The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia

By Charles F. Irons | Go to book overview

Chapter One
FISHERS OF MEN, 1680–1792

AND HE SAITH UNTO THEM, “FOLLOW ME, AND I WILL MAKE YOU fiSHERS OF MEN.”
—MATTHEW 4:19

Anglo-Virginians and African Virginians had a long history of interaction in the Old Dominion before some of them became evangelicals in the 1730s. Despite fluidity in the colony’s early years about the legal status of people of African descent, that history was generally a one-sided story of exploitation.1 This was true in an ecclesiastical as well as an economic and personal sense. Just as English colonists coerced labor from African bodies and offered precious little in return, so too they suppressed African belief systems but did not invite Africans into their Anglican churches. Until the very end of the eighteenth century, as one scholar put it, “most of the slaves lived and died strangers to Christianity.”2

Sympathetic reformers within the Anglican Church blasted Virginia divines for their unwillingness to pursue the souls of black Virginians (or of Indian peoples, for that matter). Failure to do so, they argued, eroded Anglicans’ claim to be the spiritual shepherds of all Virginians and was in open defiance of the ministers’ early charge to preach to the “salvage people which doe or shall adjoine unto them, or border unto them.”3 Both an evangelical faction within the Anglican Church and a number of ministers from dissenting sects took up this critique of “Virginia’s Mother Church” when they arrived in Virginia in the 1730s and after. They hoped to distinguish themselves from traditional Anglicans through their attention to black Virginians. Africans and African Americans, for their part, helped to expose the limits of the Anglican Church’s spiritual reach by responding only haltingly to Anglicans’ late and desultory efforts to convert them. They were much more receptive to dissenting evangelical ministers, especially in the post-Revolutionary period. Black Virginians’ decision to listen to dissenters simultaneously helped to destroy the Anglican Church and to cement evan

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