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Written under the supervision of Prof. David Lee Robbins and submitted on 31 August 2013, this essay was part of my total coursework at the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts. The essay is published with the kind permission of the faculty.

Reasons Behind Slaves‘ Conversion to Christianity

 

The Bible is a blueprint of in-group morality, complete with instructions for genocide, enslavement of out-groups, and world domination.
––– John Hartung, quoted in Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion
The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.
––– Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great

 

As these two introductory quotes suggest the relationship between Christianity and slavery in America – but not only there – is an issue which remains a topic of debates even to this day. Granted, religious critics such as the above mentioned Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins merely want to use this relationship as evidence of religion’s corrupting effect on human society, without delving too deep into the issue, but it is precisely here where the fallacy of their argument occurs. As it is the case with any kind of oversimplification, the issue of the interconnection of or the relationship between Christianity and slavery is extremely multifaceted, too much in fact to be discarded as simply „bad“.

There is an interesting question, though, that the two quotes inadvertently raise: Given the fact that Christianity was at the time essentially used against them, how come that the African slaves converted in America to this religion in such vast numbers (and was their conversion even as swift and widespread as it may seem?). Furthermore, how come that they remained Christian even after slavery was abolished in the US? These are the questions that this – in its nature more socio-historical rather than literary – essay will attempt to provide answers for. Drawing factual details from the book of essays entitled Religion and American Culture and a variety of other sources, and later on using literary background taken from the writings of Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley, this paper will map the religious situation in America at the time of the beginning of the slave trade, and its development throughout the subsequent decades of slavery.

Photo by Geraint Rowland, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Before we move onto the topic of Christianization of African slaves in America, we need to map the initial religious background of this diverse group of people in order to establish a starting point of said Christianizing efforts. Upon their arrival and perhaps in a couple of subsequent decades vast majority of slaves were discernibly not Christian. Charles Joyner states that as many as twenty percent of the enslaved Africans in America are estimated to have been Muslims (Joyner, 182). Susel Perez adds to this point that in the lower Gulf area in particular, there was a minority of slaves who adhered to voodoo, and that all over the country there were few who had no religion at all (Perez).

By far the largest number of African slaves, though, held on to the practices and beliefs they brought along with them from their homeland, and which did not belong to any of the major world faiths at the time. Due to the diversity of the original tribes there are numerous definitions attempting at a certain sense of all-inclusiveness, one of which postulates that these traditional African religions have to do with the observance of rules of conduct in the way the individual conducts his or her daily life, the practice of rituals, and the recognition of the ever-presence of the living dead (ancestors) to allow the person to coexist in harmony with other members of the community and nature. (Rudolph, 563)

There are two key aspects of African religions that this definition does not mention. For one, a lot of African tribes were polytheistic. For instance, West Africans believed that there was a high god, who created the world and everything in it, and a plethora of lesser gods, to which they prayed for rain, crops, fertility etc (Perez). The other aspect that is omitted here is that these religious traditions were almost exclusively non-literary ones (NPR). This proved to be an additional obstacle for the later American missionaries and pastors who, apart from narrowing the scope of their belief systems by focusing solely on Jesus Christ, had to introduce the slaves to the very concept of a holy book.

Even mentioning missionaries, though, we are jumping ahead for in the early stages slave owners were actively preventing their slaves from becoming Christians. Behind these actions was the fear that since English law forbade the enslavement of Christians, they would have to emancipate their slaves once they got themselves baptized; fear that Christianity would spoil their slaves, make them think too highly of themselves, make them lazy and impudent, perhaps even rebellious; and finally also their fear that Christianizing their slaves would make them seem less foreign and thus more human in their eyes (Raboteau, 75-6).

Their first fear was swiftly allayed, though, by “colonial legislation declaring that baptism did not alter slave status” (Raboteau, 75); their second fear was dispelled by several key passages taken from the Bible which, as it was explained to them by missionaries and ministers, would be repeated to the slaves over and over again, making the message of obedience internalized in them – to be more precise, some of the passages in question are Ephesians 6:5 (“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, in fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Holy Bible, 1076)) and Colossians 3:22-23 (“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as menpleasers; but with singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Holy Bible, 1083)); and their third and final fear itself proved to be rather insignificant as racism had such dehumanizing effects in regard to slaves that even their potential Christianity did not change anything about their status.

