Sacred Belief, Secular Action: The Politics of African American Religions in the Early Anglo-Atlantic World

AHA Session 80
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 101 (Hynes Convention Center)
Gregory T. Knouff, Keene State College
Jason R. Young, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

In recent years there has been a veritable explosion of works on religion in the black communities of the Anglo-Atlantic world.  However, much scholarship has tended to separate the religious beliefs and practices of slaves and free blacks from their social and political lives.  Two important areas of inquiry, for example, have not received sufficient attention from historians.  First, we still know little about the theological premises behind the reform efforts of black abolitionists and the links between black Christian communities and abolitionism.  And second, relatively little work has been done to explore the complicated relationship between religious practice and the social relations of power or internal politics of slave communities.  This panel attempts to address these gaps in the field by grounding the study of specific religious cultures of the black Atlantic world in the concrete social and political practices of three different populations. 

The papers share a commitment to emphasizing the close connections between religious/spiritual beliefs and social and political actions.  Chris Cameron explores the relationship between Puritanism and black political discourse in Massachusetts during the colonial and revolutionary periods, locating the foundation of black abolitionist activism in British (Puritan) culture and the transatlantic flow of religious ideas.  Dianne Cappiello takes a broader approach, examining African American reformers in both New England and the Mid-Atlantic states and exploring how evangelical pietism and belief in Christ’s Golden Rule informed the development of black abolitionism after the American Revolution.  Both Cameron and Cappiello argue that shared religious beliefs and rhetoric helped establish specific institutions within the disparate black communities of the North that enabled blacks to successfully struggle against slavery.  Randy Browne’s paper shifts the focus away from North America to the British colony of Berbice and examines the role that the understudied Afro-Caribbean spiritual system of healing, harming, and divination known as Obeah played in the internal politics and power dynamics of slave communities.  Browne argues that, unlike the unifying or empowering role of black Christianity in the American North as detailed by Cameron and Cappiello, Obeah was more likely to produce violent conflicts between slaves than it was to unite them in common cause against their oppressors.

Taken together these papers reveal the complex and sometimes contradictory ways that religion functioned in the lives of both slaves and free blacks in different parts of the Anglo-Atlantic world.  They also highlight the need to integrate cultural, social, and political history order to better understand both the connections between the sacred and the secular in the history of slavery and abolition as well as African-Americans’ complicated relationships with whites and with one another.

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