Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835

Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835

Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835

Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835


This study focuses on the role of early African American Christianity in the formation of American egalitarian religion and politics. It also provides a new context for understanding how black Christianity and evangelism developed, spread, and interacted with transatlantic religious cultures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Cedrick May looks at the work of a group of pivotal African American writers who helped set the stage for the popularization of African American evangelical texts and the introduction of black intellectualism into American political culture: Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, Prince Hall, Richard Allen, and Maria Stewart.Religion gave these writers agency and credibility, says May, and they appropriated the language of Christianity to establish a common ground on which to speak about social and political rights. In the process, these writers spread the principles that enabled slaves and free blacks to form communities, a fundamental step in resisting oppression. Moreover, says May, this institution building was overtly political, leading to a liberal shift in mainstream Christianity and secular politics as black churches and the organizations they launched became central to local communities and increasingly influenced public welfare and policy.This important new study restores a sense of the complex challenges faced by early black intellectuals as they sought a path to freedom through Christianity.


In 1778, five years after the slave Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, another writer, also a slave, sat down during a moment’s respite to begin penning a response to the younger and more well-known poet’s work. Now nearly sixty-seven, Jupiter Hammon, who had published a handful of poems in locally distributed broadsides, included his ideas on religion specifically as well as ideas that implied a certain political position. Wheatley, who was about nineteen in 1773, when she published her book, had accomplished the remarkable feat of producing a book that not only appealed to her readers’ religious and moral sensibilities but also carried political weight, particularly on delicate matters of state such as the Stamp Act, the relationship of a king to his subjects, and issues relating to slavery. It was a bold pronouncement for any writer, especially for a young, African slave woman on the eve of the American Revolution.

When Hammon wrote to Wheatley in verse, he established a precedent in North American and African American literary history: while African Americans certainly may have written themselves into being and recorded history through their individual literary voices, their writings were more than personal; they collectively established blacks as part of a new tradition in which African Americans considered their positions and conditions in print media and attempted to establish a means by which to understand and involve themselves in the immediate social and cultural world around them.

Where the Conversations Begin

Unlike Wheatley, Hammon was reticent, if not downright hostile, to the idea of involving himself in secular matters such as the politics and ideals of the American Revolution. in fact, he despised the war and thought of the belligerents’ efforts as anti-Christian:

Believe me now my Christian friends,
Believe your friend call’d Hammon:
You cannot to your God attend,
and serve the God of Mammon.

The war was anathema to him: its existence flew against the principles of the Christianity he personally embraced. His Calvinist-influenced Christianity had been bestowed on him by his enslavers—a Christianity, taught particularly to . . .

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