Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

'I Saw the Book Talk': Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

'I Saw the Book Talk': Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening

Article excerpt

Charles Brockwell was horrified by the audience and its conduct at an evangelical revival meeting in mid-eighteenth-century New England. An Anglican missionary in Massachusetts, he denounced "the convulsions into which the whole Country is thrown by a set of Enthusiasts that strole about harangueing the admiring Vulgar." In particular, he mentioned, "Women, Children, Servants, and Nigros . . . |whose~ groans, cries, screams, and agonies" reduced worship to a display of "ridiculous and frantic gestures."(1)

Brockwell's depiction of African-Americans in the Great Awakening is representative of the contemporary stereotype. First, free and slave Africans were seen as a faceless, nameless group, viewed not as individuals but lumped together with others on the margins of colonial society. Second, they were considered as passive auditors who were easily seduced by evangelists who "pretend to extraordinary inspiration."(2) Third, they were presented as being one-dimensional in their response to evangelical preaching, reacting with unbridled emotion, seemingly incapable of intellectual reflection on theological issues.

Like all stereotypes, this portrayal contains elements of truth. Dominated by masters who held them under near absolute control, slaves were often relegated to passive public roles. They could attend revival services only if their owners permitted, and many slaveholders objected on grounds that "a Slave grows worse by being a Christian."(3) Those African-Americans who obtained permission either sat in the balcony, if seats were available, or stood outdoors and listened through windows. And they frequently suffered the ignominy of being subjected to a separate sermon after regular services in which they were admonished to obey their masters, a necessity for being "good christians and good servants."(4)

Moreover, many slaves did respond emotionally to evangelicalism's message of the new birth. According to George Whitefield, and other leading revivalists, conversion was nothing short of a transforming experience in which Christ became the new center of one's being, indwelling in that person's spirit. Similarly, a central belief in many West African religions was the idea of soul possession whereby "the god descends to the head of his devotee, replacing him and thus rendering him unconscious of what transpires until the deity departs."(5) James Gronniosaw made the parallel clear in describing his conversion. The New York slave wrote, "I saw (or thought I saw) light inexpressible dart down from heaven upon me, and shone around me for the space of a minute. I continued on my knees, and joy unspeakable took possession of my soul."(6)

Recent historiography has contributed much toward a more textured view of African-Americans and the Great Awakening. Perhaps of greatest worth are attempts to uncover and mine sources that illumine how individual slaves' experienced the revivals. Increasingly, we understand the Christianization of American Africans through their own eyes. Instead of relying solely on such white evangelicals as Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies, we now listen to the voices of Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Phyllis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Obadiah Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa), Ottobah Cugoano, and Ignatius Sancho.(7) One of the surprises contained within the rich writings of Africans who testify to their experiences of eighteenth-century revivalism is the importance of reading. While revisionists have broadened our understanding of how slaves responded to the revivals, scholarly attention has continued to focus almost exclusively on the spoken word. Viewed as listeners in mass meetings, blacks continue to be seen as passive receptors. However, by examining how slaves related to the printed word, we see a much more active, intellectual effort by individuals who, as readers, not only consumed texts but produced their own meetings, often reaching conclusions very different from those intended. …

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