Co-opting Conversion: Southern Slaves (Un)Acceptance of Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Era
David T. Shackelford
University of Utah
Published in Utah Historical Review, Vol III.
Winner of the 2013 U of U Essay Award
Traditional scholarship would assert that during the Civil War, African American slaves converted to Christianity in large numbers. Many scholars argue that a large majority of southern slaves committed and converted to the common religious principles to create what they term Afro-Christianity. This perspective is a bit too simplistic however. Using slave narratives, stories, and biographies from the antebellum era, this paper suggests that the conversion of slaves to Christianity might not have happened the way the Afro-Christian scholars suggest and that in fact, many slaves did not convert to Christianity. The argument advanced is that, under the slave system, Christianity did not meet the majority of slaves’ needs and most did not convert because of the content of the gospel being taught to them and the hypocrisy of a nation supporting slavery through Christianity. Additionally, those that did accept Christianity did so for reasons other than faith. African American slaves “converted” to Christianity because of societal opportunities, literacy, and because it offered them a tool for resistance and rebellion. It was only the resulting freedom and salvation of the Civil war that caused true conversions of African Americans to the Christian faith.