Could slaves become Christian? If so, did their conversion lead to freedom? If not, then how could perpetual enslavement be justified? In Christian Slavery, Katharine Gerbner contends that religion was fundamental to the development of both slavery and race in the Protestant Atlantic world. Slave owners in the Caribbean and elsewhere established governments and legal codes based on an ideology of "Protestant Supremacy," which excluded the majority of enslaved men and women from Christian communities. For slaveholders, Christianity was a sign of freedom, and most believed that slaves should not be eligible for conversion.
When Protestant missionaries arrived in the plantation colonies intending to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity in the 1670s, they were appalled that most slave owners rejected the prospect of slave conversion. Slaveholders regularly attacked missionaries, both verbally and physically, and blamed the evangelizing newcomers for slave rebellions. In response, Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries articulated a vision of "Christian Slavery," arguing that Christianity would make slaves hardworking and loyal.
Over time, missionaries increasingly used the language of race to support their arguments for slave conversion. Enslaved Christians, meanwhile, developed an alternate vision of Protestantism that linked religious conversion to literacy and freedom. Christian Slavery shows how the contentions between slave owners, enslaved people, and missionaries transformed the practice of Protestantism and the language of race in the early modern Atlantic world.
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About the Author
Katharine Gerbner teaches history at the University of Minnesota.
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On November 16, 1651, a man named Lazarus entered the Anglican church in Christ Church parish, Barbados. As he walked toward the church doors, he passed the "strong pair of Stocks" where public punishments took place. The church itself was a wooden structure and one of the oldest buildings on the island. Constructed in 1629 just two years after the first English settlers arrived, the church would meet a tempestuous end: it was destroyed by flood in 1669 and washed out to sea. The second and third iterations of the church were destroyed by hurricane. But before the first church structure met its watery demise, it served as the site of Lazarus's baptism. Lazarus, who was described only as "a negro" in the church register, was the first Afro-Caribbean to receive baptism in the Anglican Church on Barbados. Neither his age nor place of birth were given, nor any indication of godparents or kin.
Lazarus's baptism challenged the emerging culture of slavery in the Protestant Caribbean. The Anglican Church in Barbados was exclusive, the domain of slave owners and government officials. While most historians have downplayed the relevance of institutionalized Christianity in the seventeenth-century Protestant Caribbean, viewing the sugar colonies as islands of depravity, the Anglican Church was central to the maintenance of planter power in Barbados and elsewhere. The Anglo-Barbadian elite believed that their status as Protestants was inseparable from their identity as free Englishmen. Like their counterparts in England, they purchased pews, memorialized themselves within church walls, and used the church as a place for both punishment and politics. Aside from the stocks that sat outside its doors, the church was the site of island elections and served as a community bulletin board where white inhabitants could post news about stolen goods or runaway slaves.
Unlike the parish churches in England, however, the Anglican Church in Barbados was restricted. It separated masters from their enslaved "heathen" laborers and marked Anglo-Barbadians as both English and free. The association between Protestantism and freedom was so strong that most slave owners came to dismiss the idea that their slaves were eligible for conversion. In 1661, when the British Parliament instructed Lord Willoughby, the reinstated governor of Barbados, to "[win] such as are purchased . . . as slaves to the Christian faith and [make] them capable of being baptized thereinto," the Assembly and Council refused to pass Willoughby's 1663 bill "recommending the christening of Negro children, and the instruction of all adult Negroes, to the several ministers of this place." By 1680, the Barbadian planters' stance against slave conversion had become even more pronounced. When William Blathwayt, on behalf of the Lords of Trade and Plantations in London, wrote to the merchants of Barbados to inquire as to "the unhappy state of the negroes and other slaves in Barbadoes by their not being admitted to the Christian religion," the self-titled "gentlemen of Barbados" explained that "the conversion of their slaves to Christianity would not only destroy their property but endanger the island, inasmuch as converted negroes grow more perverse and intractable than others."
