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"On my arrival in the United States," the famous French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early nineteenth century, "the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention."
Although it is common to think of the United States as a Christian country, its history is one of new and unconventional religions. Thousands of years before Columbus stumbled upon this "New World," people from northern Asia came across the Bering Strait to present-day Alaska to live in north and South America and the islands of the Caribbean. They settled everywhere from the windswept tundra of the arctic to the steaming jungles around the equator to the tip of the southern continent. They developed diverse religious beliefs and practices. Later, people from Europe, Africa, and Asia added their own beliefs and practices to form the diversity of traditions we find today. Even in the twenty-first century, newly arrived peoples are adding their own beliefs and practices to the mix.
In the process of immigration and integration Americans have developed a unique religious culture by drawing on inputs from all of the people who have populated this country. Knowing something of the culture of those who came here helps us to understand the religious culture that has been developed here. For all people, their originating cultures form the warp threads upon which the weft threads of their experiences in the Americas are woven to create the whole cloth of their new lives. When we discuss our culture we tend to focus on particular originating cultures. However, it is also important to remember that for all immigrant groups what were local "ethnic" designations in their original areas became combined in the Americas. People who saw themselves as members of a particular group at home soon found that they were included in wider designations. Thus people who considered themselves Neapolitans and Sicilians became simply "Italians." Diverse peoples from throughout China became simply "Chinese." People who were members of unique groups from the various city-states of Central West and West Africa became Kongolese, Fon, Yoruba, and others before they became simply "African Americans" (Brandon, 55). It is important to remember that just as many of the European nations we are familiar with today didn't exist during the colonial period, so also West and Central Africa were a mosaic of ethnic groups, city-states, and, in some areas, kingdoms. And just as we often conflate the different groups within European areas with their contemporary political organizations (countries) we often conflate African groups together, sometimes even treating Africa as though it were a single large political entity. As we shall see, sometimes we need to break open those larger designations in order to understand what a group brought with it across the oceans. This is especially true when we begin speaking about peoples from the many areas of Africa.
Each immigrant group has had a different experience of assimilation into American society. Each group, regardless of origin, initially attempted to re-create as much as possible its familiar patterns of life within the constraints of the new and generally hostile environment. None have been entirely successful, so out of this process new cultural realities have developed. This process is as true for Europeans as for Africans. Not only did members of different societies within similar ethnic and racial groups have to learn to deal with each other (Englishmen from different parts of the island with each other and the Irish, for example), they also had to learn to adjust across ethnic, racial, and religious lines in a process of creative cultural development. In addition, those arriving later had to adjust to the institutional structures developed by what T. H. Breen calls "charter" communities of those who had arrived earlier (Breen, 215–16). As a consequence of its immigrant population, America has become a mosaic of religious traditions, including Christian, African, Jewish, Asian, Islamic, and new religious traditions. When you look closely you can see all that differentiates these groups from each other. However, when you step back you can see their similarities. Those similarities are the common ways Americans have developed of looking at and being in the world. Those shared ways of looking and being form the set of behaviors I am calling American religious sensibilities.
In general, six such sensibilities typify American religion. Individualism is the tendency to construct one's own religious beliefs and a preference for a personal experience of the holy. Fideism is the belief in some sort of "god," whether or not one participates in any specific religious community. Polymorphism is the tendency to engage in several unrelated religious traditions at the same time or one after the other. Experimentalism is the willingness, even eagerness, to welcome new religious beliefs and practices. Tolerance is the willingness to accept that others are following a different spiritual path and a willingness to work with others for common causes, especially social causes. And, finally, pragmatism is the expectation that religion will provide practical benefits in one's daily life and the willingness to test religious beliefs and practices for one's self. While individually these sensibilities are not uniquely American, together they form an American way of being religious. New religious traditions that are brought to these shores by immigrants from around the world have generally shaped themselves to conform to this general sensibility so that within a couple of generations practitioners have formed an American variant of the religious traditions their grandparents brought here.
Many of the earliest European immigrants to the Americas were religious dissenters, people who left (or were run out of) their homelands because of their unconventional religious beliefs. Many of these early groups, once they had established themselves, tried to make theirs the only tradition allowed, banishing and even killing those who disagreed with them. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were also periods of religious excitement in the American colonies. Several new groups of dissenters made their home here, including the Quakers, the Shakers, the Mennonites, and the Amana society, as well as many lesser-known groups. American religious sensibilities have been deeply influenced by the utopianism and "enthusiasm" of these communities.
Because of its history of colonization by Europeans, generally we think that the culture of the United States is primarily based on that of Europe. However, in terms of religiosity in the twenty-first century, Americans are more like the highly religious countries of the Middle East and what is known as the global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) than any of the highly industrial countries of Europe. Since Columbus stumbled upon this so-called new World over five hundred years ago, Americans have become increasingly more religious than their European cousins. According to the World Values Survey conducted between 2005 and 2007, almost 40 percent of Americans report they attended religious services weekly, placing Americans seventh behind Jordan, Indonesia, Poland, Egypt, Brazil, and India and ahead of Iran, Italy, Canada, Britain, China, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and Sweden. almost half of the Americans surveyed (47 percent) said that religion was "very important" in their lives while fewer than one in five of the Swiss (17 percent), Dutch (12 percent), and Swedes (9 percent) said the same.
Thus an important question is why religiosity in the United States developed so differently from religiosity in the nations of Western Europe. Scholars offer many explanations for these differences. But they often ignore the influence of the many Africans brought to America between its founding and the Civil War that eventuated in the end of slavery in the United States. As we explore the ways Africans may have influenced American religious sensibilities we need to be careful not to simply look at those traditions and ideas that are distinctively African but to also look at the ways Americans have blended these cultural elements into their developing religious sensibilities and watch for what is distinctively non-European (Thornton 1992, 230; Gomez, 12).
