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This Far by Faith

Journeys

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1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
Next Journey
Religious Transitions: From the Mother Land to the New World



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Timeline: 1526-1775 View Detailed Timeline
1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues



1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
Religious Transitions: From the Mother Land to the New World



"The slaves had this saying that 'there must be another Bible within that Bible.'" --Alonzo Johnson

A very few Africans enslaved in America were Christians; some were Muslims, and the vast majority practiced traditional African religions, which were animistic in nature. Transplanted to a strange country, separated from family and society, and living under the harsh cruelties of slavery, Africans faced huge obstacles to practicing their diverse faiths. Evidence shows, however, that many newly arrived Africans were able to keep their rituals and beliefs alive in America. Their sons and daughters, even as they embraced Christianity in greater numbers, continued to hold onto these traditions by transforming them in creative ways.

From their recorded oral histories, it is apparent that Africans in America continued to believe in the supernatural. Select men and women still functioned as priests or conjurers, with the powers to mediate between the human and divine realms. Their skills were sought by those seeking retribution, special favors, or a cure. One later example is that of Gullah Jack, an Angolan priest, who cooked special meals and handed out charms in order to protect the men participating in Denmark Vesey's rebellion.


"Plantation Burial," painting by John Antrobus.

"Plantation Burial," painting by John Antrobus.


Up to 20% of the Africans brought to America were Muslims. Islam had established a presence along the West African coast long before the Portuguese introduced Christianity there. Some Muslims, who could often read and write Arabic, were given the role of plantation overseers in America. They stood out to their Christian owners because they would often pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, abstain from drinking, dress differently, or produce Arabic writings.

Legends, particularly those found in the Sea Islands, suggest that enslaved Africans held onto the belief that life continued after death. Almost every Sea Island has an inlet with a little creek known as Ibo Landing, where it is told that Ibo men, women, and children drowned themselves in front of their masters. Black Sea Island residents say that the Ibos either walked across the water or that they flew back to Africa. For Sea Islanders and many others, death was simply a journey into the spirit world, not a break with life.


Salil Bilali, a Muslim from the Sea Islands, lookalike, from an 1844 book by James C. Prichard, Illustrations to the Researches into the Physical History of Mankind.

Salil Bilali, a Muslim from the Sea Islands, lookalike, from an 1844 book by James C. Prichard, Illustrations to the Researches into the Physical History of Mankind.


Funerals were critical to enslaved Africans, and were attended by everyone in a community as well as those who could sneak off from surrounding plantations. They provided a ritual in which Africans of diverse traditions could come together to respect the dead. In many cases, whites banned black funerals, fearing the camaraderie and potential for rebellion.

One devotional aspect that all Africans shared was a belief in the power of the human voice, and dance. Dance was like prayer - an integral part of religion and culture. In the New World, it became known as the "ring shout." The dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and the gods, but, as the enslaved embraced Christianity, it became part of Christian worship.

In order to differentiate this prayer from mundane dance, "shouters" could not cross their feet, and the circle moved in one direction: counterclockwise. Some scholars believe the ring shout descends from Islamic word shaw't, which means to circle the sacred Ka'bah at Mecca counterclockwise. The joy of dancing and singing inherent in the ring shout would eventually develop into the energetic, life-affirming music of gospel.

Many aspects of African religions made it possible for the enslaved to adopt Christianity and creatively maintain aspects of African practices and beliefs. Because most African traditions presumed a Supreme Deity, it was not difficult for them to adopt the Christian concept of God. Belief in the Yoruba god Elegba as a divine mediator prepared the enslaved to accept Jesus as their personal savior and to assign to Him certain powers. Christianity also shared a belief with African religions that through faith and prayer, one could overcome adversity of all kinds, including sickness and illness. Another factor, according to series adviser Albert Raboteau of Princeton University, was the fact that in West Africa, wars often resulted in a sharing of deities and rituals between the victors and vanquished. It was a region whose inhabitants, now enslaved in America, were open to the "new."

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Did You Know?



For centuries, Muslims around the world recited the Ayat al-Kursi in the belief that Allah would protect them from evil.
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"Seeking" was a right of passage in Gullah churches
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