Anticonversion sentiment was one of the defining features of Protestant slave societies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While enslaved Africans in Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial societies were regularly introduced to Catholicism and baptized, whether willingly or not, Protestant slave owners in the English, Dutch, and Danish colonies tended to view conversion as inconsistent or incompatible with slavery. Their anticonversion sentiment was indicative of the changing meaning of Protestantism in the American colonies: over the course of the seventeenth century, Protestant planters claimed Christian identity for themselves, creating an exclusive ideal of religion based on ethnicity—a construct that I call "Protestant Supremacy."
Protestant Supremacy was the predecessor of White Supremacy, an ideology that emerged after the codification of racial slavery. I refer to "Protestant" Supremacy, rather than "Anglican" or "Christian" Supremacy, because this ideology was present throughout the Protestant American colonies, from the Danish West Indies to Virginia and beyond. It was most likely to develop in places with an enslaved population that was larger than the free population, such as Barbados, Jamaica, or South Carolina. In these colonies, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran slave owners conceived of their Protestant identities as fundamental to their status as masters. They constructed a caste system based on Christian status, in which "heathenish" slaves were afforded no rights or privileges while Catholics, Jews, and nonconforming Protestants were viewed with suspicion and distrust, but granted more protections.
When Protestant missionaries arrived in the plantation colonies intending to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity in the 1670s, they encountered slave societies that had already developed churches founded on exclusion. Planters regularly attacked missionaries, both verbally and physically, and blamed the evangelizing newcomers for slave rebellions, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Missionaries responded to this hostile environment by articulating and promoting a vision of "Christian Slavery" that reconciled Protestantism with bondage.
"Christian Slavery" was a polysemic concept. At the most basic level, it was an attempt to Christianize and reform slavery. Protestant theologians and missionaries drew on biblical descriptions of slavery as well as the ideal of the godly household to encourage slave owners to assume responsibility for the spiritual lives of their enslaved laborers. They also noted that Christian slavery had a long and well-established history in Europe and the Catholic American colonies. As missionaries faced opposition from slave owners, however, the meaning of "Christian Slavery" shifted. Missionaries increasingly emphasized the beneficial aspects of slave conversion, arguing that Christian slaves would be more docile and harder working than their "heathen" counterparts. They also sought to pass legislation that confirmed the legality of owning enslaved Christians. Over time, they integrated race into their arguments for Christian slavery. Since the ideology of Protestant Supremacy used religion to differentiate between slavery and freedom, missionaries suggested that race, rather than religion, was the defining feature of bondage.
Protestant missions to enslaved people have traditionally been examined within the context of antislavery thought, and have often been evaluated on humanitarian terms. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, it is more accurate to understand the conflict between missionaries and slave owners as a clash between Protestant Supremacy, which excluded enslaved people from Christianity, and Christian Slavery, which sought to include slaves within the Protestant community. In this period before the abolitionist and proslavery movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is possible to see the early Protestant debates about Christianity and slavery in a new light. In contrast to historians who have studied the origins of antislavery, I emphasize the ways that Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries fought hard to accommodate slavery to their Christian principles and argue that their efforts bore fruit in legislation affirming that Protestant status was compatible with perpetual bondage. As a result, their advocacy should be understood within the long history of proslavery thought as well as an antecedent of antislavery and abolition.
The tendency to read abolition into the early Protestant missions is especially pronounced in the Quaker historiography. Very little has been written on Quaker slaveholding practices in their own right, rather than as a prelude for abolition. Quaker founder George Fox's feelings on slavery, for example, are usually considered within the context of antislavery. A transatlantic, interdenominational understanding of seventeenth-century Quaker ideas about slavery reveals something different. With a large community of slave-owning Friends in Barbados, Quakers were among the first Protestants to think seriously about how slaveholding would affect Christian practice. Their ideas, publications, and pro-conversion stance affected not only the Society of Friends, but also members of other Protestant denominations. Furthermore, their publications did not lead solely to antislavery thought; their influence can be found in the developing rhetoric of paternalism and Christian slavery as well.