Commonly when we think about the interactions between Europeans and Africans in early America we imagine that Africans were only the recipients of European culture. We think that they provided little to the great melting pot of ideas that became American culture. That distorts the picture. actually West and West Central African religious sensibilities have formed the root of many current American religious beliefs and practices. Like the hidden roots of a large tree, these African religious sensibilities support and nourish the more visible portions of American religious sensibilities. As Jason young argues, the slave trade brought not only men, women, and even some children to north America, but also African "cultural meanings, signs, and symbols" (young, 3). Over its long history, the culture of what became the United States has incorporated many of these African ways of viewing and being in the world into its own worldview as it evolved from a set of European colonies to its own independent culture. In fact, it can be argued that it was these African contributions that made American culture distinct from its European antecedent (Gomez, 12). Although we can find African influences throughout American culture, in this book we will focus on American religious sensibilities and the distinctive form of religiosity found in the United States today. We will look at the ways in which it is radically different from that practiced in Europe today or even from that practiced by the earliest Europeans to reach these shores. We will explore the new religious song created in the United States, one that was made stronger and more enduring by the addition of these African contributions. My hope is to extend the analysis of art and philosophy begun by Robert Ferris Thompson in his Flash of the Spirit not only to religion but beyond African-identified cultures to American culture in general.
Peoples from Africa, most of whom came to the Americas as slaves, brought their own religious sensibilities with them. Those sensibilities were very different from the Christianity practiced in Europe at the time. Even the people from the kingdoms of Kongo and Angola, who had converted to Christianity in the late 1400s—before Columbus's voyage—brought their own unique set of Christian beliefs and practices with them as they made the journey from their homelands to the Americas. As we explore both African religious ideas and practices and the development of a distinctive American form of religiosity, we will see that West and West Central African religious sensibilities have heavily influenced what began as a European cultural tradition. Although we might expect to find these influences among African Americans, the descendants of enslaved peoples from Africa, we will also see the ways they were influential throughout American society. As African-heritage peoples converted to Christianity, for example, they also converted Christianity to a form more compatible with their own religious sensibilities. They were then able to share those religious sensibilities with their white counterparts. Consequently, American religiosity of the twenty-first century is much more similar to that of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century West and West Central Africa than that of European Christians of the same time frame or that found among European Christians today.
The West and West Central African societies that contributed the bulk of the enslaved who came to the United States have been described as "open, flexible, and incorporative rather than closed rigid, and conservative" (Drewal 1988, 132). Their flexibility served these African peoples well as they attempted to make a home in an extremely hostile environment. But cultural exchange was not a one-way street—Africans made their own contributions to American religious culture. Africans and Europeans were not alone on this continent, but for much of the early history of the American colonies the primary interactions were between Europeans and Africans—Native Americans generally did not live in the towns or work on the farms of European colonists and there were few if any Asians making their home here at the time. Thus we can say along with John Thornton, one of the premier scholars of the history of Africa and the African diaspora, that the culture that developed in these colonies was a Euro-African one. Many of the differences between it and its European and African counterparts were due to the interactions between the peoples from these two continents (Thornton 1992, 140).
ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The earliest English colonists had no legal foundation on which to build a slave society, as there was no precedent for slavery in English common law. Colonists had to create for themselves the customary, judicial, and statutory practices and decisions necessary to create such a society in the New World. In the beginning English colonists were indifferent, even hostile, to the idea of slave conversions. Colonists believed that the biblical injunction against Christians holding fellow Christians in bondage would require that when slaves converted they would have to be freed. In addition, many felt that conversion would make the enslaved proud, irascible, uppity, and saucy. In addition, the early Protestant idea of religion required at least a minimal amount of education. One of Martin Luther's primary complaints against the Catholic church of his time was that it kept individuals from reading the Bible for themselves. Believing that education would make slaves less docile and resigned to their position led to a fear of any slave education. This view ruled out the religious education necessary for an honest conversion. Eventually the Anglican General Assembly declared that slave conversions need not lead to freedom. However, colonists continued to be reluctant to provide religious instruction for their slaves. Consequently, very few Africans and their descendants converted to European-style Christianity during the early colonial period. The reluctance of slaveholders to provide religious instruction changed for a short time between 1782 and 1810, when many slaveholders in Virginia, for example, emancipated or at least afforded more humane treatment to the enslaved under the influence of religious admonitions and the high ideas of the American Revolution. However, after about 1830 such high-mindedness was quelled by the new militancy around slavery that developed in the south in the run-up to the Civil War (Gomez, 251–52).
The settlers in the early English colonies were a varied lot. Africans from Igbo, Yoruba, Kongo, Fante, Asante, Ibibio, Fon, and other ethnic groups mingled with Europeans from English, Scotch, Scotch-Irish, Huguenot, and other groups. Many of the non-English Europeans came as indentured servants. in the earliest years of the English colonial project the indentured were preferred over the enslaved. Slaves were much more costly to acquire but neither the enslaved nor the indentured tended to outlive the normal term of indenture. Later, when economic conditions in Europe improved, many of the European poor were able to stay home and no longer had to indenture themselves to the colonies. Around the same time living conditions in the Americas also improved such that colonists from all social groups tended to outlive the normal term of indenture. At the point when lifetime servitude became economically viable, slaves began to provide the primary workforce, particularly in the middle and southern colonies.
Excerpted from THEN WE'LL SING A NEW SONG by MARY ANN CLARK Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 6, 2012