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date: 12 May 2021

African and African American Religions in the Early Americas

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter chronicles the relationship between African religious practices on the continent and African American religion in the plantation Americas in the era of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. A new generation of scholars who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s have demonstrated not only that African religious practices exhibit remarkable subtlety and complexity but also that these cultures have played significant roles in the subsequent development of religious practices throughout the world. Christianity, Islam, and traditional African religion comprised a set of broad and varied religious practices that contributed to the development of creative, subtle, and complex belief systems that circulated around the African Diaspora. In addition, this chapter addresses some of the vexed epistemological challenges related to discussing and describing non-Western ritual and religious practices.

Keywords: Islam, Christianity, conjure, religion, Africa

The Invention of African Religion

No single description can encompass the full range and diversity of African religious beliefs on the eve of the transatlantic slave trade. Africa is far too vast geographically to make any valid, broad-based generalizations. And because cultural practices often change drastically over time, observations about religious beliefs at one point in time cannot be easily projected onto other time periods. Unfortunately, discussions about religious beliefs and ritual practices in Africa rely on sweeping generalizations, not taking into account the geographical and temporal complexities of the continent. This has the negative, if unintended, consequence of rendering a portrait of Africa as stagnant and unchanging.

While this is certainly true of general observations about the continent as a whole, it holds true even if we limit our consideration to West and West-Central Africa—stretching from Senegambia in the north to the Kongo-Angola region to the south—the area from which most enslaved Africans in the plantation Americas originated.

Added to these problems of scale is the additional epistemological challenge of using a term—religion—that only loosely defines the topic under study. At bottom, the term “religion” emerged in Western thinking as a way to distinguish the realm of sacred action, thought, and belief as against other, more mundane, fields of human endeavor. This stark separation between sacred and secular often carries little meaning when transported outside Western epistemological systems. In this way, any attempt to provide an overview of West African belief systems on the eve of the transatlantic slave trade is likely more suggestive than definitive.

(p. 341) These epistemological concerns are further exacerbated by a centuries-long prejudice that has gravely hampered our understanding of Africa and Africans. Too often, leading thinkers in the Western intellectual and scholarly traditions have portrayed Africa and its inhabitants negatively as a place and a people living in a state of nature; that is, outside the refined realms of technical civilization and social and political sophistication. Long maligned as the Dark Continent, these scholars and thinkers simply disregarded African religions and cultures out of hand. German philosopher Georg Hegel derided the African continent in the mid-nineteenth century, claiming that “it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. . . . Africa is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.” Much the same sentiment prevailed in art and literature, most notably in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which depicted Africa not only as the opposite of European civilization and refinement but also as a battleground of human depravity testing the basic moral fiber of any (white) person who might dare enter its nether regions.

More recently, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued in 1963 that Africa had no history to speak of, but only the “unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” And the legacy of these negative presumptions can still be felt. In 2007, French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced similar sentiments about how Africans stood outside history. And so, scholars interested in studying African culture and religion struggle to overcome a mountain of prejudice in their efforts to demonstrate that the cultures and peoples of the African continent are important subjects of study.

Fortunately, a new generation of scholars emerged in the 1960s and 1970s who have successfully taken on the challenge by demonstrating not only that African religious practices exhibit remarkable subtlety and complexity but also that these cultures have played significant roles in the subsequent development of religious practices throughout the world. Writing in the now classic African Religions and Philosophy, John S. Mbiti offered a primer on African religious thought as a corrective to older colonial and ethnographic descriptions that were, as a rule, derogatory and, in many cases, blatantly racist. In approaching the topic, Mbiti hoped not only to explain African religious thought but also to reform Western perceptions of African peoples as somehow outside the pale of godly, good people.

Mbiti portrayed African religion as basically different from religious practice in the West. Rather than a discrete field of thought and action, Mbiti argued that religion in Africa “permeates into all the departments of life so fully that it is not easy or possible always to isolate it.” In this sense, religion in Africa comprised a field of belief and practice that touched all aspects of human action, including not only the relationship between humans and divine beings but also other arenas of human endeavor including, for example, law, medicine, and health. In contradistinction to Western Christendom, with its official canons and doctrine, traditional African religions contain no creeds to be memorized and recited; instead, “the creeds are written in the heart of the individual, and each one is himself a living creed of his own religion. Where the individual is, there (p. 342) is his religion, for he is a religious being. It is this that makes Africans so religious: religion is in their whole system of being” (Mbiti 1989, 3–4).

