Loy H. Witherspoon Lecture Series “Spiritual Madness: American Psychiatry, Race and Black Religions” featuring Judith Weisenfeld

February 3, 2022 - 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM

Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University, will deliver her lecture, “Spiritual Madness: American Psychiatry, Race and Black Religions,” for this year’s Loy. H. Witherspoon Lecture series. The event is presented by the Department of Religious Studies on Thursday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. It will be virtual and free to the public. 

Shortly after Emancipation, the emerging discipline of psychiatry gained momentum at the same cultural moment that African Americans strived to assimilate into free society. Dr. Weisenfeld argues that the diagnosis of insanity was thus routinely used to deprive African Americans of their freedom. These authoritative judgments were based on assumptions made about African American spiritual practices at the time, which included incantations, making potions, or displaying talismans for protection and healing. 

Weisenfeld contrasts traditionally accepted religious practices with those deemed to be morally impoverished or indicative of mental imbalance and the effects that had on society. She continues the discourse by examining how these disparities persist today, but in the context of 21st century issues such as COVID-19 and American medicine in general. 

The Department of Religious Studies will host a meet-and-greet event for Religious Studies graduate students with Dr. Weisenfeld earlier in the day. Information about how to access the meet-and-greet will be supplied to the Religious Studies faculty.

Dr. Weisenfeld lectures extensively, by invitation, on themes relating to Black racial identity, Black religion, the Great Migration, and spiritual madness. At Princeton, Dr. Weisenfeld is also Associated Faculty in the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She serves on the Executive Committees of the Center for the Study of Religion and the Program in American Studies. 

Weisenfeld is the author of several publications, including New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York University Press, 2016), which was the winner of the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions. She is the editor of Religion & American Culture and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Africana Religions and American Religion. In addition, she founded and edited The North Star: A Journal of African-American Religious History.


Sponsorship of Dr. Weisenfeld’s Research

The Henry Luce Foundation provided a $1 million grant to Dr. Weisenfeld, along with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis, to support "The Crossroads Project: Black Religious Histories, Communities and Cultures." The project examines American challenges related to race, religion, and national identity.

About the Loy H. Witherspoon Lecture series

The Department of Religious Studies established the Loy H. Witherspoon series in 1984, to honor colleague Loy H. Witherspoon, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Hundreds of his friends and colleagues contributed to the fund that made this the first named, endowed lecture series at UNC Charlotte. Lectures have been published each year through a gift from Dr. William Pfischner. Read past Loy H. Witherspoon lectures online through the J. Murrey Atkins University History Witherspoon Lecture Series Collection. The Atkins Oral History Collections include Ten interviews with Loy Witherspoon