The Effects of Christianity on Traditional African Religions
Since the introduction of slavery in the Americas in the early 1600’s, Christianity has had a powerful effect on the African American culture. When the European settlers discovered the communities in Africa, they saw opportunities for advancement of their society. The African Americans were forcibly and involuntarily brought to America to work as slaves under a new authority. At first, few were converted because of the white mans’ aversion to and fear of black Christians, and the notion of them acquiring legal rights. Yet, African Americans resisted very little to conversion; it was only a matter of time before the slaves began to assume Christian identities. Christianity first acted as a slight justification of slavery but then became a stepping-stone toward African American emancipation from it. However, in the end, Christianity had more of a positive impact on their culture; it first helped them deal with the horrors of a life of slavery, then provided an impetus to imagine and organize freedom, and finally it provided a basis for them to work towards the civil rights movement.
Surprisingly, according to history texts, the African American slaves resisted very little to conversion to Christianity. Many were told that it was their duty to be a slave and that if they complied, they would be granted the rite of passage into heaven. Scriptural passages in the Bible pointed out that slaves must be obedient and that there is a path to freedom. Even though there was little resistance to conversion, most priests and missionaries spent their time converting whites. Moreover, a slave at this time needed to have his master’s permission to be baptized. Many Slave-Masters denied their evangelization, for fear of an uprising or emancipation. (Raboteau, 222) It was the religion of the people around the slaves that enabled them to witness the many positive and negative sides of Christianity at this time.
Even though in the beginning it wasn’t acceptable for Negroes to be Christian, slave drivers made great efforts to eliminate the African culture. African religious traditions were considered ‘primitive’ or even ‘uncivilized’ by the slave masters. Sometimes white men feared their traditions because they did not understand them; they would rather the slaves have no culture at all. It was Christian beliefs that ‘justified’ and led slaveholders to their actions. They made many attempts to remove the slaves’ culture from them. The white men separated African Americans who spoke the same language or who were related. Families were split apart and children were sold. Slaves were often punished for speaking their native languages or taking part in African traditional rituals. The initiation of a Christian driven slave trade was a very detrimental blow to African culture; thus having a negative effect on the development of African Americans.
Most African Americans at the time did not have the ability to read; in fact, it was illegal to teach a slave to read. “Their knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition was acquired entirely from hearing it preached.” (Williams 217). Therefore, the Christian ideals that were overheard were open to interpretation. The African Americans were able to take what they heard and converse about the good things about Christianity had to offer them. Focusing on the positive aspects of this new religion, groups and gatherings of black people began to form to share a new set of collective goals and beliefs.
It wasn’t until the Great Awakening of the 1740’s that we saw appreciable mass conversion of black American’s. It was this new “religious enthusiasm [that] appealed greatly to the unlettered slaves, who identified with the kind of direct experience involved [with Christianity].” (Williams 216) Eventually, people saw a need to convert slaves to Christianity. In 1749, Thomas Bacon gave a sermon specifically to the black slaves of America. He used his interpretation of Christian beliefs to justify slavery. Bacon gave three reasons why slavery was just: 1) God made men and [the slaves], and he made them to serve him. 2) You [slaves] have souls that need to be saved. And finally: 3) You [slaves] have been baptized and wish to call yourself Christian. (Bacon 209-210). People saw that converting slaves to Christianity was a way to control them; but for the slaves, what began negatively would eventually come to benefit them.
Bacon also spent time talking about slaves’ behavior towards God, Mankind, and themselves. His goal was to instigate behavioral changes in the slaves and suppress future rebellions. Just as the slave-traders captured Africans and brought them to the Americas, Bacon’s Sermons captured and converted many slaves to Christianity. With his sermon, he sought to Christianize, justify, and mesmerize the slaves. Bacon stated that there were four main duties that the slaves must adhere to: 1) Duty and Behavior toward God. Which means that the slaves were supposed to look to God as the master of masters. Slaves were not to be secretive about anything and were supposed remember that God is always watching. "You [slaves] must love God." You must “love him with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Other godly duties include: worship through prayer, fear, reverence of God, and truth. 2) Duty and behavior toward the slave masters and mistresses. Which means that slaves must be obedient to the masters, and are not to be Eye-servants. Slaves had to be faithful and honest to their masters. 3) Duty and behavior toward fellow servants. And finally: 4) Duty and behavior to themselves. (Bacon 211 - 214). Bacon’s sermon tried to modify the behavior of the slaves for the betterment of white society.
While Christianity brought many slaves together by creating communities, it held a completely different meaning for other Africans in slave-America. Christianity was something that the white men did. It was a tool that they used to justify slavery. It toyed with the slaves’ hope of freedom and made them believe that if they worked well, and were obedient, that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Many of the early missionaries had a goal to create a more docile and obedient slave by feeding them select bits and pieces of Christian scripture. Slaves who were more docile and gullible would not be able free themselves from slavery; thus, it was a bad thing for them.
Once Christianity got a good grip on the black community, they began forming their own church-like safe houses. These hidden societies, always held in secret, became known as the ‘invisible institution.’ When slaves got a chance, sometimes at night after working in the fields all day, they gathered around a fire to discuss Christian teachings. The slaves were utilizing a religion that was once only a white man’s religion to foster a community with a sense of hope and optimism. It enabled the slaves to have fun, discuss and pass on escape route information, and just to ‘get away’ from life’s hardships. The African American slaves adapted the Christian religion to fit their needs; they blended old cultural elements with new Christian ideals. In this aspect, Christianity was a very good thing for the slaves to have come across.
As things progressed, we eventually saw a distinct division between the Christianity of the whites, and the Christianity of the blacks. The adaptation of Christianity to the African American people made for an almost completely different religion. The whites’ Christianity said that slavery was just and that it was the slaves’ duty to be a slave. On the other hand, Christianity held a dream of freedom and hope for the slaves, which was a very positive thing.
Communities were more capable of rebellion than a single individual. This was evident in the 1831 slave rebellion lead by Nat Turner. “Turner’s rebelliousness was nurtured by his sense of divine calling.” (Williams 323). This showed the whites that Christianity (and other religions) were not really creating peaceful slaves, but were actually promoting communities that were capable of rising up against the slave-masters.
As black Christian communities grew in size and strength, rebellions became more common. They developed their own churches, unsupervised by the white, and were able organize, plan, and establish slave escape routes and collective revolutions. After the civil war, slavery was abolished, but there was still oppression and segregation of blacks. Christianity now was the glue that held the black communities together and pushed them forward towards and through to the civil rights movement.
Christianity helped control the slaves, but eventually aided in the end of slavery. The African Americans were forced to leave behind their traditions, religions, and culture. Separated from everyone and everything they ever knew, and in the face of fear and adversity, they found Christianity. Christianity captured their hearts and literally saved their souls. It brought the people together again, allowing them to fight for true justice. Their conversion and adaptation to Christianity held many positive and negative effects for the African Americans. It brought the slaves back together after generations of separation by creating communities and enabling them to organize and start a revolution ultimately leading to the end of slavery. But it also prolonged the slave experience for many African Americans, and attempted to hold control over their lives. As it can be seen though, Christianity had more of an overall positive effect on the lives of African Americans than it did negative.
Bacon, Thomas, “Christianity Shapes American Slavery.” Religion in American history: A Reader. Eds. John Butler and Harry S. Stout. New York. Oxford University Press, 1998. Pg. 207-214
Raboteau, Albert. “The Invisible Institution.” Slave Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Pg. 215-256
Williams, Peter. America’s Religions. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pg. 23-28, 216-219, 322-328.