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In detailing the long process by which African-Americans came to embrace Protestant Christianity and shape their own unique form of it, Frey and Wood emphasize African agency throughout. Their case is better supported by evidence in the 19th century than in the 18th, during which time Christianity had little effect on slave society through the efforts of Anglicans, not so much because Africans rejected the gospel as because whites withheld Christian brotherhood from blacks. As blacks in the American South and in the British Caribbean struggled to develop individual and collective identities from the persistent remnants of African culture and their new conditions of life, the series of efforts by evangelicals to convert slaves eventually gave rise to a distinct African-American form of Christian theology, worship style, and religious community.
The importance of religion among African Americans, as among all people, rests on fulfilling the human need for an understanding of one’s place in both the spiritual and temporal world. While it is difficult, as Frey and Wood concede, to know with certainty what lay behind Africans’ confessions of conversion to Christianity, we can understand how religion played a critical role in defining social relationships among slaves and between blacks and whites. Frey and Wood explain the appeal and success of Evangelicalism among slaves when they assert, “Deprived of their traditional supernatural means of dealing with recurrent life crises, [African-Americans] discovered in evangelical conversion requirements an opportunity to reassert personal authority based on their ability to communicate directly with God and to bring others to recognize the need for personal repentance and acceptance of Jesus” (109). One early example that supports this link between religious involvement and a sense of personal identity, if not between conversion and increasing social prestige or power, is found in a slave woman who tells Moravian missionaries that her people have come from across the sea and lost their father and mother, and therefore want to know the Moravians’ Father above.
The displacement of Africans, for whom locality was critical to interactions with the spiritual world, did not deprive them of their religious cosmologies, but required them to learn the spiritual landscape of their new home and reshape their practices accordingly. Come Shouting to Zion details the many religious rituals that Africans preserved in the new world, especially those surrounding fundamental life events such as the birth and naming of children, marriage, burial ceremonies, and ritual dancing and singing to communicate with ancestors and deities.
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Frey and Wood may overemphasize African American agency in the early encounters between slaves and Christianity, but it is without question that African, and particularly American-born slaves, sought a spirituality that would explain or abate their temporal condition. Some looked to a theology of liberation and equality among Christians, which they could glean from 18th century evangelicals, mostly Anglicans, who tried to downplay these aspects of biblical teaching. The early period of evangelism was restricted by the fears of slave-owners that slaves who converted to Christianity would feel empowered to revolt against their bondage. Several conspired rebellions and many smaller incidents of black assertion were linked to blacks who had heard enough preaching to identify themselves with the enslaved nation of Israel. This fed the fears of whites, and Anglicans continued to complain that the planters who prohibited them from educating slaves on religious matters were the largest hindrance to saving African American souls. “In order to win the support or at least the tolerance of masters, educators were forced to argue that religious education and subsequent conversion did not entitle Africans to freedom. This encouraged a shift in the justification offered for black slavery from the grounds of religion to those of race” (Hortons 21).
While racism was strengthened and slaves were unable to improve their social status by conforming to European-American values, very few Africans found the Christian message Anglicans shared with them convincing. Anglican churches maintained strict separation of rich and poor, white and black, during services and sacraments. The high-church emphasized that learned men alone were authorized to teach and that blacks would listen without questioning and docilely accept the extension of their temporal subservience to and isolation from whites into the religious sphere. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Christianity failed to take root as a meaningful religion, a spiritual world that Africans wanted to live in. But it is essential to recognize the role of whites in shaping the message that Africans were allowed to hear, and the role specifically of slaveholders in excluding blacks from access to Christianity. That blacks expressed their agency in rejecting this early version of Christianity offered to them is less clear than that whites prevented the vast majority of blacks from having exposure to Christianity that would give them any choice in the matter of adopting Christianity in full or in part.
At the same time Anglicans puzzled over their lack of success in the Southern mainland, Moravians made a significant impact on blacks in the Caribbean by bringing a different vision of a Christian community. Moravians, Methodists, Separate Baptists, and some other missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who sought out African Americans stressed spiritual, if not always worldly, equality. Frey and Wood recount Wesley’s conversion of a black woman by assuring her that the Christian afterlife would be free from servility, pain, and unfulfilled desire. Africans identified with and embraced images of a savior who had suffered like they did, and joined these Christian images with African musical modes of expression to create spirituals that reminded: “Jesus been down to de mire/ You must bow low to de mire” (Stuckey, 139). They did not, however, finally accept Christianity as an affirmation of their lowly place in society and a divine exhortation to obedience and docility, as many white slaveholders had hoped they would. Rather, blacks found opportunities at biracial revival meetings to interpret what they heard and to share their divinely inspired interpretations of Christian faith, even from pulpits. During this critical period when a significant portion of blacks in the Caribbean and American South were first offered Christianity, they clearly adopted it and transformed it into something that was their own.
After the period of revivals that first sparked wide-scale conversions in the South, many African-Americans focused on building a community in which they could support one another and worship in their own African-influenced style. Local black congregations extended their religious community, most notably with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in1816. As an institution spanning several states, the A.M.E. Church allowed blacks to take part at different levels in a collective, hierarchical social system as had never before been possible under American slavery. Blacks continued to participate as minorities in biracial congregations (with segregated seating) in most parts of the south and the expanding frontier, but found fewer opportunities to become ordained preachers or lay leaders in mixed parishes, where they were likely only to be allowed to “exercise [the] gift, provided [they] teach sound Doctrin [sic]” under the approval of whites (Frey & Wood, 166). In the creation of their own religious communities in which no whites were present to criticize “overemotional” black forms of religious expression and persisting “heathenish” practices, such as polygamy and dancing, African-Americans actively designed a spirituality that fulfilled their needs in the slave societies of the Americas. African-American religiosity was then, as it is now, “centered on extended and expanding families and households, the importance of self-determination and personal dignity, mutual aid, and shared responsibility for the progress of the race” (Hortons, xi). In this last phase of “conversion” that Frey and Wood address, African agency is most clearly supported by evidence of Africans defining their faith, modes of worship, and religious ties as part of a larger emerging African-American culture.
Change was a relentless fact of life for Africans in 18th and 19th century America, most tragically present in enslavement and removal from Africa and domestic trade within the Americas that broke up families as masters bought and sold property. Outside the personal struggles of individual slaves, the changes in ideology and society wrought by the era of the American Revolution and the Great Awakenings exposed Africans and their descendents to evolving external ideas about their place within American society, their rights as humans, and their needs as spiritual beings. Religion was one of the few arenas in which African-Americans could control the changes in their individual lives and their culture as a whole. Evolving religious traditions provided individuals over generations with a source of spiritual renewal and a supportive community and prepared an institution that could serve future generations. The long and turbulent transition from African forms of religiosity to African-influenced forms of Protestantism shows that black Americans created, out of all religious ideas and structures available to them, a faith that was their own.