The central aim of religious practice in many West African societies at the advent of the transatlantic slave trade seems not to have been the achievement of salvation in the next world through right action and right belief, but rather, the maintenance of positive relations in this world as defined by good health and abundant wealth. Proper religious observance assured the maintenance of strong lineages, comprised of family (including the living, the dead, and the yet unborn) and stable social networks (including both social dependents and social superiors).

At the heart of these religious conceptions is the idea that the world of the living and the realm of the deities and the dead are closely connected. Although invisible to most, deities and the dead play an active and interested role in the lives of men and women. For this reason, proper execution of religious rites, the maintenance of community taboos, and the performance of other obligations could inoculate individuals and communities from personal and community disasters. But, in the same vein, illness, misfortune, or death could be signs of spiritual neglect causing an imbalance in the relationship with the otherworld for which the advice and counsel of a trained ritual expert might be required. Throughout West Africa, and indeed in much of the continent more broadly, these experts used a wide variety of divinatory practices to discern and respond to the mandate of proper ritual observance.

In this sense, the dislocations of the transatlantic slave trade represented not only a tremendous rupture in the political and social lives of the Africans who were captured, sold, and sent to the Americas as slaves but also reflected a spiritual crisis. Of his own experience on a slave ship, the famed former slave Olaudah Equiano writes of this sense of despair while aboard a slave ship: “I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. . . . I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.” In view of the disruptions of the transatlantic slave trade, some scholars have viewed African American religions as characterized principally by rupture and loss. Historian and religious scholar, Albert J. Raboteau, for example, proclaimed that the slave trade caused “the death of the gods.” In this view, “the African religious heritage was lost” under the oppressive weight of British North American slavery and the mandate of Christian conversion. Arguing along the same lines, Jon Butler identified what he saw as “an African spiritual holocaust that forever destroyed traditional African religious systems as systems in North America and that left slaves remarkably bereft of traditional collective religious practice” (1990, 153; Raboteau 1978).

But more recent scholarship has challenged this view of African American religious traditions, focusing less on loss as the primary theme of black religious experience in the Americas and more on the religious and spiritual continuities that connected West African societies and the black cultures of the plantation Americas. For example, rather than viewing black cultural transformations in the Americas as a “social death”—in line with the influential argument first made by sociologist Orlando Patterson—historian Walter Rucker suggests that black culture in the plantation Americas is the result of a kind of “social resurrection” in which enslaved men and women experienced the violent (p. 343) ruptures of slavery, to be sure, but responded by “actively and consciously [remaking] themselves within the crucible of American slavery” (2007, 17). In this way, recent scholarship in the field focuses on the ways that religious traditions on both sides of the Atlantic have always changed, proving incredibly adept at responding to the specific needs of pressing present realities.

This all points to the need to rethink the nature and course of African religious practices throughout the African Diaspora. In particular, we require new models for describing how adherents experienced the wide range of religious traditions before them. Because Christianity and Islam emerged in Africa shortly after their initial advent, religious practitioners often merged Muslim and Christian rituals with traditional practices in an effort to solve the universal problems and answer the basic questions of human existence. As one scholar notes, “Africa domesticated the two exogenous religions,” uniquely adapting Christianity and Islam to make them suitable to African needs. In this sense, Islam and Christianity along with traditional African religions may rightly be viewed as part of the indigenous religious heritage of Africa; and they have each and all been adapted to reflect local concerns and considerations.

Call to Prayer—Islam in the African Atlantic

The roots of Islam in Africa extend back to the seventh century, shortly after its initial advent on the Arabian peninsula. The religion quickly spread, first to North Africa and later into West Africa in the eleventh century. Despite the long history of Islam in Africa, scholars interested in the religious and ritual practices of enslaved men and women have given short shrift to the important role that Islam played in the religious experiences of millions living in the African Diaspora. In fact, as many as 50 percent of the people who found themselves enslaved in the plantation Americas came from regions in West Africa where Islam was either the official state religion or the religion of significant and sizeable minority communities. As a result, Islam shaped the religious worldviews of many enslaved Africans.

The avenues of Islamic expansion in West Africa followed commercial routes as Muslim traders and clerics exchanged goods, services, and information in their travels through North and East Africa, before moving on to the African Atlantic coast. As early as the eleventh century, Islam had already been established in the kingdom of Ghana as reported by Al-Bakri, a Muslim traveler and writer:

The King of Ghana . . . led a praiseworthy life on account of his love of justice and friendship for the Muslims. . . . The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer.

