Note: The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent The K.I.N.G. Movement or its supporters. They are the views of the author alone.
Picking up where we left off in my last article, we will take a look at three more facts related to Christianity among the slaves of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. If you haven’t read part 1 of, “The Bigger Picture”, feel free to check that article out as well.
For many slaves conversion to Christianity was in itself a form of personal resistance against the system of slavery. Now we have to really grasp the mindset that was floating around Europe during the period in which slavery was in full swing. In order to justify enslaving Africans, the intellectual elites of that era bought into the belief that Africans were literally less than human, didn’t have souls, or were at best childlike sub-humans that needed more developed races to take care of them for their own good. The very essence of personhood and human dignity that we all share was denied to Africans. However, as these ideas were being imposed upon Africans through both physical slavery and the ideological oppression behind it, Christian conversion provided Africans with a sort of internal buffer from succumbing to the mentality that they were lesser beings. In a sense, converting to Christianity was like a personhood equalizer in that slaves found their worth, dignity, and personhood in God; an authority much higher than their oppressors.
I typically try to avoid long quotations in my writing but these words from Dr. Raboteau’s, “God Struck Me Dead” capture this notion perfectly:
“For slaves facing the dehumanizing conditions of enslavement, the daily physical, psychological, and emotional attacks against their dignity as person, to experience the total acceptance and affirmation of themselves by God contradicted at a fundamental level the force of the very system bent on denigrating their humanity. In the conversion experience slaves realized, and realized it in the heart not just the head, that they were of infinite value as children of God, chosen from eternity to be saved. Amidst a system bent on reducing them to an inferior status, the experience of conversion rooted deep within the slave converts’ psyche a sense of personal value and individual importance that helped to ground their identity in the unimpeachable authority of almighty God.”
Christianity provided a framework for the public resistance of slavery. When I speak of public resistance here I am primarily thinking about the abolitionist movement but there are other directions I could go with this as well. For example, going back to the 1800s you have Black evangelical churches organizing boycotts of slave-produced products, being politically active, and working against the ideas of the time that black people were of lesser stock than whites.
As far as abolitionists go there are so many people that we could talk about here: Frederick Douglas (who was threatened with death for trying teach the Bible), Ollaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cuguano (Sons of Liberty), William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Highland Garnett, John Rock, Jermain Wesley Loguen, The Grimke Sisters, and many others. I could, and at some point probably will, write a full article for each of these individuals. When you read through the speeches and writings of these abolitionists you find their argumentation against slavery to be littered with references to scripture and/or biblical concepts which they employed in their efforts to put an end to slavery. For example, in his speech responding to the Fugitive Slave Law, noted clergyman and abolitionist Jermaine Wesley Loguen exemplifies this relation between Christianity and anti-slavery activism when he said:
“I owe my freedom to the God who made me, and who stirred me to claim it against all other beings in God’s universe….I received my freedom from Heaven, and with it came the command to defend my title to it.”
Jermaine Wesley Loguen certainly did not see Christianity as being a true accomplice to the white supremacy of his day. Loquen considered it to be a God-ordained moral duty for him to fight for freedom! So many people today say, “Christianity and the bible were used to keep us enslaved so don’t be a Christian”. Well, I could use that same logic and say, “Christianity and the Bible were used to fight against slavery, so you should become a Christian.” Now in either case both of those positions are illogical because whether Christianity was misused to promote slavery or used to fight against slavery the more important question is “Are the claims of Christianity true?”
Slave songs and folk tales from that time depict the God of the Bible as a God of liberation not oppression. This is actually one of the first areas I began to study when I decided to confront the notion of Christianity being the white man’s religion. Thus far I have provided quotations from former slaves talking about practicing Christianity in their own way, engaging in Christianity as a means or personal or public resistance, and so on. In preparation for my talk on Titans TV, I anticipated that someone might say, “Oh yeah well they were probably just a few exceptions to the rule of brainwashing and indoctrination.” Well, we have to understand that the West Africans who were enslaved were coming from cultures that emphasized oral traditions and passing culture down from generation to generation through song, folk tales, and so forth. What we see among the African slaves here in the West is a continuation of that means of passing down the ideas, morals, and beliefs that were prevalent among them. As Lawrence Levine points out in his Essay, “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness”, when we look at the songs the slaves sang they take God and different figures from the Bible (i.e. Daniel, Moses, Joseph) and apply these biblical stories to themselves in terms of deliverance from oppression in this world, triumphing over the powers that be, the payoff of perseverance, expectation of justice, and hope for the future. Now, there is no doubt that slave-holding Christians tried to instill the idea that slaves were supposed to remain in their subdued condition. However, it is clear this idea didn’t take hold entirely because through the lyrics of these slave songs we see a prevalent theme among the Africans was that the God of the Bible was on their side, was a God of justice, and would set them free whether in this life or the next.
