Academic journal article Early American Literature

Slave Evangelicalism, Shouting, and the Beginning of African American Writing

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Slave Evangelicalism, Shouting, and the Beginning of African American Writing

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay argues that African American writing emerged as a consequence of slave evangelicalism's ecstatic worship practices, the frenzied, uncontrollable, and unrehearsed behaviors that are commonly referred to as "shouting." Persons shout when they are seized by God through the Holy Spirit, and the affective and intellectual qualities slaves acquired while shouting disposed them to take up written discourse and literary culture more broadly as viable enterprises with which to express political dissent and pursue aesthetic fulfillment. This essay establishes shouting's conceptual formations and contextual features, then reads Richard Allen's "Spiritual Song" (c. 1800) as well as Jupiter Hammon's An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York (1786/7) and "The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant" (n.d.) as works that exemplify how shouting shaped the figural, ideological, and rhetorical dimensions of early black literary and textual productions.

KEYWORDS: Early African American literature, slave religion, shouting, African spirit possession


By all considered estimations, including his own, New Light clergyman and evangelist Samuel Davies spearheaded the first lasting and successful crusade to teach slaves in the colonial American South, if not all of British North America, to read and write. (1) The earliest resident Presbyterian minister in the Virginia Piedmont, Davies began making inroads in slave literacy in 1751 after procuring support from the London-based Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, an evangelical tract society that lay dissenters founded in 1750 to distribute gratis Bibles, Testaments, spelling primers, and Isaac Watts's Songs for Children and Psalms and Hymns, among other texts. In a series of solicitation letters to society benefactors, Davies hails the "poor ... NEGROE SLAVES" of Hanover as "the most proper objects of the SOCIETY's Charity" because of the singular ardency with which they sought to rectify their "Want of [Christian] Instruction" and thus pursued the "Means of Grace" (4-5). He could not satisfy his slave parishioners' demand for the society's books; they spent what little leisure time they had learning to read and worshiping with these texts, doing so on their own or in small societies, often holding nightlong meetings in Davies's home. He writes,

   Sundry of them have lodged all night in my kitchen; and, sometimes,
   when I have awaked at two or three a-clock in the morning, a
   torrent of sacred harmony poured into my chamber, and carried my
   mind away to Heaven. In this seraphic exercise, some of them spent
   almost the whole night. I wish, Sir, you and their other
   Benefactors could hear one of these sacred concerts: I am persuaded
   it would please and surprise you more than an Oratorio, and a St.
   Caecilia's Day. (12)

Davies embraced music in his evangelism, making him a pioneer among American dissenting proselytizers, but his slave parishioners' worship milieu instantiated a broader phenomenon of (African) American religious life: black evangelicals grounded their devotional and intellectual habits in their belief in the interanimation of the embodied and the textual (Richards 358).

Put differently, the advent of black literacy and eventually literature in British North America was in many ways a religiocultural event that emerged from slaves' and their descendants' refusal to dissociate or hierarchize the oral and the literary, but to hold these communicative technologies in symbiotic relation. Performance theorists understand this relation as one of orature, a conception that "goes beyond a schematized opposition of literacy and orality as transcendent categories; rather, it acknowledges that these modes of communication have produced one another interactively over time and that their historic operations may be usefully examined under the rubric of performance" (Roach 11-12). …

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