excitement. “And you can’t keep it long. It’ll hit you here, and it just—something feel funny, go all to the sole of your foot! It’ll make you want to—Hallelujah!” Once again his eyes turn toward heaven and his voice rises in praise. “Sure enough!”

Now the laugh that has been building in his throat cascades forth, a blissful laugh born of beatitude rather than humor. “Amen! Now, this is what I’m talking about. Otherwords, you got to be in it to feel it. and if you’re not in it, you just sit there and you look.”

Elder Richardson pauses, briefly fixing his eyes on mine. Watching me watching . . .

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