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Slavery and the Making of AmericaDrawing of a sermon at the First African Church in Richmond, Virginia
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Religion
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Hidden Objects Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Religion
Religion
By: Kimberly Sambol-Tosco


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Frederick de Wit's Map of Africa
Frederick de Wit's Map of Africa, ca. 1688. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
At the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, African religious beliefs and practices were numerous and varied. In addition to a wide variety of polytheistic religions, a significant portion of the continent had for centuries fallen under Islamic influence. Despite this diversity, there were some common threads across cultural groups. For instance, West African societies, the largest source for American slaves, shared a belief in a Supreme Creator, a chief deity among lesser gods, to whom they prayed and made sacrifices. Through laws and customs honoring the gods, the ancestors of one's people, and the elderly, West Africans sought a harmonious balance between the natural and spiritual worlds. Further, they made music and dance vital components of their worship practices. Enslaved men and women kept the rites, rituals, and cosmologies of Africa alive in America through stories, healing arts, song, and other forms of cultural expression, creating a spiritual space apart from the white European world.

Africans and African descendents working in the early modern Atlantic commercial system were exposed to the world of European Christianity as early as the fifteenth century, when Portuguese missionaries came to the coasts of Africa. Some slaves, therefore, brought Christian beliefs with them when they were thrust into slavery. Others converted in America. During the seventeenth century blacks in the Dutch New Netherlands and Spanish Florida baptized their children and were married by the church. In part, this participation in the dominant European religion reflected (and helped to bring about) a colonial society in which blacks were more fully integrated and enjoyed greater rights than later generations of slaves would.
Photo 'Doop-Boeck' -- BAPTISMS FROM 1639 TO 1697 IN THE REFORMED DUTCH CHURCH
"Doop-Boeck" -- BAPTISMS FROM 1639 TO 1697 IN THE REFORMED DUTCH CHURCH, New York. Archives of the Collegiate Church of the City of New York.
However, slaves also saw conversion to Christianity as a road to freedom. In the early years of settlement, for instance, fugitive slaves from South Carolina, headed for Florida, where the Spanish Crown promised them freedom as a reward for conversion. Slaveholders in the British North American colonies became increasingly fearful that Christianization of slaves would lead to demands for emancipation. In 1667 Virginia passed a law declaring that conversion did not change the status of a person from slave to free. Other colonies passed similar laws during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
During the early eighteenth century Anglican missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to slaves in the Southern colonies often found themselves butting up against not only uncooperative masters, but also resistant slaves. An unquestionable obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity among slaves was their desire to continue to adhere as much as possible to the religious beliefs and rituals of their African ancestors. Missionaries working in the South were especially displeased with slave retention of African practices such as polygamy and what they called idolatrous dancing. In fact, even blacks who embraced Christianity in America did not completely abandon Old World religion. Instead, they engaged in syncretism, blending Christian influences with traditional African rites and beliefs.
Photo of a button inscribed with a spiritual symbol
Button inscribed with a spiritual symbol. Levi Jordan Plantation, Brazoria, Texas. Courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Brown.
Symbols and objects, such as crosses, were conflated with charms carried by Africans to ward off evil spirits. Christ was interpreted as a healer similar to the priests of Africa. In the New World, fusions of African spirituality and Christianity led to distinct new practices among slave populations, including voodoo or vodun in Haiti and Spanish Louisiana. Although African religious influences were also important among Northern blacks, exposure to Old World religions was more intense in the South, where the density of the black population was greater.
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