(p. 344) As Islam spread, Muslims played increasingly important roles in the social and political landscape of West Africa. Indeed, Islam experienced a massive expansion in West Africa as an increasing number of heads of state converted to the religion and began to extend its scope in the region. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the city of Timbuktu emerged as one of the leading intellectual and educational centers in the world on strength of its several Islamic centers of learning and expansive commercial system, including a vibrant book trade. The great wealth and advanced intellectual traditions in Timbuktu were described in grandiose terms by several explorers, including the North African explorer Leo Africanus. But despite its role as a key center of learning and trade, the city eventually became in Western Europe a mere metaphor for any mythical, far away, fanciful land. Indeed some Europeans had already harbored a sense of Africa as a mystical place due to accounts of emperor Mansa Musa of Mali who undertook a journey to Mecca in observance of the Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, in 1324. That journey was highlighted by Musa’s much vaunted display of profound wealth—Musa spent so much gold coin in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, that he caused a deflation of the local currency. These tales excited the imaginations of European observers who saw in the riches and excesses of that pilgrimage proof that West Africa was a land flooded with gold and material riches. In later generations, these stories helped fuel European interest in the region.

The expansion of Islam in West Africa had a tremendous effect on slavery in the Americas. On the eve of the transatlantic slave trade, Muslims traversed the Atlantic Ocean as captives, traders, and seamen. As one scholar notes, the Muslim presence in the American South predated the coming of the English, and, by consequence, precedes the development of slave-based plantation economies in British North America. As the slave trade expanded in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both Spanish-controlled Florida and French-controlled Louisiana imported Muslims from Senegambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and throughout the broader West African region. The mark of Muslim influence can be seen in runaway slave advertisements that often described men and women who had recognizable Muslim names or who hailed from Muslim regions of West Africa. For example, the term “Mandigo” emerged in British North America as a trade name used to refer to captives taken in regions of West Africa heavily populated by Muslims, including Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

Once enslaved in the United States, Muslims worked assiduously to maintain their faith, even while under the severe constraints of slavery. They tried to maintain regular daily prayer, pass on Muslim names to their children, and use Islamic prayer beads and mats. While Muslims were never able to reproduce the structures of formal religious life in the United States (there were, for example, no mosques established by African Americans in the era of slavery), many men and women still maintained a firm devotion to their religion.

Despite not having fully functioning religious institutions, enslaved Muslims did maintain, as historian Sylviane Diouf (1998) notes, an active community life. To the extent that they could, African Muslims upheld the five pillars of Islam while maintaining religious dietary restrictions and forging community bonds with fellow Muslims.

(p. 345) Some captive Muslims used their literacy in Arabic as a tool, hoping to maintain their faith by writing and reciting the Qur’an, Islam’s Holy Book. For example Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman, a Muslim enslaved in Mississippi wrote copies of al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, and passed it off to whites as an Arabic translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Known as “The Prince,” Adb ar-Rahman became the most popular African in America and something of a cause célèbre in the 1820s when a national humanitarian campaign sought and won his freedom and repatriation to Africa. Rahman’s efforts to shield his faith from others was very much in line with the practice of other enslaved Muslims who maintained their faith by covering their practice with a thin veneer of Christian worship. As one Christian missionary noted:

The Mohammedan Africans remaining of the old stock of importations, although accustomed to hear the Gospel preached, have been known to accommodate Christianity to Mohammedanism. “God,” say they, “is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed—the religion is the same, but different countries have different names.” (quoted in Diouf 1998, 57)

While some enslaved Muslims tried to accommodate their faith to Christianity, many others were likely able to practice their faith without fear of detection, due in large measure to the general ignorance of most American observers about Islamic traditions.

Although largely ignorant of the basic tenets of the faith, many slaveholders did entertain several stereotypes about the Muslims they enslaved. Slaveholders tended to view enslaved Muslims as more intelligent and civilized than non-Muslim slaves, owing, at least in part, to the literacy of many enslaved Muslims. Many Muslims enslaved in the Americas had a facility with written and spoken Arabic, which slaveholders took as a sign of heightened intelligence. As a result, slaveholders often placed enslaved Muslims in positions of authority on slave plantations, especially as slave drivers and overseers. Naturally, this set Muslims apart from the vast majority of slaves and encouraged enmity between the two groups. Historian Michael Gomez argues that the Muslim community “had some impact upon the stratification of African and African American society” (1995, 82). That is, religion in the slave community created what might be regarded as one of the earliest forms of class distinction between slaves.

