Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Christianization of African Slaves in North America

Introduction

The colonists of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted slavery to help build the early American colonies. From 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, thousands of Africans were brought to America into slavery, yet little evangelism occurred. Slowly, masters would teach slaves of Christ, until Africans were able to establish their own churches. This essay seeks to analyze the rise of Christianity amongst African slaves with some reflections for the contemporary church.

Christianity Amongst African Slaves in North America

In 1619, the Dutch first brought Africans to Virginia, originally as indentured servants, but when found to be excellent workers, soon became permanent slaves, in the form of chattel slavery.[1] African slaves were easily marked by skin color,[2] leading to racial discrepancies. Hence, there was very little evangelistic effort toward African slaves at first, Christianity being a minor issue for many colonists, and went unquestioned for some time.[3] Some Quakers and German Mennonites went unheeded when they raised concerns regarding slavery in Pennsylvania in 1688,[4] but “the greed of national and colonial leaders was more in evidence than concern for Christian faith and mission.”[5]

The major issue pertained to the question of civil emancipation in the act of baptism, which, to some, conveyed social freedom.[6] On the issue, the Virginia General Assembly adopted an act in 1667, stating that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffree-dome,”[7] based on the belief that spiritual liberty is separate to civil freedom, a doctrine of “transcendent freedom.” Some even saw them as less than human.[8]

Between 1650 and 1700, the slave population grew dramatically, from 300 to over 6000 slaves in Virginia.[9] Despite major evangelical efforts toward these slaves didn’t begin until mid-18th century,[10] the first decade of the 18th century saw Samuel Sewell publish “The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial”[11] and Francis le Jau instruct and baptise slaves.[12] The Great Awakening in the 1730s was the first wide scale attempt at evangelizing slaves,[13] Methodism being popular due to the active approach of preachers welcoming slaves into the congregation. Volunteer black preachers were largely influential in spreading Christianity to other slaves.[14] Many believed Christianity was a good form of social control over slaves,[15] but according to Noll, “When they found…that the Bible had more to say about Jesus lifting burdens than slaves obeying masters, blacks discovered a secret their masters did not want them to know,”[16] and African church attendance grew dramatically.

In 1757, the antislavery Quaker John Woolman lamented, “These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being,”[17] and by 1776 he had persuaded the Quakers to officially become antislavery. Furthermore, several purely African churches were established, such as a Baptist Church at Silver Bluff, South Carolina and the African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.[18] In 1777, the African Richard Allen received freedom and became a Methodist preacher and arriving in Philadelphia, he said, “I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instructing my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people.”[19] While at St. George’s Methodist Church, he and some friends were humiliated, so left to establish the Free African Society, the first establishment by blacks for blacks.[20]

In 1787, the Northern States declared slavery as illegal, with John Leland, an antislavery leader in Virginia stating that “slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature.”[21] By 1820, African churches were even sending missionaries to Africa.[22] However, many Southern States remained proslavery, and as a result of the North rejecting slavery and the British Empire abolishing it in 1833, as well as pressure after the revolt initiated by Nat Turner, the South hardened its slave codes. Thomas Dew and Richard Furman argued for theological reasons for slavery,[23] and tension between the North and South grew around this religious debate over the validity of slavery,[24] until 1861 when civil war broke out until 1865, bringing defeat for the South and abolishment for all America.[25]

Contemporary Significance

The two most significant questions that the contemporary church faces is 1) whether or not racial prejudices or social status differences influence our evangelistic effort, and 2) whether there are any practices the church finds acceptable today, but may find unacceptable in 100 years. In either case a major lesson to be learnt is to avoid allowing differences climax into war. However, this is obviously difficult if not impossible. The church must seriously analyse itself regularly in order to stop seemingly small issues developing into large issues that become universally acceptable, yet are doctrinally incorrect. This self-criticism must regularly be aimed toward how people approach racial and cultural differences, with an eye toward avoiding racial bigotry.


