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Preach It! Understanding African Caribbean preaching, by Carol Tomlin

07 June 2019

Rose Hudson-Wilkin reads about a distinct style of preaching

CAROL TOMLIN has a long history of researching and writing on black preaching styles, and is a visiting Fellow at the University of Leeds. She was inspired to write this book out of a concern that studies on preaching appeared to be “exclusively Western and therefore Euro-centric”, and writes within the context of the growth of Pentecostalism not just in Britain, but around the world. Dr Tomlin’s clear intention is to encourage those involved in theological education to engage more with Afrocentric preaching styles.

The book not only highlights African Caribbean Pentecostal preachers’ inheriting elements of West African languages and religious practices, but addresses the impact that forces such as enslavement, colonialism, and globalisation have had in shaping their religious expressions.

Tomlin begins by exploring modern Pentecostalism and its movement around the world. At the beginning, a bold assertion is quoted (from I. MacRobert’s 1984 paper “African and European Roots of Black and White Pentecostalism in Britain”) that “the Pentecostal movement owes its birth, at least in part to the black understanding of Christianity which developed as a syncretism of African folk belief and western Christianity in the crucible of American slavery.”

The author examines the five main strands of Pentecostalism, describing the liturgical practices inherent in these, which, she believes, creates the kind of atmosphere that makes the presentation of sermons a unique experience. There is also some acknowledgement that preachers in these traditions tend to be male.

One of the characteristics addressed by the author is the prominence of the spoken word as opposed to the written word. This rich oral tradition is often dependent on the orator’s performance and his or her ability to carry the listeners along. A second characteristic in the black preaching style is “call and response”, an African retention whereby the preacher and the congregation enter into a symbiotic relationship.

Students may find it interesting to learn about the linguistic structure of the underlying language used in preaching; how preachers of African Caribbean background “code-switch” depending on their audience and the points that they are wanting to emphasise. The reader is, therefore, introduced to examples of Jamaican Creole (JC); Black British Talk (BBT) and how these are used with Standard English (SE) while preaching.

Dangers highlighted by the author include, first, the way in which the hermeneutical approach of Pentecostalism can lead to taking biblical texts out of context; and, second, the centring of the preaching context around the Windrush generation and the emphasis on worldliness and, more recently, the prosperity gospel. Tomlin also helpfully includes at the end of most chapters “reflection and activities” for further engagement with the subject of her book.

This is a useful textbook for students of theology. It is informative and will be of interest to those who wish to engage with a breadth of preaching styles as well as delve deeper into methodology and technique.

Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin is Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.


Preach It! Understanding African Caribbean preaching
Carol Tomlin
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99

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