Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"A Delusive Clothing:" Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Slave Community

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"A Delusive Clothing:" Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Slave Community

Article excerpt

Citing church membership figures accounting for fewer than twenty percent of the antebellum slave population, a number of revisionist historians have recently challenged the widespread view that Christianity was embraced by millions of slaves hungering for its message of love, hope, and salvation.(1) And although revisionist critics have responded that such statistics provide a far from accurate gauge of just how deeply Christianity permeated the slave population,(2) the question remains as to whether or not the mass conversion of as many as four million slaves within a single generation ever occurred, given that the vast majority had little or no exposure to Christian teaching prior to the Jacksonian period.(3)

Despite such controversy, nearly all interpretations of slave religion maintain that after about 1830, Southern planters, motivated by a desire for social control as well as sincere concern for the salvation of bondsmen, successfully introduced Christianity to the spiritually starved slave community. And even though support for this conclusion rests heavily on supposition and interpolation, it has nonetheless been presented in a number of the modern era's most influential studies of slave religion. For example, Eugene Genovese's seminal work, Roll Jordan Roll, maintains that after 1831 Southern planters successfully overcame initial qualms over introducing religion to slaves and that, in the end, the conversion effort "generally . . . succeeded."(4) Consistent with this interpretation, Lawrence W. Levine's highly regarded study, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, insists that a "widespread conversion of slaves to Christianity" occurred "by the time of the Civil War." In particular, Levine points to the slaves' spiritual songs as proof of widespread conversion.(5)

By far the most comprehensive treatment of antebellum slave spirituality is Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion. Agreeing with most scholars that slaves "remained only minimally touched by Christianity by the second decade of the 19th century," Raboteau argues that the conversion process began in earnest in the 1830s, overcoming considerable slave resistance, so that "by the eve of the Civil War, Christianity had pervaded the slave community."(6) Discounting church membership figures as misleading, he maintains further that even though "not all slaves were Christian, nor were all those who accepted Christianity members of a church," nonetheless "the doctrines, symbols, and vision of life preached by Christianity were familiar to most."(7)

There is, of course, little question but that a comprehensive conversion effort was indeed undertaken by a number of antebellum Protestant denominations. Spearheaded by such notable religious leaders as William Capers, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Charles Colcock Jones, advocates of religious instruction labored tirelessly to overcome entrenched planter opposition and galvanize moral and financial support behind the program.(8) Hampered by legal restrictions on slave literacy, limited funding, and a shortage of manpower, the Methodist program alone grew to include some 83 stations and 95 missionaries by 1845, and to 329 missions and 327 workers in 1861.(9) In addition to itinerate missionaries, local preachers were encouraged to minister to nearby plantations and, in regions lacking sufficient clergy, slaveholders, themselves, were urged to hold prayer meetings among bondsmen.(10) Also, many churches invited slaves to join their congregations, often partitioning off separate areas such as balconies to enable them to worship alongside whites. Taken as a whole, then, it is difficult to deny that Christianity played an important role in at least some quarters of the slave community after 1830.

The problem for the historian is determining the true extent of Christianity's impact, and whether the religious weltanschauung or worldview of the antebellum slave can most accurately be characterized as Christian, African, or a syncretic marriage of both influences. …

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