Unlike the Quakers, Anglicans and Moravians were not leaders in the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement. Regardless, many scholars have read a humanitarian impulse into their early missionary ventures. Recently, this approach has come under critique. Most notably, historians have shown that missionary Anglicanism was responsible for a series of laws and opinions that strengthened slavery in order to encourage slave conversion. I support and expand this critique by incorporating Quakers, Anglicans, and Moravians into an interdenominational study. The first Anglican publications on slavery were spurred, in part, by Quaker polemics, and both imperial and denominational rivalry played a major role in determining the objectives of the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Similarly, the Moravians were in close contact with Anglican churchmen in the 1730s, and had a complicated relationship with members of the SPG and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Far from anticipating an antislavery position, these Protestant missionaries articulated and circulated a vision for Christian slavery that laid the groundwork for the proslavery apologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Interdenominational rivalry and communication networks played an important role in this story. Quakers were the first Protestant group to advocate for slave conversion and as they increased their missionary efforts, they attacked the Anglican Church for its failure to act. As Anglicans and Quakers became involved in a print war over the relationship between Protestantism and slavery, Anglicans moved to establish their own evangelizing presence in the New World. While Anglican progress was slow, the growing international network of missionaries made it easier for the Moravians, who were in contact with members of the SPG in England, to join the evangelizing effort in the 1730s.
The Protestant Caribbean was a geographical center of these debates. Both Quaker and Moravian missions began in the West Indies, while the SPG was active in early eighteenth-century Barbados. Missionaries who began their work in the Caribbean traveled throughout the colonies and published polemical pamphlets on both sides of the Atlantic. Missionaries communicated with imperials officials in London and Copenhagen and with their own church headquarters. Quakers initially addressed all correspondence to Swarthmore Hall, the home of Margaret Fell Fox, while they later made the London Yearly Meeting their central administrative body. Anglican missionaries communicated with the Secretary of the SPG and the Bishop of London, while the Moravians exchanged letters and diaries with the church leadership in Herrnhut, Germany, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The transatlantic network of Protestant missionaries crossed both imperial and confessional lines. Some missionaries, particularly within the Moravian Church, traveled between the Danish colonies in the West Indies and the British colonies of North America. Others, such as the French Huguenots who became Anglican missionaries, had intimate knowledge of Catholic practice regarding slavery. In the Caribbean, some islands like St. Christopher were split into French Catholic and English Protestant sections, making interimperial and interconfessional comparisons especially poignant. These imperial and confessional borderlands show that Protestant ideas about slavery often emerged in relation to Catholic practice. Protestant missionaries were simultaneously envious and dismissive of the large numbers of enslaved and free blacks baptized in the Catholic Church. They denigrated Catholic baptism as meaningless and criticized Catholic missionaries and priests for failing to truly educate enslaved people in Christian doctrine.
Protestant missionaries and black Christians created an extensive, multilingual archive about slavery and Christianity in the Protestant American colonies. The Moravian sources, which are written primarily in German, Dutch, and Dutch Creole, are a particularly rich resource for understanding daily life in the Caribbean and North America. The Moravian records promise to redefine scholarly understanding of black Christian practice but they have been underutilized by both Anglophone and German-speaking scholars because they are written in Sütterlin, an archaic form of German script. In addition to the diaries, letters, and church registers kept by missionaries, the Moravian archives include a small number of letters written by enslaved and free Afro-Caribbean converts—some of the only such documents available for the period. These documents give scholars the extremely rare opportunity to analyze the texts written by, rather than about, Afro-Caribbean men and women in the eighteenth century. I use these sources to better understand when and why enslaved and free Africans chose to engage in Christian rituals in the Protestant Caribbean. I also compare diaries written by different missionaries in order to paint a multiperspectival picture of mission culture and everyday life.