In the United States, the Muslim presence was concentrated along the coastal region of Georgia and South Carolina where a large number of Muslims left a recognizable mark on slave culture. Rosa Grant, who was born into slavery in coastal Georgia, remembered the religious practices of her grandmother:

Friday was the day she call her prayer day . . . I remember when I was a child seeing my gran Rayna pray. Every morning at sun-up she kneel on the floor in her room and bow over and touch her head to the floor three time.

Charles Wylly, grandson of the famed Georgia planter Thomas Spalding, remembered seeing “devout mussulmans, who prayed to Allah . . . morning, noon and evening” (Gomez 1995, 78).

(p. 346) Eventually, Christianity came to play an increasingly visible role in the religious lives of African American women and men in the country. As a result, the visible signs of Muslim practice became less evident. Nevertheless, Islam remained a consistent, even if largely invisible, feature of black religious practice throughout the period of slavery, and it enjoyed a massive resurgence in the early twentieth century as indicated by the emergence of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. The legacies of Islam among African Americans are also evident in black musical traditions of the twentieth century. Many prominent jazz musicians embraced Islam, and Islam has often been dubbed the “religion of hip-hop” in view of the preponderance of Muslim rappers and Islamic themes in the music.

Christ in Kongo and Carolina—Christianity in Atlantic Africa

Much like the history of Islam, the history of Christianity in Atlantic Africa extends back for several centuries. Portuguese missionaries arrived at the Kingdom of Kongo in West-Central Africa late in the fifteenth century and enjoyed a major victory in extending the faith when Kongo King, Nzinga a Nkuwu, converted to Christianity. Baptized under the name João I in 1491, the Kongolese monarch encouraged the conversion of the royal court and nobility in Mbanza Kongo, the political and economic capital of the country. In short order, Catholicism spread to the rural regions of the country and became a central feature in the religious landscape of the country. Notably, the spread of Christianity from the more cosmopolitan urban centers to the rural outskirts of the country was led not by European missionaries, but rather by local converts to the faith. In this way, key Christian terms and symbols were translated into local languages and, by extension, into local understandings. As historian John Thornton argues, “Christianity ‘conquered’ Kongo peacefully—but at the cost of adapting itself almost wholly to Kongolese conceptions of religion and cosmology” (Young 2007, 80). The long-standing tradition of Christian practice in Africa greatly affected the early religious history of African Americans. Many of the men and women who found themselves enslaved in the British colonies came from the Kingdom of Kongo where they would have been exposed to Kongolese Catholicism. In 1710, Francis Le Jau, an Anglican missionary working in South Carolina reported:

I have in this parish a few Negroe Slaves and were born and baptized among the Portuguese. . . . [T]hey come to Church and are well instructed so as to express a great desire to receive the H. communion amongst us, I proposed to them to declare openly their Abjuring the Errors of the Romish Church without which declaration I could not receive them. (Le Jau, quoted in Young 2007, 67)

Despite their prior experience with Christianity, Protestant missionaries perceived major flaws in the religious experiences of Africans from Kongo. More than a century (p. 347) after Francis Le Jau first documented Kongolese Christianity in the Carolinas, Thomas Turpin, a Baptist missionary working in South Carolina, complained that slaves under his charge had organized Roman Catholic societies. The persistence of black Catholic practice in colonial America is also evident in a wave of fugitive slaves who fled colonial Georgia and South Carolina in the late eighteenth century to seek asylum and freedom in the Spanish-controlled colony of Florida. When they arrived, many of the fugitives reported to Catholic clerics that they were already familiar with the tenets of the faith as they had been Catholics in their homelands.

Protestant missionaries expressed grave concern about Catholic successes in proselytizing enslaved Africans. In particular, Protestant missionaries feared that the willingness of Catholic missionaries to accept enslaved Africans into the sacrament and the reluctance of Protestant missionaries to do the same would result in grave losses in the global battle for souls. Protestant missionaries noted that the promise of eternal salvation was too often discarded in favor of the benefits of brute, harsh labor. John Barbot, an agent of the French Royal African Company expressed well the concern of many missionaries:

Provided that the slaves can multiply, and work hard for the benefit of the masters, most men are well satisfied, without the least thoughts of using their authority and endeavors to promote the good of the souls of those poor wretches. In this particular . . . the Roman Catholics of the American plantations are much more commendable.