[1] G. T. Miller, The Modern Church: From the Dawn of the Reformation to the Eve of the Third Millenium (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997). 131; Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992). 77; Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). 15. Chattel slavery refers to the state in which a master owned a slave’s body like one would own cattle, horses, etc. (Miller. 131).

[2] Miller notes, “If white servants escaped, they melted into the general population; however, wherever Africans went, people recognized their bondage or, if legally free, their former bondage. Escaped slaves were easily rounded up and returned,” (p. 131).

[3] Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007). 295; Noll. 77; Miller.132.

[4] Noll. 77.

[5] Handy. 4.

[6] Charles H. Lippy, “Slave Christianity,” in A People’s History of Christianity: Modern Christianity to 1900, ed. Amanda Porterfield(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007). 297. Cf. Miller. 132.

[7] Quoted in Handy. 70.

[8] J. Earl Thompson, “The Contradictions of Liberty,” Andover Newton Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1976). 165. Miller expands, arguing that some thought the church should only look after humanity’s spiritual needs, hence pastors shouldn’t be involved in political matters, (p. 136).

[9] Handy. 70.

[10] Hill. 333.

[11] Miller. 137.

[12] Noll. 79. Francis wrote in October 1709, “On Sunday next I design God willing to baptise two very sensible and honest Negro Men whom I have kept upon tryal these two Years. Several others have spoken to me also; I do nothing too hastily in that respect. I instruct them and must have the consent of their Masters with a good Testimony and proof of their honest life and sober Conversation: Some Masters in my parish are very well satisfied with my Proceedings in that respect: others do not seem to be so; yet they have given over opposing my design openly; it is to be hoped the good Example of the one will have an influence over the others,” (Noll, p. 79).

[13] Miller. 132.

[14] Harry V. Richardson, “Early Black Methodist Preachers,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 3, no. 1 (1975). 1-3. Fountain discusses why Christianity was so successful among African slaves, concluding that a huge influence was the similarities Christianity had with African traditions. Monotheism, the symbolism of water, prayer, song and a belief in an afterlife were very easily accepted by most, allowed them to incorporate their own traditions into the Christianity being preached to them, (Daniel Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). 19-20). Furthermore, Lippy similarly notes that the spirituality of the Africans was so strong that it wasn’t difficult for them to believe in the Christian God, but formed a Christianity of their own, incorporating elements such as the “Ring Shout” into services, which developed into call-response style sermons and preachers would often walk around the congregation, as would people in the congregation, (Lippy. 295-297).

[15] Miller. 133. Cf. Noll. 78. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or marry, and were sometimes even bred for profit (Miller. 132-134).

[16] Noll. 79.

[17] John Woolman, “John Woolman’s Journal,” in Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Douglas V. Steere(Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984). 184

[18] Miller. 137.

[19] Quoted in Noll. 201.

[20] Ibid. 202. Other influential people include Lemuel Hayes, who was the first African to be ordained in a predominately white church, but retired in 1818 after racial antagonism (ibid. 200). Another was Jupiter Hammon, one of the first African preachers to have his writings published, which included poetic expression “to encourage slaves to know and expect that they had every equality in the salvation of Jesus Christ,” (Sonda O’Neale, “Jupiter Hammon and His Works: A Discussion of the First Black Preacher to Publish Poems, Sermons and Essays in America,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 9, no. 1 (1982). 99).

[21] Quoted in Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960). 365.

[22] Noll. 204.

[23] Their reasons were largely based on texts such as Paul’s letter to Philemon, and they argued that God cannot permit anything immoral, hence the fact that he permits slavery means that is, in fact, moral.

[24] Miller. 138-140.

[25] Hill. 442-444.

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2 thoughts on “Christianization of African Slaves in North America

  1. Amy Harris on said:

    🙂

  2. I hope you are enjoying your studies at Vose Seminary. Maybe you would like to do the Diploma of Management at Vose College afterwards?
    Great to have you following our blog.

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