The Quaker and Anglican sources do not match the Moravian sources in the detail or volume of their observations about Afro-Protestant practice. As a result, I have turned to social historical methods, in addition to other strategies, to get a sense of broad, demographic patterns relating to the participation of enslaved and free Africans in Quaker and Anglican rituals. Besides reading letters written by missionaries, I have analyzed the baptismal and marital registers for Anglican churches, Quaker meeting minutes, and governmental and official records, including wills, censuses, and official correspondence. Still, the chapters on Quaker and Anglican missions focus more heavily on transatlantic debates about slave conversion, rather than an analysis of slave conversion itself. Yet these two topics—the transatlantic debate and the actual decisions of enslaved and free Africans to participate in Christian rituals—are inextricably connected. Only by examining everyday life in the Protestant plantation colonies and the broader debate regarding slave conversion is it possible to gain a full understanding of the Atlantic dimensions of Protestant missions and slave conversion in the early modern world.
At the heart of this inquiry is the concept of "conversion," a term that must be used with caution. There are two central criticisms of the term. First, some scholars have suggested that it falsely implies that converts abandoned one belief system for another. As anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff have written, "the very use of 'conversion' as a noun leads, unwittingly, to the reification of religious 'belief.'" As they explain, "this abstraction makes spiritual commitment into a choice among competing faiths, and 'belief systems' into doctrines torn free of all cultural embeddedness." Second, some historians have argued that using the word "conversion" reflects missionary intentions, rather than the experiences of non-Europeans. Within the context of imperial expansion and Atlantic slavery, these contentions are particularly significant, because many "conversions" took place within highly unequal colonial encounters.
As a result, many historians have studiously avoided the term. As Anthony Grafton and Kenneth Mills have written, scholars prefer to "quietly avoid religious conversion or else append it to a brace of more fathomable (and historiographically fashionable) alternatives." Alternatives to the term include words like "appropriation" and "affiliation," which emphasize the choices of non-Europeans, or "syncretism" and "hybridity," which focus on the blending of cosmologies. While these terms have their advantages, I believe that historians must wrestle with the problematic connotations of conversion in order to better understand the experiences of both European and non-European Christians. Rather than allowing Christian missionaries to decide who is a true convert, historians should recognize the ongoing tension within the word "conversion" and use a variety of methodological techniques to examine how non-Europeans perceived and narrated their engagement in Christian rituals.
The concept of conversion has never been stable. Conversion has a contentious history within Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular. Etymologically, conversion derives from the word "turning," a movement from one thing to another. Within a Christian context, this "turning" has been qualified and defined in a number of ways. While early Christian conversion targeted "pagans," in medieval Europe, the term conversio often referred to the transition of an individual from a secular to a monastic life. In the splintered churches of sixteenth-century Europe, conversion became a declaration of spiritual and political allegiance to a true Church, whether that church was Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, or the newly formed and internally contentious Church of England.
Some early modern Protestants distinguished not only between Christians and heathens, but also between saved and unsaved Christians. By making such distinctions, these reformers introduced new complexity into the meaning of conversion. Deconstructing conversion became a major theme for Puritan and Pietist theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Puritans stressed that conversion was the transformation of an individual by grace and they developed a "morphology of conversion" that codified each step in that process. Some Puritan churches went so far as to require all of their applicants to verify their status as "visible saints" with a conversion narrative. While individual narratives differed, there were recognizable patterns in these early modern "conversions": an awareness of sin led to humiliation, repentance, and the hope for God's grace. Experience of God's saving grace was followed by period of doubt and reassurance.
Quaker ideas about conversion, which they termed "convincement," emerged from Puritan theology. Like Puritans, Friends saw conversion as an experience that occurred within the lifespan of an individual and they narrated their own convincements in journals, letters, and other publications. Yet they differed from Puritans in their emphasis on "inward light" and their belief that "the Holy Spirit was in every man." As a result of their perfectionist tendencies, Quakers rejected both baptism and a formal ministry, since the indwelling seed of God could be found in any person. These theological differences had a major effect on Quaker missions, as Friends offered little in the way of ritualized events that could mark new converts as members of their community.