(Barbot, quoted in Raboteau 1978, 356)

Planters in British North America approached the question of converting enslaved Africans with significant hesitation in line with the generally acknowledged presumption that Christians could not legally hold other Christians in bondage. In addition, many planters feared that Christian slaves might be incited to resist slavery, perhaps finding inspiration in the biblical story of Hebrew slaves who rose up against their Egyptian slave owners.

By the end of the seventeenth century, colonial legislatures responded to this concern by creating a legal framework that allowed slavery to exist alongside Christianity. The law passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1667 was similar to many others in the colonies:

Whereas some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth . . . should by virtue of their baptism be made free; It is enacted . . . that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.

While this law significantly bolstered slave power in the colony and strengthened the dominance of slaveholders over slaves, members of the Virginia Assembly argued that the law was a humanitarian measure through which slaveholders—now protected from the fear of losing their labor force through conversion—could now “more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity by permitting children, though slaves . . . to be admitted to the sacrament” (Virginia Slave Laws online, n.d.).

(p. 348) Notably, many European leaders regarded the mass conversion of captive Africans as a key justification for slavery, arguing that although enslavement was physically brutal and oppressive, slaves who endured the system faithfully would be rewarded with everlasting salvation in Heavenly bliss. Such was the argument made by Gomes De Azurara, a fifteenth-century chronicler of the Portuguese slave trade who argued in reference to enslaved Africans that “though their bodies were now brought into some subjection, that was a small matter in comparison of their souls, which would now possess true freedom for evermore.” Despite these efforts, some planters still hesitated, arguing that slaves were “ten times worse when a Christian, than in . . . [the] state of Paganism” (Egerton 2004, 103).

In order to gain access to slaves, missionaries had to devise a theology based on social control. To this end, missionaries worked hard to assure slaveholders that conversion to Christianity would not threaten their central authority on the plantation. For example, Francis Le Jau required enslaved converts to affirm the following prior to being baptized:

You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for the holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the duty and obedience you owe to your Master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the graces and blessings promised to the members of the church of Jesus Christ.

Missionaries tried to convince slaveholders that conversion created a more docile, sober, and productive slave labor force. Le Jau assured planters that, after being converted, slaves “do better for their Master’s profit.” Despite these assurances, the number of slave converts in the United States remained paltry throughout the seventeenth century (Le Jau, quoted in Klingberg 1956).

By 1701, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) initiated a new effort to promote slave conversion by sending missionaries and religious tracts throughout the South. In order to address planters’ concerns that conversion might encourage rebelliousness among slaves, missionaries relied heavily on carefully selected biblical passages that highlighted the benefits of humility and obedience. For example, missionaries often looked to verses that encouraged obedience. Among the oft-quoted verses was Ephesians 6:5, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ,” and Luke 12:47, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

Notwithstanding their efforts to appease slaveholders by accommodating slavery, missionaries still found many slaveholders exceedingly reticent about converting slaves to Christianity. Some SPG officials expressed their frustration, noting that it was “not so much [the slaves’] fault as their unhappiness in falling into the hands of such ill masters who not only neglect to instruct them but scoff at those that attempt it, and give them likewise strange ideas of Christianity from the scandalous lives they lead.” In this, missionaries hit upon a rarely noted problem in their efforts to convert enslaved men (p. 349) and women; namely that many whites in the country were unreformed, if not altogether unconverted. “It can hardly be expected,” one missionary wrote, “that those should promote the spiritual welfare of this meanest branch of their families who think but little (if at all) of their own eternal salvation” (Jernegan 1916, 526). Only a small minority of southern whites were church members, likely no more than 5 percent of the total population at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But even once converted to the faith, Christianity rarely had the effect of making slaveholders more kind or compassionate in their dealings with enslaved men and women. To the contrary, famed fugitive slave Frederick Douglass asserted of his own experience on the plantation, “I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others” (Douglass 1845, 117).

In 1724, the Bishop of London polled colonial ministers for information regarding their efforts to convert slaves. In response, missionaries reported that despite more than a century of trying to spread the Gospel, the number of Christian slaves was still embarrassingly low. They suggested that their failure to convert more slaves was caused planter resistance, the lack of clergy, and the problem of communicating with Africans unfamiliar with English.

As a result, enslaved men and women did not enter the Christian fold to any significant degree until the Great Awakening—a religious revival movement that swept across the country beginning in the early decades of the eighteenth century. John Marrant, a prominent black musician in South Carolina came face to face with the power of this new religious movement in 1769 when he entered a church during a raucous religious service being led by famed itinerant preacher George Whitefield. As Marrant entered the church, he met the eyes of George Whitefield who was bellowing from the pulpit. Marrant recalls the event in vivid detail:

The Lord accompanied the Word with such power, that I was struck to the ground, and lay both speechless and senseless for near half an hour. When I was come a little to, I found two men attending me, and a woman throwing water in my face, and holding a smelling-bottle to my nose; and when something more recovered, every word I heard from the minister was like a parcel of swords thrust in to me.

