African American Evangelical Development: How and Why Blacks Accepted Christianity in the Antebellum South
University of Utah
Read at the 2011 Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference
Winner: Best Religious History Paper
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol I.
Whether as slaves or as free blacks, African-Americans faced immense contradictions between the teachings of the Bible and the experience of slavery in the antebellum South. Blacks often wondered whether Christianity was a white man’s religion and what meaning the faith had for African slaves. How could a loving God allow such suffering to occur? Early African-Americans also questioned where they fit into the Bible story and ultimately debated their own identity and destiny. Beliefs of Black inferiority and doctrines of social control should have discouraged conversion to Christianity among African-Americans. In view of such paradoxes and inconsistencies, how did so many African-Americans, slave or free, come to accept Christianity?
Initially, Blacks contacted Christianity through the ministration of Whites. Slave masters and pastors alike attempted to convert their human property for a variety of economic, social, and religious reasons. In an attempt to seek out their own people, early pioneering Black preachers also spread Christian principles. Both licensed and unlicensed, many of these ministers relied upon their personal conversion experiences and revelations to establish Christianity among the slave quarters. Finally, the fervor of the First and Second Great Awakenings also converted thousands of African-Americans throughout the South.
Primarily, African-Americans were attracted to egalitarian Christian dogmas. The idea of a universal Redeemer, a religion for all people, the promise of Christian freedom, and a God who was no respecter of persons offered spiritual liberation from the burdens of slavery and prejudice. In addition, Blacks began to identify with the stories of the Bible, Moses, John the Baptist, and the Three Hebrew Children. The Bible gave African-Americans a greater sense of identity and destiny outside of slavery. This early acceptance of Christianity, in spite of apparent Christian contradictions ultimately laid the foundation for the establishment of the Black Church and the beginnings of experiential African-American religion which continues today.