"God's Just Judgment": The Influence of Slave Resistance on the Religious Discourses of the First Great Awakening

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:40 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Justin James Pope , George Washington University, Washington, DC
During the tumultuous 1730s and 1740s, enslaved Africans and creoles challenged the white planter class with repeated insurrections in the provinces of the British Atlantic.  Colonial authorities responded to rumors of slave uprisings, both real and imagined, with brutal interrogations and executions of suspected black rebels.  In this anxious environment, thousands of British provincials joined an emotional search for spiritual salvation known today as the First Great Awakening.  Both evangelical religious leaders and white planters drew important connections between spiritual revival and the threat of slave insurrection in this period.  The most prominent of these religious discourses was well publicized in a series of pamphlets that has not escaped the attention of historians.  Provincial authorities feared that evangelical religious leaders encouraged slave rebellion and accused “New Lights” like George Whitefield of upsetting the racial hierarchy by insisting on the baptism of slaves.  However, in the 1730s and 1740s, evangelical leaders and provincial authorities developed another religious discourse that has received far less attention in the scholarship.  Some colonists viewed slave rebellion as a sign of God’s wrath, a clear indicator that distracted Protestants had fallen out of favor with Christ.  Ministers in Boston, Quakers in Philadelphia, and dissenting evangelicals in South Carolina all expressed fear that “God’s Just Judgments” were upon them.  In this way, slave rebellion contributed to Protestant fears that they were not saved, that God was not on their side.  Relying on sermons, private correspondence, and printed materials, this essay argues that slave rebellion contributed more to the birth of evangelical religion in British America than scholars have previously understood.
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