Jacob S. Dorman offers the first comprehensive study of the rise of black Judaism in America. Beginning with an examination of black interactions with white Jews during the Civil War, Dorman traces the influence of Black Israelite practices and philosophies on the Holiness Christianity movement of the 1890s and the emergence of black Jewish synagogues in the early twentieth century. Most fascinating is his focus on a number of residents of 1920s Harlem who, adopting the guise of spiritual merchants, drew on profoundly stereotyped visions of the "Mystic East" for radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist purposes. They formed their own new religions based on the belief that the ancient Hebrew Israelites were black and contemporary African Americans their descendants. This gave rise to many of the African-American sects of the twentieth century, including the Rastafarians, the Black Muslims, and the prosperity gospel of Father Divine. This fascinating but little-studied group of "mystic professors" was founded by a Barbadian Rabbi who dreamed of resettling African Americans in Ethopia.
The settlement scheme failed, but the black Israelite theology had captured the imagination of settlers who returned to Jamaica and transmitted it to Leonard Howell, one of the founders of Rastafarianism and himself a member of the mystic subculture of Harlem. The Black Israelite movement was carried forward in the US by several Harlem rabbis, including Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who creatively combined elements of Judaism, Pentecostalism, Freemasonry, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Afro-Caribbean faiths, and occult kabbalah. Drawing on hitherto untapped archival sources as well as personal interviews, Dorman provides a vivid portrait of the Black Israelites, illuminating their place in the creative ferment of spirituality, art, and commerce that characterized African American life in the early twentieth century. Scholars have traditionally attributed the cultural significance of the Harlem Renaissance to the productions of the black elite. Chosen People helps to rectify that imbalance by drawing attention to the distinctive movements and ideas that engaged the black working class.