Once the plantation owners realized that there was no problem – economic or other – in allowing their slaves to be converted to Christianity, they started to let missionaries do their work. These men of faith for the most part came from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the Foreign Parts, an institution founded in 1701 by the Church of England whose aim was precisely to convert African slaves in America to Christianity (Raboteau, 86). The problem was that not every slave was open to the idea of being converted to this monotheistic religion. Some slaves, particularly those from South Carolina and Georgia where they were working on isolated rice plantations, did not accept Jesus as their Savior for the simple reason that they did not get enough exposure to the whites and their religion; others outright rejected it because of “the Fondness they have for their own Heathenish Rites” (Raboteau, 78), as a missionary quoted in Albert J. Raboteau’s essay entitled “African Americans, Exodus, and the American Israel” claims.

Truth of the matter is, though, that a significant number of slaves eventually accepted Christianity. The two major waves of conversions which took place roughly during the 1740’s and at the turn of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century are nowadays termed the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening (Perez).  The slaves converted in spite of the fact that at least some of them must have been aware of the devious ways in which the religion was used against them. Raboteau partially illuminates this point when he writes that they often did so because they were hoping that being baptized would elevate their social status and eventually ensure freedom for their children, if not for themselves (Raboteau, 77). Some of them may have also been enticed by the message that all Christians are equal in the eyes of God, which was a favorite with the missionaries, and which would have the slaves believe that perhaps there was an end to their endless toil and suffering (Yahoo Voices).

Nevertheless, in spite of the slaves’ hopes and the ministers’ dutiful work, there was another major factor at work here, another reason for such widespread wave of slave conversion that made it possible for the men of God to convince the slaves to join their faith. As Amanda M. Rudolph indicates, “the slaves embraced part of Christianity because of the telling of the exodus story” (Rudolph, 564). To be more precise, they embraced it because of the reinterpretation thereof.

The exodus story was, of course, not a novel concept in the American cultural history as the Pilgrim Fathers and other early colonists famously thought of their journey across the Atlantic Ocean in terms of the biblical story of the people of Israel fleeing from the Egyptian pharaoh across the desert to find their new homeland. Albert J. Raboteau brilliantly explains the slaves’ later understanding of this paradigm:

For black Christians, the imagery was reversed: the Middle Passage had brought them to Egypt land, where they suffered bondage under a new Pharaoh. White Christians saw themselves as the New Israel; slaves identified themselves as the old. (Raboteau, 871)

In a way, Christianity became the light at the end of a very dark tunnel for the slaves as it allowed them to believe in an omnipotent God who was watching over them, seeing the suffering their masters brought down on them and judging them for it, and who would sooner or later help them. As Susel Perez writes, “slaves believed that if God had sided against religious and political powers in the Bible, then he could also help them become free. They believed that Jesus was powerful enough to do anything” (Perez).

Varying interpretations of the exodus story was not the only difference between white and slave Christianity. While it must be said that “Christianity became part of accepting America as [their new] home” (Blight), the slaves made this religion decidedly their own. As Albert J. Raboteau puts it: “The slaves did not simply become Christians; they fashioned Christianity to fit their own peculiar experience of enslavement in America” (Raboteau, 81). For instance, they appropriated many a classic biblical tale and, in an effort to return to the roots of their original African religions, in other words gave them a quasi-traditional African spiritual spin. To exemplify this appropriation, let us consider the very act of baptism, which Jesus undergoes in one of the scenes in the New Testament and which every slave was obliged to undergo as well in the process of conversion. In one of his interviews Allen Dwight Callahan, author of The Talking Book explains:

