Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World


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.


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 Atlantic world. the Anglican Church in Barbados was exclusive, the domain of slave owners and government officials. While most historians have downplayed the relevance of 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 planter 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 . . .

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