While Quakers were radical in their rejection of baptism and a ministerial class, both Puritan and Anglican members of the Church of England maintained the significance of baptism as the central rite in Christian conversion. Unlike radical Puritans, however, most Anglicans did not privilege an experience of saving grace as the most important element of conversion. Instead, their conception of Christianity was based on cultural practice, education, and knowledge. These priorities were clearly demonstrated in the Anglican missionary ventures. Thomas Bray, the founder of the SPCK and the SPG, made the publication and circulation of catechisms, alongside the creation of libraries and schools, the primary means of evangelization. The SPG trained Anglican missionaries to demand both Christian knowledge and "civilized" behavior from non-European baptismal candidates.
The debates about baptism and conversion in early modern England were part of a broader conversation about the meaning of true Christianity throughout Protestant Europe and the American colonies. In Germany, the Pietist movement took inspiration from English Puritanism in its effort to revitalize the Lutheran Church. August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), one of the leading Pietist figures, corresponded frequently with Puritans throughout the Atlantic world and wrote about his own conversion as an inner struggle (Busskampf) followed by a sudden breakthrough (Durchbruch). The Moravians, whose roots lay in both Pietism and the Hussite tradition in what is now the Czech Republic, developed their own version of evangelical conversion that replaced despair about one's own sinfulness with the "ideal of self-abandonment and childlike trust in the love of the bleeding Saviour." The Moravian leader Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf criticized the Pietist emphasis on struggle in the conversion process, inciting a feud between Moravians and the Halle Pietists that traversed the Atlantic.
As this brief survey illustrates, there was no consensus among early modern Protestants about what constituted conversion. While some denominations retained the same ritualized events, such as baptism, even the details of these rites were highly contested: should all infants be baptized? Did adults require an experience of "saving grace" to participate in the Lord's Supper? And what role should education and literacy play in the conversion process? These questions and debates took on new meanings as Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries crossed the Atlantic on missions to bring the gospel to enslaved Africans. Within the context of Caribbean slavery, Protestants sometimes maintained and sometimes altered their conception of conversion to fit their new environment. As they did so, they redefined Protestant practice in the Atlantic world.
As early modern Protestants debated the meaning of true conversion, what did conversion mean to the enslaved and free Afro-Caribbeans who were the object of the Protestant missions? While the cultural and religious diversity of the African and Creole populations in the Caribbean make this question difficult to answer, some general conclusions can be made. First of all, it is important to acknowledge that many enslaved and free Africans living in the Protestant Caribbean would have been exposed to Christianity in Africa or Latin America. For example, the Kingdom of Kongo had embraced Christianity as early as the fifteenth century, and many men and women were familiar with Catholicism before they were enslaved. Kongo Christianity was deeply inflected by African cosmology and Christianity could form the foundation for new communities in the New World. Some Afro-Caribbeans were also Muslims. Indeed, the Moravian missionary C. G. A. Oldendorp translated the word "God" as Allah for the enslaved Fula men and women he met in St. Thomas and St. Croix. Most enslaved and free Afro-Caribbeans, however, would have engaged in non-Abrahamic religious practices.
Regardless of their religious backgrounds, Afro-Caribbean men and women did not interpret the baptismal and other rites that marked Protestant conversion in the same way Protestant missionaries did. This disjuncture presents a problem for historians. If conversion meant something quite different to non-European converts than it did for missionaries, how is this interaction best described? Scholars have come up with a variety of answers to this question. While earlier research viewed non-European conversion as a form of acculturation, an agent of colonial expansion, or a method of slave control, more recent scholarship has emphasized the appropriation of Christianity by Africans and African Americans. African "survivals," syncretism, and hybridity have all been proposed as models to describe the process of conversion. Yet disagreement remains about whether conversion represented a form of creolization or an "Africanization" of Christianity. While proponents of creolization emphasize the creation of new religious traditions in the Americas, advocates of the Africanization thesis insist that African religious practices remained largely intact within African American Christianity. While the division between these approaches has become somewhat blurred, scholars have increasingly emphasized the Africanness of black Christianity.
Aside from highlighting the Africanness of black Christianity, recent scholarship on black Christian practice in North America has continued to view conversion to Christianity through the lens of "accommodation" or "resistance" to slavery. While older scholarship tended to view Christianity as an ameliorating force on slave plantations—a method of slave control—more recent studies have moved in the opposite direction. Some historians have argued that Christianity provided an important theological impetus for rebellions on both sides of the Atlantic, while others have argued that spiritual practices among slaves were "persistently resistant."