Where many of these slaves came from in West Africa […] there were many traditions associated with water, […] a stream. People would go to the stream and meet or encounter or be possessed, as we might say, by the spirits in the water. These African slaves then became Christians and were baptized. That baptism tended to look an awful lot like the ancestral worship of the water spirits in West Africa. There are still some traditional African-American churches to this day that insist you’ve got to be baptized in a stream. (Yahoo Voices)

This sort of appropriation was not the only way in which the two Christianities differed from one another. In an effort to make this religion appear more familiar to the slaves and thus more appealing and understandable, the sermons were made to include certain tropes that were to be reminiscent of the slaves’ ancient religious and tribal practices. Hence, these services often involved enthusiastic singing, clapping, dancing, and in some cases also spirit possession („Converting African-American Slaves to Christianity“). The same kind of heightened emotionalism, of this extraordinary outward expression of religious feeling, is discussed by Raboteau as well as he remarks that, “weeping, shouting, fainting and moving in ecstatic trance became a familiar, if sensationalized, feature of the sacramental and camp meeting seasons” (Raboteau, 77).

Speaking of differences between the slaves’ and the whites’ Christianities, the most important one – the one which extended to the fundamental interpretation of the Holy Book, the one which singlehandedly caused a major gap between the two – is yet to be stated: the basic contradiction in the approach towards slavery. As Raboteau writes, “the slaves knew that no matter how sincerely religious the slaveowners might be, their Christianity was compatible with slavery, and the slaves’ was not” (Raboteau, 81). This division line ran deep. It is astonishing that the same book provided enough material for one group of people to interpret it as condoning slavery, and for another to find evidence in it that condemned the first group for their stance on the issue. Yet this is what happened. Maria Stewart, a free black reform activist from Boston wrote in 1831 the following:

America, America, foul and indelible is thy stain! Dark and dismal is the cloud that hangs over thee, for thy cruel wrongs and injuries to the fallen sons of Africa. The blood of her murdered ones cries to heaven for vengeance against Thee… You may kill, tyrannize, and oppress as much as you choose, until cry shall come up before the throne of God. (Raboteau, 83)

Allusions to this unbridgeable gap are to be found in other works of many a writer and intellectual of the time. Frederick Douglass, for example, on whom this essay shall focus in a moment, was one of these people. To be fair, though, in spite of the fact that white Christianity indeed condoned slavery, there were still those who thought it morally wrong. To give at least one example, Thomas Jefferson, ruminating on the ways in which slavery corrupted the masters and exploited the slaves wrote, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” (Hitchens, 177).

Let us return to Frederick Douglass, though. In the appendix to his autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave he directly tackles this dual nature of Christianity in the country at the time, distinguishing between the “Christianity of this land” and “the Christianity of Christ”. To be absolutely clear, he argues the following point:

To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. (Douglass, 115-6)

From these lines alone it would seem that for Douglass the problem does not truly lie in the religion as such, but in the way one group of believers chose to interpret the Word of God in order to ensure their supremacy. The truth of the matter is, though, that in the book he does find that particular, slave-holding variety of Christianity, the one he calls “the Christianity of this land”, responsible for large scale human corruption. As Christopher Hitchens argues in his book God Is Not Great, Douglass noted that, “the most devout Christians made the most savage slaveholders” (Hitchens, 178). It is quite possible that the superlatives in that sentence are merely used for effect, but the very relationship between white Christianity and attitude towards slaves, to which the quote alludes, is – based on a plethora of other evidence – solid.

To find this kind of evidence in Douglass’ own work is not an exceedingly difficult task as there are countless quotes in which he expresses this view. We may, for instance mention the case of Thomas Auld, one of Douglass’ maters. He is from the very beginning described in the book as a man with a temper, so when he starts going to a Methodist church Douglass perceives this as a good sign. To his horror, Christianity only supports Auld’s cruelty and makes him an even harsher man. Additionally, we may mention Douglass’ observation that, “the man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus” (Douglass, 116), or his belief that, “they are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen” (Douglass, 118).