Whitefield had arrived in Carolina in 1738 and quickly became an early opponent of slavery, condemning the violence of the slave trade and the brutality of the masters. He scolded slaveholders for not being more forthright in converting slaves and threatened that a Heavenly retribution awaited slaveholders: “The blood of them spilt for these many years in your respective provinces, will ascend to heaven against you,” he once preached” (Haynes 1998, 24).

But in the end, Whitefield’s opposition to slavery was short-lived. Just five years after attacking the slaveholding class of the South, he became a slaveholder himself, acquiring a plantation in the 1740s. He justified this apparent contradiction by arguing that (p. 350) “[the slave trade] will be carried on whether we will [it] or not; I should think myself highly favored if I could purchase a good number of them.” Whitefield compared himself favorably to other slaveholders by emphasizing that he tried “to make [slaves’] lives more comfortable and lay a foundation for breeding up their posterity in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Like other missionaries, Whitefield claimed that under the influence of Christianity, slaves were more productive and obedient than unconverted slaves (Young 2007, 70).

Enslaved men and women converted to evangelical Protestantism during the Great Awakening for several reasons. Many slaves still held out hope that conversion might offer an avenue to freedom in line with a general increase in slave manumission during the late eighteenth century. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, some slaveholders felt compelled to manumit their slaves as a result of Great Awakening teachings and Revolutionary rhetoric. In addition, many blacks felt that the promise of spiritual equality inherent in slave conversion implied social equality. Throughout the Great Awakening, blacks and whites worshipped in racially integrated communities, though blacks were often relegated to separate pews. Blacks were allowed to act as exhorters of the faith, often preaching the benefits of Christianity to whites as well as blacks, an experience that proved essential to the later development of independent black churches. In addition, the revival movement allowed blacks and whites to engage in an expressive religious worship that may have more closely resembled African ritual patterns. Although significant numbers of enslaved men and women converted to the evangelical denominations, especially Baptist and Methodist congregations, the overall number of enslaved converts as compared to the whole population of enslaved men and women still remained very small at the turn of the nineteenth century.

In 1784, a Methodist conference in Baltimore took up the issue of slavery and established the Emancipation Laws, asserting that slavery was “contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature—hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion.” These laws called on all members to emancipate their slaves. Five years later the General Committee of Virginia Baptists followed suit, condemning slavery as a “violent deprivation of the rights of nature” (Harvey 2016, 53). But despite expressing an early opposition to slavery, the evangelical denominations ultimately adopted a pro-slavery theology. Largely due to the swift and severe reaction of slaveholders, Methodists suspended their Emancipation Laws less than six months after their adoption. Within a few short years, Baptists followed suit, also distancing themselves from their earlier antislavery positions.

The subsequent pro-slavery theology had a significant effect on the course of black religion in the early republic. Richard Allen, the first African American ordained by the Methodist Church, recounts the difficulties that he had while worshiping in the Methodist Church. In the fall of 1792, while attending a service at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, black churchgoers mistakenly occupied an area not designated for black worshipers. Once informed of their error, the congregants assured church officials that they would move to their designated area at the back of the church as soon as the prayer was over. The church leaders refused and “forcibly removed the transgressors as their heads remained bowed in prayer.” In defiance, the black congregants left the (p. 351) church in protest and, as one of the black congregants recalled, “they were no longer plagued by us” (Allen 1833, 17).

This event inspired Allen to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793 as an independent black church. In fact, the failure of evangelicals to adequately meet the needs of black worshippers inspired the development of independent black churches throughout the South and in the urban areas of the North as the eighteenth century drew to a close. In 1790, Andrew Bryan, a former slave who had converted during the Great Awakening, established the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, the oldest independent black church in the country.

These developments set the Christian church in the country on two separate courses.

As Frederick Douglass noted, African Americans perceived a central hypocrisy in the Christian theology espoused by pro-slavery Christians. Douglass and others declared a keen difference between what he called “the Christianity of the United States” and “the Christianity of Christ”; a difference so wide that Douglass suggests that “to receive the one as good, pure and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.” In announcing his adherence to a faith of peace and impartiality, Douglass declared a disdain for:

the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. . . . The [slave] dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

(Douglass 1845, 117)

As an alternative to the pro-slavery theology of some Christians, many African Americans developed a different Christian ideology that fiercely opposed slavery and racial oppression.

