First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.There’s an awful lot to unpack in that paragraph, but I will confine myself to the subject of people who were “brought from Africa in slave ships” and “were introduced to Christian salvation.”
In the words of Larry E. Tise, author of Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840, the idea that “American slavery was a blessing to degraded Africans” was “the quintessence, the very heart of American proslavery thought whether colonial or antebellum” (Tise, 32). During the early 19th century, pro-slavery legislators, ministers, and intellectuals argued that slavery was a benign, patriarchal institution that benefited slaves in every way:
What more can be required of Slavery, in reference to the negro, than has been done? It has made him, from a savage, an orderly and efficient labourer. It supports him in comfort and peace. It restrains his vices. It improves his mind, orals and manners. It instructs him in Christian knowledge” (William Johnson Gray, "The Hireling and the Slave," 1855).It is not my intention here to recount the history of proslavery thought. Interested readers can find in-depth treatments of the subject here, here, and here. Instead, I want to ask a simpler question: Were slaves in the American colonies Christians?
Short answer: some were, most weren’t.
This is a tricky question because it is so broad. It is virtually impossible to generalize about the religious practice of all enslaved people in all centuries and all colonies. Even if we ignore the syncretic religions of the Caribbean and Latin America, it is difficult to generalize about African-American religious practice before 1800. Some slaves, like Phillis Wheatley, became devout Christians, while others continued to practice African religions or blended religious traditions. In addition, counting Christians is problematic (see Brian’s post and discussion here). For this post, I am defining “Christian” as someone who was baptized into a Christian denomination (Methodist, Baptist, Moravian) or who regularly participated in identifiably Christian rituals (reading/discussing the Gospels, praying to Jesus, etc.), even if those practices included non-Christian elements.
Before the Methodist and Baptist revivals of the early 19th century, very few slaves were instructed in Christianity and even fewer were baptized. Before 1667, slaveowners in Virginia feared that baptized Africans could not be held as slaves under British law. In order to calm their fears, Virginia passed a law stating, “baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament."
Even after this legal question was settled, many masters actively discouraged slaves from attending religious services because they feared that Christianity would make slaves “not only proud but ungovernable, and even rebellious” (Raboteau, 103). In 1740, after the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina passed its infamous “Negro Act,” which forbid slaves from gathering during their free time, even for religious services. These laws were replicated by other states in the 1830s in response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion.
Pre-1800 efforts by missionary groups such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.) were generally limited, underfunded, and unsuccessful. In 1720, Thomas Hasell of the S.P.G claimed that after 11 years of missionary work among the slaves in South Carolina, he had baptized fewer than 10 people. In 1713, ministers working for the S.P.G in South Carolina reported that, “The conversion of slaves is, considering the present circumstance of things, scarcely possible. ‘Tis true, indeed, that an odd slave here and there may be converted when a minister has leisure and opportunity for doing so . . . But alas!” (Wood, 142). Silvia Frey and Betty Wood, authors of Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, argue that Anglican missionary efforts in the colonial period were dismal failures (Anglican Christianity had very little to offer slaves) and that virtually no slaves converted until Moravian missionaries gained footholds in Virginia (1740s) and Georgia (1770s).
In the last years of the 18th century, Methodist and Baptist camp meetings and revivals began to baptize considerable numbers of enslaved people. Despite many difficulties, particularly the laws that prevented most slaves from learning to read and write, thousands of slaves did convert to Christianity during the first half of the 19th century. Before 1800, observations like Alexander Hewatt’s (1779) were not unusual:
[T]he negroes of [South Carolina], a few only excepted, are to this day as great strangers to Christianity, and as much under the influence of Pagan darkness, idolatry, and superstition, as they were at their first arrival from Africa (Raboteau, 66).Of course, we can’t take the words of Hasell or Hewatt at face value — the slaves they observed may have been adherents to a syncretic Christianity that was shocking or unrecognizable to ignorant observers. At the same time, we should not privilege the propaganda of antebellum writers who also had their own reasons for inflating the numbers of Christian slaves: slaveowners wanted to portray slavery as a benevolent, Christianizing institution and abolitionists hoped to outrage their countrymen by relaying tales of enslaved Christians such as Uncle Tom and Eliza.
Slave narratives written in the 19th century often speak of both Christian and non-Christian religious practices among slaves, such as when Charles Ball recounts what seems to him a “traditional” African burial or when Frederick Douglass tells the story of Sandy’s root. Since these narratives were written for political purposes in the 19th century, they are not very good sources for examining African-American religion in the colonial period. I don’t know much about the historical archaeology that has been carried out at slave quarters, but I would be interested in seeing if that work might shed any light on pre-1800 religious practices.
Contrary to the claims of slavery apologists, there is little evidence to suggest that very many slaves were converted to Christianity before the Methodist and Baptist revivals of the 19th century. Some historians even argue that some kidnapped Africans were familiar with syncretic Catholicism (Portuguese missionaries made many attempts to convert West Africans) but that these versions of Christianity were not recognized or respected by British colonists in the Americas.
Of course, even if it were true that all enslaved Africans became Christians, the narrative of “civilizing the savages” would still be repugnant. All justifications for slavery are odious. In this case, it is not just bad taste; it’s bad history.