In Memoriam, Professor Albert J. Raboteau (1943-2021)

Written by
Judith Weisenfeld
Sept. 21, 2021

The Department of Religion mourns the death of Albert J. Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus.

Professor Albert J. Raboteau

Al’s research has left an extraordinary legacy in the field of African American religious history, African American Studies, and American religious history. His first book, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (1979), transformed our understanding of the religious experiences of the enslaved though his careful and empathetic attention to their voices and accounts of their spiritual lives, his presentation of complex theological grappling with suffering, and his recognition of the wisdom and joy of Black religious life in slavery amidst sorrow and violence. Many of his later writings, including the essays in A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History (1995) and A Sorrowful Joy (2002), are marked by incorporation of personal reflections about the stakes of the study of African American religious history as a Black man from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi whose father was murdered by a white man before he was born and as a Christian believer whose religious formation took place first in the Roman Catholic Church and in later years in Eastern Orthodoxy. Al’s scholarship also focused on understanding the relationship of religion to social protest, particularly in efforts for racial justice, and in his final book, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social Justice (2016), he profiled a diverse group of figures whose spirituality and work had influenced, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Al joined the Princeton faculty in 1983, having taught previously at Xavier University in New Orleans, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley. He retired from the faculty in 2013, although he continued to teach occasional seminars in Religion and African American Studies over the next few years. He served as Chair of the Department of Religion from 1987 to 1992 and as Dean of the Graduate School in 1992-1993. He was active in the Afro-American Studies Program, contributing to its development over the years to the Center for African American Studies and now the Department of African American Studies. He was a founding member of the Center for the Study of American Religion that later became the Center for the Study of Religion and now the Center for Culture, Society, and Religion.

Al loved teaching and was a beloved teacher, advisor, and mentor to undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Religion and many other departments and programs at Princeton, as well as other institutions where he served as visiting faculty. His courses at Princeton over the years demonstrated the breadth of his interests as well as the diverse sources and methods on which he drew to explore the role of religion in American society and culture. His courses included: “Religion and Nationalism in America,” “Afro-American Religious Movements,” “The Performed Word: Afro-American Religious Culture,” “African American Religious History,” “Catholicism in America,” “American Religious Radicals,” “Religion and Immigration in America,” “Holy Ordinary: Religious Dimensions in Contemporary Fiction,” “Re-Enchanting the World: Religion and the Literature of Fantasy,” and “Merton and King.”

Al received Princeton’s Martin Luther King Day Journey Award for Lifetime Service in 2006 in recognition of his work to advance King’s dream for America, and Princeton’s Howard T. Berhman Award for distinguished contributions to humanities in 1998, addition to numerous other awards and prizes for his research and contributions to the field. He delivered the Department of Religion’s 2018 Danforth Lecture in the Study of Religion on “Balm in Gilead: Memory, Mourning and Healing in Afro-American Autobiography.”

A formal University Memorial statement and details regarding ways to honor Albert Raboteau are forthcoming.

A viewing will be held Thursday, Sept. 23, from 6-9 p.m. at Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church, 904 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton, N.J.

The funeral will be held at the same church at 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 24. The ceremony is open to well-wishers and will also be streamed live online at The burial will follow at Highland Cemetery, 95 Hopewell-Wertsville Road, Hopewell, N.J.
In lieu of flowers memorial donations may be made to Arm in Arm, formerly known as The Crisis Ministry, in Trenton, N.J., which can be contacted at or (609) 396-9355.