Praise-houses were first built in the slave South during the antebellum years as mechanisms of social control. Determined to limit the mobility of slaves, planters erected the modest structures in order to deprive slaves from different plantations the opportunity of gathering and worshiping together. Although they were initially intended to limit enslaved men and women, the praise-house eventually became the center of slave religious life.

Indeed, even when slaves were forced to attend regular church services under the watchful eye of slaveholders, overseers, and white preachers, they continued to attach their primary loyalties to the praise-house congregation. Simon Brown, a former slave in Virginia, highlighted the animosity that many slaves held for the formal church institution. When we attended church, Brown recalls, “we acted as if we enjoyed the services, but we didn’t.” Brown—and no doubt many of his fellow slaves—readily acknowledged that the Christianity of the master was not the Christianity of the slave. Instead, the religion of slaves, hidden away under the cover of night, was self-contained and independent: “The slaves had their Christian religion, too, and it wasn’t cold and proper, like in the white folks’ church” (Young 2007).

(p. 352) To all outward appearances, praise-houses were thoroughly unremarkable: small, dilapidated structures located on the outskirts of the plantation. Given its unimpressive structure along with its location in the outer reaches of the plantation, the praise-house often failed to attract much attention from outsiders. Although unadorned, the praise-house cloaked within its walls the heart of slave spiritual and religious practice.

Enslaved men and women often reserved for praise-house worship their most prized religious practice—the ring shout. Derived from a multitude of Africa-based circular dances, the ring shout emerged in the slave South as “the means by which [slaves] achieved oneness in America” (Stuckey 1998, 11). That is, the ring shout dance helped combine some of the cultural and ethnic diversity of enslaved Africans into a coherent African American culture. In performing the shout, adherents would first move around a circle, shuffling in a counterclockwise direction:

The faithful begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter, and soon brings out streams of perspiration . . . song and dance are alike energetic, and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous thud, thud, thud of the feet prevents sleep within half a mile of the praisehouse.

Reaching a long, slow crescendo, the ring shout often produced trance-like paroxysms of spiritual ecstasy. For their part, white missionaries were largely appalled by praise-house worship. One observer writes: “We cannot determine whether it has a religious character or not . . . but it is probable that they are the barbarous expression of religion handed down to them from their African ancestors” (Stuckey 1998, 98).

Notwithstanding their slight stature, humble constitution, and their early establishment as mechanisms for social control, community gathering spaces outside the direct purview of the masterclass were soon recognized for their rebellious potential. In Southampton, Virginia, Nat Turner was a preacher who led his fellow slaves in worship before he led them in an armed rebellion against slavery. In the aftermath of that rebellion, many slaveholders in Virginia forbade worship in the praise-house, opting instead to use the back benches, balconies, and galleries of their own churches for slaves’ use. Despite these attempts at social control, slaves yet saw in religious worship a powerful tool in the fight against slavery.

Fly Away Home to Zion—African American Folk Religion

Both Islam and Christianity existed in the slave communities of the plantation Americas alongside a wide range of ritual and medicinal practices commonly called conjure, hoodoo, juju, or rootwork. The terms used to describe these religious practices varied, (p. 353) but they all refer to a broadly coherent set of religious principles. Taken together, these beliefs addressed a wide range of concerns touching on matters both sacred and secular. Believers might secure the services of a conjure doctor in order to treat a physical ailment, harm an enemy, win the affections of a loved one or determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person. Where the master class attempted to mobilize Christianity as a mechanism of social control, slaves looked to alternative sources of ritual power as they conceptualized their religious worldview. Conjure lay at the heart of these negotiations as a philosophy of belief and practice that enabled slaves to have access to the otherworldly spiritual power.

Crucial to slaves’ religious belief system was the presumption of the intimate connections between the sacred world and the secular. Slave religion diffused the presumably discrete boundaries that separate the land of the living and that of the dead. As a result, much of slave religion, whether in the realm of Christian practice or in the sphere of conjure, was devoted to maintaining effective and propitious communication between the two realms. These ritual practices allowed practitioners to draw from the powers of the other world to affect real, material consequences in this world. In this, African American religious beliefs bore a striking resemblance to African traditional religions.

