Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance

Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance

Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance

Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance


Becoming Christian argues that romance narratives of Jews and Muslims converting to Christianity register theological formations of race in post-Reformation England. The medieval motif of infidel conversion came under scrutiny as Protestant theology radically reconfigured how individualsacquire religious identities.Whereas Catholicism had asserted that Christian identity begins with baptism, numerous theologians in the Church of England denied the necessity of baptism and instead treated Christian identity as a racial characteristic passed from parents to their children. The church thereby developed a theologythat both transformed a nation into a Christian race and created skepticism about the possibility of conversion. Race became a matter of salvation and damnation.Britton intervenes in critical debates about the intersections of race and religion, as well as in discussions of the social implications of romance. Examining English translations of Calvin, treatises on the sacraments, catechisms, and sermons alongside works by Edmund Spenser, John Harrington,William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, and Phillip Massinger, Becoming Christian demonstrates how a theology of race altered a nation's imagination and literary landscape.


Let it no longer be a forlorne hope
To wash an /Ethiope:
He’s washt, His gloomy skin a peacefull shade
For his white soule is made:
And now, I doubt not, the Eternall Dove,
A black-fac’d house will love.

Richard Crashaw, “On the Baptized Aethiope”

Richard Crashaw’s poem provides hope for English Christians who might have been discouraged from engaging in evangelistic projects by Jeremiah 13:23 (“Can the black More change his skin? Or the leopard his spottes? then maie ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil”) and Geffrey Whitney’s “Aethiopem lavare” in A choice of emblemes (1586). in the book of Jeremiah, God speaks through his prophet to the people of Israel, who have forsaken their ancestral religion and turned to the worship of Baal. Israel’s apostasy and its seemingly immutable spiritual condition are compared to the unchangeable physical condition of the Moor’s (or, in other translations, the “Ethiope’s”) skin—Jews are compared to Moors, a comparison that became quite common in early modern racial discourse. Yet Jeremiah is concerned with Israel’s spiritual condition and apostasy, not with the Moor’s black skin; the black Moor and his skin merely function as figures that are to help the Israelites, as well as later readers, better understand themselves and their spiritual condition. Although God says nothing here about the spiritual condition of Moors, the Moor’s black skin becomes a figure par excellence for signifying unalterable spiritual depravity.

As in Jeremiah, the Ethiopian’s skin becomes a figure of the unalterable in “Aethiopem lavare.” Indeed, the unalterable skin of the Ethiopian became . . .

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