What role did Christianity play in Black communities during the colonial era to 1829?
Christianity played major roles in Black communities during the colonial era to1829. The black in the United States had been degraded into a miserable life of slavery. This degradation put them under very cruel conditions unlike their white counterparts. Thus, Christianity played a major role in the black communities at this time. Since most African slaves came from different regions in the continent, they lacked a common culture on which to coalesce. Their home religions and cultures had initially respected deities from where they came. Thus, Christianity acted as a representation of their ancient African traditions. The Africans came from backgrounds that always wanted to maintain harmonious existence between nature, and other supernatural beings.
Africans in North America were enslaved by mostly protestant Europeans. In most instances, British American slave holders heavily invested in slavery, despite being Christians. As such, the slave holders were uncomfortable with propagation of the gospel to the enslaved as they thought that such missions were meant to gain freedom for the slaves. They further thought that through such conversions, the enslaved could be enlightened of their equality to the whites. So they highly detested the thought that the slaves could a status equal to theirs. The European Americans are the ones did not like such a move. We are told of the brutality meted on the slaves in South Carolina. This greatly astounded the visiting cleric, Francis Le Jau.
Christianity, through the evangelical revivals at the beginning of 1740s, set pace for the conversion of most African Americans into Christianity. African Americans were provided with theological resources that led to the development of the African American Christianity. Many Africans embraced this new religion. The evangelicals stressed individual spiritual development, unlike Catholicism which went for memorization of the doctrine. Most anti- slavery positions had started disintegrating. Furthermore, the Baptists as well as the Methodists went as far as encouraging African Americans to take up leadership positions in the church. This saw many African American men licensed to preach, unlike before, when such responsibility was bequeathed to whites only. This gesture further drew more African Americans to Christianity.
Empowered, African Americans began to develop independent arenas upon which they expressed, experienced as well as interpreted their newly found commitment. Such fora provided a platform upon which black preachers affirmed their humanity. The preaching drew from scripture, such as Exodus; which showed them, like the “children of Israel,” they will be delivered. The African American converts had now found new hope in Christianity. Christianity at this juncture had made them have some hope of belonging and a feeling of equality.
Christianity also provided needed resources that critiqued the institution of slavery. These resources sought to condemn the white supremacists that had over time placed African Americans at the lowest level of humanity. Among the black abolitionists was Maria Stewart (1803-1880), as well as David Walker (1785-1830). David wrote a moving piece entitled “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World”.
David Walker’s work warned of an impending divine punishment for America for the sins of slavery and oppression of the black people. In many other instances, religion fomented open disdain for this despicable practice by open revolt like the one planned and executed in Richmond, Virginia in 1800. Gabriel Prosser used religious meetings to plan the revolts like the one that aborted in 1822 in South Carolina. Nat Turner, a religious visionary and preacher, organized a revolt in Northampton, Virginia.
Christianity was used by the Europeans to justify their turning African Americans into slaves. They said that by converting African Americans they were trying to bring the “heathens” to Christian religion. It can be seen here clearly how the Europeans were using religion to enslave the blacks. Political leaders would initially be assured that the conversion in no way meant equality of the races. In fact, most European Americans felt that the black person had no capacity to understand Christianity. It is such degrading that David Walker continuously alluded to in his piece of writing.
Churches were developed by the Africans to provide arenas upon which they could provide independent interpretations of Christian doctrine and teaching. Among the early churches included the early independent Baptist church in Georgia known as Silver Bluff in 1770s. This church was led by David George. Another first African Baptist church was founded in Savannah Georgia by Andrew Brian. Many preferred the Baptist framework because in provided for autonomous congregations and independence of the church leadership. However, despite the leadership of the new churches and congregants were independent, they faced constant monitoring and other restrictions especially those boarding on religions practice. All the same, these churches provided platforms upon which the African Americans expressed their independent interpretations of Christianity. They viewed true Christianity as one that epitomized humanity of everybody. Even free Baptists from the northern states from where slavery saw a gradual abolishment, congregations grew; especially after the American Revolution.
Many churches from different regions joined together to form denominations. Methodists were quite instrumental in developing African American leadership. The African Meeting House was established in Boston in 1805 and was led by native from New Hampshire called Thomas Paul (1773-1831) which the African American congregants founded the Abyssinian Baptist church in New York.
Free African society was another movement founded by Allen and Jones in 1787. This movement’s aim was to aid the growing free black. From this movement, two congregants emerged. These congregants reflected the various theological as well as institutional interests. One part of these congregations is the one that in 1792 founded the African Episcopal priests. He was its rector. The other part formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church. This one was founded in 1974 and was under the able leadership of Allen, its Pastor. The expansion did not end here. In 1816, Allen summoned several leaders of other black Methodist congregations from the region and, together, established the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. This became the first black denomination in America. Allen was its first Bishop. The same trend prevailed and many independent congregations were formed.
In conclusion, it can be seen that Christianity played a vital role in Black communities. This was in areas to do with eventual abolishment of slavery and agitation for equality among races. Further, it created a platform upon which the African Americans started developing. Their voice could now be heard through their church communities. Now religion became the religion that unified the African Americans; something that made them have a solid identity to present.
Clayborne Carson, In the Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011)
Walker David, Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (North Carolina: Univ of North Carolina Press, 2011).