“The Influences of Slavery on Colonial Christianity”
Proposal for the American Historical Association Annual Meeting
January 6-9, 2011
Over the past several decades scholars have struggled with the problem of religious exchange between Europeans and enslaved Africans in the New World. The most recent scholarship has examined the diverse ways in which African-Americans appropriated Christianity, for example, by exploring the continuities of African religious ritual in black churches or the complex motivations of slaves in adopting evangelical religion. Historians have paid far less attention to the influences of African-Americans on the religious ideas of European colonists.
This panel will challenge us to consider the influence of slaves on the Christian practices of their masters. Katharine Gerbner (Harvard University) contrasts Moravian evangelical work in Pennsylvania with projects in Jamaica, where missionaries attempted to carry their success among American Indians into the slave societies of the Caribbean. She argues that slave “backsliding” and resistance to baptism forced the international Moravian community to rethink what it meant to be Christian. Maria Alessandra Bollettino (University of Texas at Austin) explores the religious discourses of British planters in the Atlantic World following the slave rebellions of the Seven Years’ War. She argues that white planters feared that African religions would inspire future slave uprisings. Observing the supposed loyalty of French Catholic slaves, British colonists reformed their own belief systems and pushed for the conversion of African and creoles to Protestantism. Finally, Justin Pope (George Washington University) considers the varied ways in which slave rebellions and conspiracies contributed to the anxieties of participants in the First Great Awakening. He finds that for some white colonists, the multiple slave insurrections of the 1730s and 1740s were a sign of “God’s Just Judgment,” evidence of the desperate need for evangelical revival within the British colonies. In this way, slave resistance deeply influenced the development of evangelical religion in North America. Together, these papers invite us to consider the numerous ways in which the actions of slaves transformed the sacred beliefs of their white masters. Historians interested in the complicated relationship between master and slave will find a great deal to consider in this new approach to African-American studies, as will scholars concerned with the development of New World Christianity.
Christine Heyrman will chair the panel. Her innovative monograph Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt examined the early development of evangelical Christianity in the American south and won the Bancroft Prize in 1998. Jon Sensbach will offer commentary. He is a leader in the field of early black Christianity whose two monographs, A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 and Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World are both highly regarded studies of the religious exchange between Europeans and people of African descent in the Americas.