Spirituality and faith are elusive concepts for television. Despite the wallet-thumpin' televangelists who pop up with their big hair and false eyelashes on the cable channels, true, deep matters of religious beliefs rarely are explored. The stirring PBS "Frontline" documentary, "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," which aired in 2002, was a recent remarkable exception.

Yet the body of TV's heavenly work expands greatly with a six- hour miniseries, "This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys," which airs tonight through Thursday at 9.

By subject matter alone, the miniseries is immediately important. It attempts to define the purest instincts of people: faith, hope and love. The miniseries also has a sweeping historical scope, covering African-American history from slavery to today.

"This Far by Faith" also is momentous because of its legacy. Visionary Henry Hampton's last dream was to see his South End production house, Blackside Inc., produce a series about faith.

Hampton had been successful as a filmmaker and mentor to other filmmakers. Through Blackside Inc., he achieved great fame with "Eyes on the Prize," the landmark PBS series about the American civil rights movement. "Eyes" won many prizes and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Hampton died of lung cancer in 1998. According to press materials, he wrote of his vision for "This Far by Faith" before he died. He imagined a masterwork that would chronicle the African- American spiritual journey "in the context of the nation's struggle to realize the goals of democracy and humanity, the heart and soul of America itself: who we are as a nation, what we believe as people, and what we consider worth dying - and living - for."

Hampton's colleagues at Blackside Inc. have lived up to the challenge. "This Far by Faith" is absorbing and meticulously produced TV history, complete with archival photographs, vintage footage and graceful narration by actress Lorraine Toussaint.

The first episode, "There Is a River," airing at 9 tonight, sets forth the basic gospel of "This Far by Faith": God is everywhere. Narrator Toussaint says that in Africa there is no word for religion because "there is no place that God is not."

Historian Rachel Harding, who provides many eloquent sound bites in "Faith," explains that to the slaves who came over from Africa, the basic religious tenet was the simplest belief: "All of life is sacred."

From there, spiritual matters got a lot more complicated as the slaves began to embrace their masters' Christianity, which they "re- evaluated and reconfigured to fit their needs," according to Harding. Early "praise houses" were secret places where the slaves could meet, sing, dance and worship without fear.

The first African Methodist Church, in Charleston, S.C., grew out of the praise houses, although the pioneer church was closed down because its pull over the community was too strong.

In the second episode, "God Is a Negro," which airs at 10 p.m., the slaves have been freed to practice religion but they are still segregated and barred from participating in white society. The church thus becomes the focus of life, embracing such earthbound concerns as banking and schooling.

On subsequent nights, "This Far by Faith" follows the Rev. Martin Luther King and the civil rights era. One of the more fascinating episodes airs Thursday night at 9. "Inheritors of the Faith" is the story of the Elijah Muhammad, his Nation of Islam and the sect's collapse after Muhammad's death. His son, Wallace Muhammad, took over and adopted a stricter Islamic approach, which caused many to fall away from the faith. Louis Farrakhan now carries on. "This Far by Faith" can be repetitive. The saga of Izabella, the slave who finds religion, seems ridiculously elongated for dramatic effect. The miniseries could have been shortened by an hour.

Still, "This Far by Faith" is a spiritual journey worth taking. Television rarely offers soul food this satisfying.

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