While the emphasis on resistance has illuminated important aspects of Afro-Protestant practice, it has obscured the significant role that enslaved and free blacks played in transforming the culture of Atlantic Protestantism for both blacks and whites. The black embrace of Protestantism forced whites to reconsider the relationship between religion, freedom, and slavery. By joining churches and participating in Protestant rituals, enslaved and free black Christians implicitly undermined the ideology of mastery and religious exclusivity that formed the cornerstone of Protestant Supremacy. Enslaved and free Christians also read and interpreted scripture in new ways that challenged white Christian culture. Their eagerness to learn how to read and write were particularly troublesome for both planters and missionaries, who realized that literacy gave black Christians a powerful tool to advocate for themselves and their communities.
Research on Afro-Protestantism generally begins with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Scholars have argued that Anglicans and Reformed Protestants failed to appeal to enslaved and free blacks, but that evangelical religion spread among blacks because it fostered egalitarianism, was more accessible to illiterate individuals, and relied less on education than former missionary ventures. While most blacks did not join institutional churches, evangelical Christianity became integrated as the "folk religion" of slaves and ex-slaves as an "invisible institution."
I revise this narrative by emphasizing the significance of Afro-Protestant conversion before the evangelical revivals of the mid- and late eighteenth centuries. I argue that historians have overstated the significance of emotive worship for the appeal of Christianity. While this was certainly an important feature of evangelical Protestantism, it downplays the powerful draw of literacy that was associated with Protestant conversion both before and after the Great Awakening. Furthermore, historians have paid too little attention to the strong anticonversion sentiment that existed throughout the Protestant regions of North America and the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Planters' desire to prevent their slaves from accessing Christian knowledge affected the perception of Christianity among the enslaved population. By guarding the pages of their Bibles and keeping their most intimate rituals behind closed doors, Protestant slave owners made Christianity a sign of mastery and power.
In spite of planter resistance, a small but significant number of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans won access to Christian rites such as baptism and the Lord's Supper. As they did so, slave owners adapted. They created the concept of "whiteness" and revised their definition of citizenship to exclude nonwhite Christians from enfranchisement. By the end of the seventeenth century, the term "white" had begun to replace "Christian" as an indicator of freedom and mastery.
While a number of historians have examined this shift from religious to racial terminology, my research emphasizes the significance of mission work and personal networks in the creation of new racial and religious categories. I argue that the baptism of enslaved and free Africans implicitly challenged the religious justifications for slavery in the seventeenth century Caribbean. As a small but significant number of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans chose to participate in Christian rites such as baptism, they forced Protestants to redefine their definition of race and their concept of citizenship. Faced with a growing population of Afro-Caribbean men who were both free and Christian, Protestant slave owners redefined subjecthood to incorporate race and exclude Africans and their descendants from enfranchisement.
Ideas about religious difference remained central to racial terminology well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Terms such as "white" grew out of religious categories like "Christian." As a result, scholars examining the origins of White Supremacy must look to the ideology of Protestant Supremacy that emerged in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. While this religious heritage can be easily forgotten, whiteness continued to be mobilized in ways that suggested the continued significance of religion. In the Protestant Caribbean, whiteness could be used to justify religious exclusion, much as the term "Christian" had before it. Thus whiteness retained elements of religious import, explaining why many slave owners continued to resist slave conversion well into the eighteenth century.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Chapter 1. Christian Slaves in the Atlantic World
Chapter 2. Protestant Supremacy
Chapter 3. Quaker Slavery and Slave Rebellion
Chapter 4. From Christian to White
Chapter 5. The Imperial Politics of Slave Conversion
Chapter 6. The SPG and Slavery
Chapter 7. Inner Slavery and Spiritual Freedom
Chapter 8. Defining True Conversion
Epilogue. Proslavery Theology and Black Christianity