Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World

Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World

Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World

Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World


"The first study to consider, on a circum-Atlantic scale, how conversion to Afro-Protestant Christianity encouraged a 'middle path' between exclusionist ethnic African identities and deracinated Atlantic creole identities."--Douglas B. Chambers, author of The Igbo Diaspora in the Era of the Slave Trade

In Embracing Protestantism, John Catron argues that people of African descent in America who adopted Protestant Christianity during the eighteenth century did not become African Americans but instead assumed more fluid Atlantic-African identities. America was then the land of slavery and white supremacy, where citizenship and economic mobility were off-limits to most people of color. In contrast, the Atlantic World offered access to the growing abolitionist movement in Europe.

Catron examines how the wider Atlantic World allowed membership in transatlantic evangelical churches that gave people of color unprecedented power in their local congregations and contact with black Christians in West and Central Africa. It also channeled inspiration from the large black churches then developing in the Caribbean and from black missionaries. Unlike deracinated creoles who attempted to merge with white culture, people of color who became Protestants were "Atlantic Africans," who used multiple religious traditions to restore cultural and ethnic connections. And this religious heterogeneity was a critically important way black Anglophone Christians resisted slavery.


On a muggy fall day in 1792, Henry Beverhout looked out over the low thatched huts of the newly settled West African bayside village of Freetown with feelings suffused with both apprehension and hope. Since he and other black men and women from around the Atlantic basin had sailed to the freshly established colony of Sierra Leone to start new lives in freedom in March of that year and when Afro-Virginian minister David George preached the first Baptist sermon in Africa under the settlement’s iconic Cotton Tree, Beverhout suspected that life in the new British colony was not what they had been promised. Ruthlessly exploited in America, these expatriates arrived on Sierra Leone’s lush tropical coast determined to chart a new course for their children and families in Africa, but as they quickly learned, the path to true freedom was littered with obstacles that the verdant landscape could not easily erase.

In the months and years that followed they came into conflict with white Sierra Leone Company officials over low pay, high prices, and the slow pace at which the seemingly abundant land was being apportioned to them. Just as important, the black émigrés were dismayed by the company’s racially discriminatory system of justice, whose juries did not, Beverhout complained, “haven aney of our own Culler.” Having absorbed the British and American legal traditions of trial by a jury of one’s peers, he demanded that in any “trial thear should be a jurey of both white and black and all should be equal.” Going even further, Beverhout then made an explosively democratic claim: “we have a wright to Chuse men that we think proper to act for us in a reasnenble manner.”

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