The presence, persistence, and ubiquity of African healing and spiritual practices in the Americas may be explained, at least in part, by the vast numbers of African ritual experts who were targeted by African political leaders during the era of the slave trade. As James Sweet notes in a related context, African ritual experts represented a clear challenge to African royal elites for at least two reasons. First, the priestly class was the only group of people, aside from the kingly court, who had the power to direct human actions and demand the loyalty of the populace. In addition, priests often demanded payment for their services, which challenged African forms of political tribute and taxation. In effect, African royal authorities perceived the priestly classes as collecting money in the form of ritual offerings that might otherwise be placed in royal coffers. As a result, political leaders throughout West Africa targeted ritual experts, selling them to European buyers who then sent them to the New World as slaves. Ritual experts who found themselves ensnared by the slave trade often resumed their vocations once they arrived on the plantation. To be sure, the methods and materials used by ritual experts in the Americas differed quite widely based on a number of factors, including region, time period, and circumstance. In South America and the Caribbean, for example, Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, and Haitian Vodou merged traditional African religions with Catholicism to create a syncretic practice whereby African-based spirits, deities, and rituals were applied to the Catholic pantheon of saints, holy days, and sacraments.

Throughout the plantation Americas, these African-based religious practices emerged as one of the principle means by which enslaved men and women resisted slavery. Root doctors, conjurers, and other ritual experts used their powers to protect slaves from the brutalities of slavery, creating in some slaves an obstinate defiance. For example, in 1791, the Haitian Vodou priest Boukman led a ritual in Bois Caiman that inaugurated the Haitian Revolution. In 1822, Gullah Jack Pritchard emboldened dozens of would be rebels in South Carolina by providing them with ritual medicines that (p. 354) promised victory and invincibility in their fight against slave owners. The rebels firmly believed in Jack’s powers, thinking it left them invincible to white authority. In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion after he received a spiritual vision from Heaven announcing that the day of freedom was at hand. And Frederick Douglass recalled of his days on a Maryland plantation that he knew a root doctor named Sandy, “a genuine African [who] had inherited some of the magical powers said to be possessed by the eastern nations” (Douglass 1994, 586). Sandy prepared a ritual medicine for Douglass with the promise that as long as he kept it firmly in his possession, and always on the right side, no white man would ever cause him physical harm for as long as he lived.

Notably, the use of spiritualism, divination, herbalism, and allopathy were all quite widespread in British North America among both blacks and whites, making the colonies home to a pronounced religious and spiritual pluralism. But despite the ubiquity of spiritualism in the larger landscape of American religion, conjure was held in particular opprobrium by the masterclass. This is largely due to the fact that although conjure was itself a widely diverse practice (including herbal remedies, divination, poisoning, and curses), one of its principal cohesive elements was its political relationship to the masterclass. Conjure functioned as a form of spiritual resistance that not only challenged slavery but also established an independent realm of criminality, justice, and punishment, outside the immediate authority of whites. Conjure granted its practitioners and adherents an avenue to influence, power, health, and retribution over which the masterclass had very little influence.

The centrality of slave conjure in antebellum America created a figure of considerable influence in the person of the conjure doctor, known variously as a two-head or a root worker. So important were root doctors to the slave community that many of them enjoyed more status than preachers of the Gospel. Well-known scholar W. E. B. Du Bois suggests the complexity and multiplicity of this ritual network when he described the conjure doctor as “the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people” (Du Bois, quoted in Holloway 1990, 365).


The field of African and African American religion comprises a vast geographical field. In Africa, this field encompasses religious traditions extending along an expansive swath of the West African coast and its immediate interior, extending from the Senegambian region in the north to Kongo-Angola in the south. In the Americas, the geographical scope of these religious cultures is also quite broad, including the British North American colonies extending southward to and through the Caribbean and South America. What is more, the religious cultures of African Diasporic peoples around the Atlantic experienced a great deal of change due not only to the raw passage of time but (p. 355) also to a tremendous amount of human movement and migration as blacks traveled around the Atlantic rim as seaman, soldiers, and slaves. In this vast field, Christianity, Islam, and traditional African religion not only claimed but also shared many adherents and practitioners during the era of slavery and the slave trade. Although responsive to each particular, local circumstance, this religious tradition yet drew on a deep reservoir of widely shared beliefs and ritual practices that circulated around the African Diaspora. The result was a ritual practice whose creativity, complexity, and subtlety not only tells the lie to old, persistent prejudices about black religion but also opens up vast new epistemological questions that challenge the clear and distinct lines drawn in Western thought between the sacred and the secular.


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