African American Christianity
African American Christianity
Conversion. Prior to the American Revolution few African slaves had converted to Christianity. Missionaries were scarce, and language barriers, cultural differences, and the resistance of masters (who feared that the conversion of slaves might negate the master-slave relationship) all stood as barriers to their efforts. Those Anglican missionaries who did gain access to the slaves found few interested in the lengthy process of instruction required for conversion, which included learning to read and memorize catechisms, creeds, and prayers. During the late eighteenth century, however, the emergence of evangelical Protestantism in the South dramatically altered this situation. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian revival preachers brought a new, livelier, and more accessible form of Christianity to both slaves and masters. In contrast to the Anglican process of slow indoctrination, the evangelicals focused on the single experience of a heartfelt conversion as the primary requirement for baptism into the faith. Preaching was dramatic and emotionally charged, and converts often wept, shouted, sang, and fell into trance states at revivals. People of all races and social classes were welcomed into these gatherings, where they found opportunities to preach, exhort, and pray. By 1800 thousands of slaves as well as many masters had joined the evangelical fold.
NAT TURNER: RELIGION AND REBELLION
Born in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1800, Nat Turner was a deeply religious man, known to his fellow slaves as a seer, prophet, and preacher. In the 1820s he began to see visions of a struggle between black and white angels as the heavens ran red with blood. In 1828 he had a vision that “Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent.” Convinced that he had been chosen by God to lead the slaves out of bondage, Turner waited until the omen of an eclipse signaled that the time was right. In the early morning hours of 22 August 1831 he and five others began the bloodiest slave revolt in the history of the United States. Over the course of two days more than seventy slaves joined the revolt, and about sixty whites were murdered. After the rebellion was suppressed by state and federal troops, a wave of terror swept the area as hundreds of innocent blacks were murdered in retribution. Turner hid for two months but was eventually caught and executed. Asked if he regretted his actions or his fate, he replied simply, “Was not Christ crucified?” The religious origins of the rebellion were duly noted, and slave owners began to supervise black worship much more closely, no longer allowing black preachers to speak without a white person present. Nonetheless, this and other religiously motivated rebellions lived on in the consciousness of slaves as a signs that God might one day send an avenging angel to strike down the slaveholders and set them free.
Worship. One reason for the new success in converting slaves was that revival experiences often resembled traditional forms of African worship. The trance states achieved under evangelical preachers, for example, were akin to the experience of spirit possession in the festivals honoring the gods of Africa. Perhaps even more important to the success of Christianity among slaves was the fact that Methodists and Baptists brought a message of spiritual egalitarianism and followed through on it by licensing black as well as white preachers. Several independent black churches were established in which both slave and free members joined together in highly expressive worship that offered them some relief from both physical and psychological oppression. Music and dance were an integral part of worship, and Sundays became a time of joy and release for many slaves. During the early nineteenth century, however, masters became increasingly fearful that slaves might use religious gatherings as
opportunities to plan resistance or rebellion and began to insist that black worship be held only under white supervision. By 1850 most slaves who attended church belonged to mixed-race congregations controlled by whites.
Free Black Churches. While the influence of slave owners restricted the proliferation of slave churches, it did little to hinder the growth of independent churches among free African Americans. Between 1790 and 1810 more than twenty distinctly African American Methodist and Baptist congregations were formed in the North and South. In response, white denominational leaders in several cities attempted unsuccessfully to reassert their authority. In Philadelphia, when white trustees tried in 1816 to take control of the church property of the allblack Bethel Church, the black congregation took its case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which decided in its favor. Bethel’s minister, Richard Allen, then called a meeting of black Methodists from other cities where similar conflicts had occurred. Together they withdrew their congregations from the Methodist Church to form a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where they would be able, as Allen put it, “to regulate our affairs, temporal and spiritual, the same as if we were white people.” Two other black Methodist denominations, the Union Church of Africans in Wilmington, Delaware, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of New York City, emerged by 1825, as did a black Episcopal denomination and several independent Baptist congregations.
Community. By the 1830s these new denominations encompassed dozens of churches, some as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. With few institutions in place to serve the growing numbers of freedmen who were moving to the Northern cities in search of employment, these churches served as places to meet others and seek out educational or economic opportunities. Issues confronting the community were frequently addressed in the churches, where ministers might discuss politics or discrimination or urge their congregants to demonstrate the ability of their race to prosper through education and hard work. Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal in 1827 to serve as a medium through which African Americans could voice their concerns and instill attitudes of independence and confidence in their fellows. Black clergymen supported the temperance movement and other moral crusades of the day, but above all they were vocal abolitionists. Cornish, Christopher Rush, Theodore Wright, Henry Highland Garnet, and many other ministers preached, wrote, organized, and campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Many emphasized the need for white Northerners to recognize their own racism as an important step toward broader social change.
Solidarity and Deliverance. Those who were still in bondage also condemned the institution of slavery but
did so in secret, often through the medium of religious worship and belief. Denied the right to unsupervised religious gatherings, slaves often risked punishment by meeting in the woods, where they could hold prayer meetings and voice their own version of the gospel rather than the white version that justified slavery and ordered them to obey their masters. Black worship was filled with themes of justice and deliverance, as were the spirituals slaves sang as they worked. Christianity provided a tool that allowed some slaves to come to terms with their lot in the current life, knowing that they would be liberated in the next. For others, however, biblical tales of deliverance from evil spoke to the here and now. Some believed that they themselves were to act as the instruments of God’s wrath against the evil of slavery and slaveholders, and several slave revolts took root in such beliefs. For the most part, however, slaves drew from Christianity both a group solidarity and a sense of individual self-worth and hope that helped them to endure the horrors of their daily lives. After they were freed, most continued to worship as they had before, drawing strength and stability from the church as they made their way amid the turmoil of Reconstruction.
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).