However heinous Douglass may have found the white variety of Christianity, though, it must be pointed out that he was a believer himself, a believer in – essentially – the same God. A question may arise, then, how Douglass reconciled this “pure, peaceable, and impartial” God with the idea of Him letting the slaveowners exploit and brutalize the slaves in such horrific manner. Apart from blaming this on human greed and inhumanity, on people’s desire to get rich and powerful – even if that meant subjugating whole nations and twisting the words of their God to fit their propaganda – he may have found this reconciliation in the generally accepted standpoint. William B. Gravely explains:

Although there were a few blacks who thought that God’s designs might encompass slavery as a means to Christianize, civilize, and restore modern Africa to her original greatness, the more basic tendency in the oratory left the final explanation for the oppression of blacks unresolved in the mystery of divine providence (Gravely, 130).

It was divine providence too that Phillis Wheatley must have had in mind when writing “On Being Brought from Africa to America”. The first three lines of the aforementioned poem go as following:

‚Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too. (Wheatley)

Most commentators point out that in this poem Wheatley, oddly enough, appears to be thankful to the institution of slavery. This sense of gratefulness is much more understandable once we realize that slavery, in her eyes, gave her a chance to get educated as well as acquainted with Christianity, thus providing her with a chance at salvation (Khomina). In fact, there is only one poem in which Wheatley expresses herself negatively about slavery, a piece entitled “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”. To state her own words, she opens this poem as following: “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat” (Wheatley).

In the context of this essay, we may add that Wheatley’s poetry represents a bridge between the two varieties of Christianity that Frederick Douglass specified in his own book, for it was precisely Christianity that Wheatley saw as a link between the whites and the blacks. On a much more personal level, Christianity also provided her with common ground between herself and her mostly white audiences (Wheatley). As she writes in the last two lines of “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d and join th’angelic train. (Wheatley)

To come back to the opening two paragraphs of this paper, it is hopefully clear that the issue of the relationship between Christianity and slaves is not as straightforward as one might expect, and the reasons why slaves converted to Christianity and under what circumstances they did so are as multifaceted as they are mind-boggling. In what light the religion comes out of this is up to every individual to decide. On the one hand, it allowed one class of people to subjugate another and provided justification for their cruel treatment of them; on the other, it gave the subjugated masses hope, however ephemeral, that there would be an end to their suffering. It is apparent that religion was used by the advantaged merely as a tool to get to power. Two important things must not be overlooked, though. First, in spite of this religion being used against them, it managed to unify this exceptionally diverse group of people in times of great adversity; and second, we may also repeat that, over time, accepting Christianity indeed became to slaves a part of accepting America as their new home.

Bibliography

Blight, David. „Religion and Slavery.“ Africans in America 6 August 2013. 6 August 2013 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2narr2.html>

„Converting African-American Slaves to Christianity.“ Yahoo Voices 6 August 2013. 6 August 2013 <http://voices.yahoo.com/converting-african-american-slaves-christianity-1433447.html?cat=37>

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan, 2007.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2009.

Hackett, David G., ed. Religion and American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Holy Bible. China: Collins, 1991.

Khomina, Anna. „Phillis Wheatley: A Poet Enslaved and Enlightened.“ History Scene 6 August 2013. 6 August 2013 <http://www.ushistoryscene.com/uncategorized/ philliswheatley/>

Rudolph, Amanda M. „Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in ‚Joe Turner’s Come and Gone‘ and ‚The Piano Lesson‘.“ Journal of Black Studies 33.5 (2003): 562-575.

Meager, David. „Why Did Christians Justify African Slavery?“ CrossWay 104 (2007). Accessible at: <http://www.churchsociety.org/crossway/documents/Cway_104_AfricanSlavery.pdf>

Perez, Susel. „Slave Religion.“ Antebellum Slavery: Plantation Slave Life 3 October 2011. 6 August 2013 <http://cghs.dadeschools.net/slavery/antebellum_slavery/plantation_ slave_life/diet_religion/religion.htm>

Smith, Godwin. „Christianity’s Millstone.“ The North American Review 161.469 (1895):703-719.

Wheatley, Phillis. Seminar Selection of Poems.

„Why Did African Slaves Adopt the Bible?“ NPR 6 August 2013. 6 August 2013 <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6997059>

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