Now, once again there are no excuses to be made for the Christians who participated in enslaving Africans—none whatsoever. Here is the direction I’m going with this. If all we know about Christianity during the slavery era is essentially an abusive relationship between the African slaves and slave-masters who claimed to be Christians, then it would be understandable that we would look upon that period of history and say “Well, there’s nothing for me to connect with in that picture.” However, as we increase our understanding of our ancestors’ experiences by adding more historical pieces to our puzzle we are then able to broaden our lens in such a way that we are not locked into assessing that period of history based on the Kunta Kinte slave religion scenario alone. All of a sudden, based on the historical evidence we are not forced to define Christianity based upon that false hypocritical slave-master perversion of it but rather we now have another side of the story to consider.
We see slave-masters refusing to allow slaves to hear about Christianity for fear that they would lose their so called property. We see that slave-masters were concerned that if the fullness of scripture was made available to the slaves they would get uppity and see themselves as equal to whites. We see our ancestors risking their safety to practice Christianity independently from the slave-owner and on their own terms. We see our forefathers drawing upon Christianity as a basis for personal and public resistance while maintaining hope in a God of liberty who sustained their sense of personhood in the midst of an evil slave institution. When we bring these puzzle pieces, these facts of history into view, we suddenly have a more complete picture of what our ancestors experienced. From the vantage point of this more complete picture we can make a more historically responsible evidence-based assessment of the dynamic between Christianity and the African slave. In doing so we find ourselves with connecting points with the authentic Christianity that so many of our ancestors latched on to in spite of the hypocritical religious institutions that were on the wrong side of history.
It is inevitable that people will retort, “The slaves didn’t know any better. They were so mentally oppressed that they bought into the slave-master’s religion.” To be clear, I’m not saying that there weren’t a number of slaves bamboozled by the perverse version of Christianity pushed by the slave-masters. Still, to make such a cookie cutter assessment of what Christianity was to the slaves is honestly an injustice to our ancestors and really undermines their dignity.
We are talking about a people group that survived one of the most heinous ordeals of human history. Yet, if you consider the years immediately following the civil war, you see that within about a generation Africans reduced illiteracy among them by about 50%. Within ten years of the civil war ending you have thousands of African-American elected officials including some who occupied positions in Congress. You also have Africans making their way into the workforce, starting businesses, and finding a new way for themselves. These were strong people! If people want to reject Christ for their own reasons so be it. Those people should have the guts to stand on their own two feet in their rejection of Christianity rather than using our ancestors as a crutch for their unbelief. Our forefathers and mothers weren’t so mentally impoverished that we can’t grant them the dignity of their own spirituality in choosing Christianity.
To conceptualize the relationship between Christianity and the African slaves solely based upon the Kunta Kinte scenario of brainwashing and abuse is an outdated framework for understanding our ancestors’ experiences. There is too much information available on this topic to deprive ourselves of a well-rounded understanding of that aspect of history. If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to check out my full presentation with Titans TV entitled, “Is Christianity the white man’s Religion?” at the link below. Also, be on the look-out for more articles in the coming weeks as I delve into some of the material I had in my notes but didn’t have time to present during my interview. Stay tuned and God bless.
Aptheker, H. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. (1990). New York: Citadel Pr.
Barton, D. (2004). Setting the record straight: American history in Black & white. Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press.
Buchsbaum III, R. (2014) The surprising Role of Legal Traditions in the iRse of Abolitionism in Great Britain’s Development. Thesis submitted to Wright State University
Daley, J. (2006). Great speeches by African Americans Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, Jr., and others. Mineola (N.Y.): Dover Publications.
Evans, F. W., & Banks, E. B. (2009). Hush harbor: praying in secret. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner.
Gerbner, K. (2010) The Ultimate Sin: Christianising Slaves in Barbados in the Seventeenth Century. Journal: Slavery and Abolition Vol 31 No. 1 March 2010 57-73
Harding, V. Essay Title: Religion and Resistance among Antebellum Slaves, 1800-1860. Fulop, T. E., & Raboteau, A. J. (1997). African-American religion: interpretive essays in history and culture. London: Routledge.
Hodges, G. R. (1997). Slavery and freedom in the rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865. Madison, WI: Madison House.
Levine, L. Essay Title: Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration in Neglected Sources Fulop, T. E., & Raboteau, A. J. (1997). African-American religion: interpretive essays in history and culture (T. E. Fulop & A. J. Raboteau, Authors). London: Routledge.
Noll, M. A. (2015). The Civil War as a theological crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Raboteau, A. Essay Title: The Black Experience in American Evangelicalism: The Meaning of Slavery. Fulop, T. E., & Raboteau, A. J. (1997). African-American religion: interpretive essays in history and culture. London: Routledge.
Yetman, N. R. (2000). Voices from slavery: 100 authentic slave narratives. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Adam Coleman is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. He is a husband, father of two busy toddlers, social worker, writer, and public speaker. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in Social Work Adam Coleman began a career of community development, mentoring youth, and service to our nation’s veterans. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his Tru-ID podcast, writing, and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ through Christian apologetics.