lerone martin

Lerone A. Martin

Associate Professor of Religion and Politics
PhD, Emory University
research interests:
  • Religion and Politics in Twentieth Century US History
  • Religious Media
  • FBI

contact info:

mailing address:

  • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • CB 1066
  • ONE BROOKINGS DR.
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
image of book cover

Lerone Martin's teaching and research focus on religious and political history, the African American experience, and the FBI.

Martin is the author of the award-winning Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion (New York University Press, 2014), which tracks the role of the phonograph in the shaping of African American religion, culture, and politics during the first half of the twentieth century. The book was the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize for outstanding scholarship in religious history by a first-time author from the American Society of Church History.

In support of his research, Martin has received a number of nationally recognized fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, The American Council of Learned Societies, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion. In 2014, Martin was selected for the Young Scholars in American Religion 2014-16 cohort as one of the top ten pre-tenure scholars in American Religion by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He has been a past research consultant for continuing education and recidivism at New York’s Sing Sing State Prison, as well as an instructor at Georgia’s Metro State Prison. His commentary and writing have appeared in popular media outlets such as CNN, Religion Dispatches, Charisma, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Currently he is writing a book on the relationship between religion and national security in American history which will be published by Princeton University Press.

Selected Publications

Books

J. Edgar Hoover’s Stained Glass Window: The F.B.I. & Christian America (Princeton University Press, Under Contract).

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (New York University Press, 2014).

Articles & Book Chapters

“New Documents Reveal How the FBI Deployed a Televangelist to Discredit Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Religion and Politics, April 3, 2018.

“Bureau Clergyman: How the FBI Colluded with an African American Televangelist to Destroy Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Winter 2018 Vol. 28, No. 1.

“American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security,” in True Faith and Allegiance: Religion and the FBI. Edited by Steven Weitzman and Sylvester Johnson (University of California Press, 2017).

“Binding the Straw Man: Hip Hop, African American Protestant Religion and the Dilemma of Dialogue,” in The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide, ed. Emmett G., Price III (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012).

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

In Preaching on Wax, Lerone A. Martin offers the first full-length account of the oft-overlooked religious history of the phonograph industry. He explains why a critical mass of African American ministers teamed up with the major phonograph labels of the day, how and why black consumers eagerly purchased their religious records, and how this phonograph religion significantly contributed to the shaping of modern African American Christianity.

From 1925 to 1941, approximately one hundred African American clergymen teamed up with leading record labels such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor-RCA to record and sell their sermons on wax. While white clerics of the era, such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Charles Fuller, became religious entrepreneurs and celebrities through their pioneering use of radio, black clergy were largely marginalized from radio. Instead, they relied on other means to get their message out, teaming up with corporate titans of the phonograph industry to package and distribute their old-time gospel messages across the country. Their nationally marketed folk sermons received an enthusiastic welcome by consumers, at times even outselling top billing jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. 

These phonograph preachers significantly shaped the development of black religion during the interwar period, playing a crucial role in establishing the contemporary religious practices of commodification, broadcasting, and celebrity. Yet, the fame and reach of these nationwide media ministries came at a price, as phonograph preachers became subject to the principles of corporate America.