1526-1775 1776-1865 1866-1945 1946-1967 1967-TODAY The Journey Continues

1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA

Religion in Africa: Common Themes

“I am a child of God, a servant of Allah, a child of Shango, a child of Oshun, no matter what anyone does to me.” —Show 1, This Far by Faith

Africa is a vast continent, with many ethnicities, languages, and cultures. The Sahara Desert divides the continent geographically and spiritually. North Africa belongs to the Middle Eastern world, with Islam established as early as the seventh century A.D. Christianity, meanwhile, held the ancient Coptic churches in Egypt, flourished for a long time in the Sudan, and still survives in Ethiopia, the only African kingdom with a Christian state church. Most Africans, however, came from societies with traditional African religious backgrounds, unrelated to Islam or Christianity.

As a whole, African religious traditions combine belief in a Supreme Being with the worship of other gods and ancestors, and use ritual and magic to mediate between human beings, nature, and the gods. In many African languages, there is no word for God, because in their tradition, every thing and every place embodies God.

Many African religions have common tenets. They share a belief in a community of deities, the idea that ancestors serve as a way to communicate with these deities, and the belief that society as a whole is organized around values and traditions drawn from a common origin, which was created by one Supreme Being. The rituals practiced in many traditional African societies are considered to be stepping-stones to the ultimate goal of death and the afterlife. There are rituals that guide one through all of the transitional stages of life, such as birth, puberty, initiation into adulthood, marriage, having children, old age, death, and life after death. These rituals allow participants to know what society expects of them in the next stage of their life. Each group of people in separate regions of the continent has creation stories that tie them directly to the God or gods they worship. Usually, the God created the earth, animals and, lastly, humans to take dominion over the region where they live.

Despite the universality of belief in a Supreme Being in Africa, formal, church-like worship of God was not widely practiced. Nevertheless, the concept of God is transcendent, and there is a popular myth, told from West Africa to the Upper Nile, which says that He or the sky, his dwelling place, was once much nearer to the earth.

In addition to the Supreme Being, Africans believe in many other spiritual entities, roughly divisible into nature spirits and ancestors. Some of them have both human and natural origins. It is said, however, that in sacrifices offered to other deities, the essence of the gift still goes to the Supreme Being.

DID YOU KNOW 30% of the Enslaved left from the coast of Nigeria.

Estimated Number of Africans Exported By Region
Region Percentage Volume
Sierra Leone 4.3 111,600
Senegambia 5.5 141,300
Windward Coast 11.6 299,300
Gold Coast 18.4 473,800
Bight of Benin 11.3 292,700
Bight of Biafra 30.1 776,400
Angola and Mozambique 18.2 468,300
Other/Unknown 0.6 16,100
DID YOU KNOW Most enslaved Africans ended up in Brazil.

Estimated Number of Africans
Imported to the Americas, 1451-1870
British North America 532,000
Spanish America 1,687,000
British Caribbean 2,443,000
French Caribbean 1,655,000
Dutch Caribbean 500,000
Brazil 4,190,000
Total 11,007,000
DID YOU KNOW The first blacks to arrive in the Americas were Catholics.

Spaniards brought Africans to the Americas as slaves in 1526. The first recorded slave revolt was noted that same year, in the area now known as the Carolinas. Later, free cities (among them St. Augustine, Florida, one of the oldest cities in the U.S.) were established for blacks who converted to Catholicism.

Religion in Africa: Unity in Diversity

While the many traditional religions of Africa do share commonalities, it is through their differences that we get a true sense of the vastness of the continent, and the diversity existing among the men, women, and children suddenly thrust together in the New World. Many of these differences center on the particularities of the Supreme Being, and the distinct characteristics attributed to Him.

The Mbuti Pygmies, who live in the forest regions of the River Congo, believe in a great, elderly being of the sky, lord of storms and rainbows, named Tore. Before hunting, he is invoked for success in finding food. The Pygmies also revere the moon, and some say that it was the moon that molded the first man, covered him with skin, and filled him with blood. The central Pygmy deity, however, is the god of the forest, who is benevolent and to whom men pay as much respect as they do their own parents.

The Bushmen and Hottentots were the original inhabitants of southern Africa, when the first Europeans arrived at the Cape. Modern Bushmen pray to celestial spirits and tell myths and legends about them. They also pay special attention to the moon, which plays significantly in their speculations about the origins of death.

In East Africa, a common name for the Supreme Being is Mulungu, a word indicating the almighty and ever-present creator. The thunder is said to be his voice, lightning is his power, and he rewards the good and punishes the wicked. From the northern Kalahari through the Congo to Tanzania, the Supreme Being is called Leza , perhaps from the root meaning, "to cherish," as he is the one who watches over people. Leza is said to live in heaven and is transcendent and incomprehensible.

Various names for the Supreme Being are encountered in West Africa. Nyambe, perhaps from a root indicating power, is used from Botswana to Cameroon and a similar appellation, Name, is found throughout West Africa. Other divine names are: Ngewo, god of the Mende people of Sierra Leone; Amma of the Dogon of Mali; Mawu of the Ewe of Abomey; Olorun of the Yoruba, Chukwu of the Ibo, and Soko of the Nupe--all of Nigeria.

The Africans enslaved in the Americas were not all of one background; rather, they spoke different languages, and their myths, magic, gods and beliefs were often not the same. This diversity of tradition and culture made it all the more difficult for African religion to survive under the harsh slavery system. But these diverse African peoples also had a long tradition of mixing and appropriating beliefs, gods and practices from each other. In America, they continued to creatively blend their faiths, and to hold fast to those beliefs and rituals that they did hold in common in an attempt to better survive the New World.

Read a former slave's account of religious beliefs in his native Nigeria at http://vi.uh.edu/pages/mintz/22.htm

DID YOU KNOW The foundations of African-American culture grew as much from the differences existing among the slaves as from the similarities.

Unity in Diversity

The nearly 600,000 African people shipped to North America over the course of 240 years came from scores of nations with different climates and many different ethnic and social groups. Africans brought to America were taken from kingdoms, cities, and family farms, all with unique cultures and histories. They spoke hundreds of different languages and dialects. Most grew up multilingual and many had, even before the passage across the Atlantic, begun to speak a common language. During the horrors of this Middle Passage, these men, women, and children began to discover that they were not members of a particular people or nation, but "Africans." These intangible aspects of mind and spirit, things that could not be grasped by hand, thrown away, or worn out, became the foundation for African-American culture.

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.

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.

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."

DID YOU KNOW "Seeking" was a right of passage in Gullah churches

Hear Sapelo Island resident Cornelia Bailey talk about "seeking." Tape # 1030 7:42:52 - 7:47:05

or, longer description but more personal: Tape # 1031 08:38:20:08 - 08:42 (approx)

DID YOU KNOW For centuries, Muslims around the world recited the Ayat al-Kursi in the belief that Allah would protect them from evil.

The Ayat al-Kursi

Verse 255 of Surah-e-Baqarah (chapter: The cow) in the holy Quran is called Ayat Al-Kursi. It reads: "Allah! There is no god but He - The Living, The Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as he permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures As) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass Aught of his knowledge Except as He willeth. His throne doth extend over the heavens and on earth, and He feeleth No fatigue in guarding and preserving them, For He is the Most High, The Supreme (in glory)."

The Great Awakening: Revivals and Spiritual Equality

“Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodists? No, No, No! Whom have you there? We don't know those names here. All who are here are Christians…Oh, is this the case? Then God help us to forget your party names and to become Christians in deed and truth.” —George Whitefield

Beginning in 1734, colonial America was seized by a religious awakening that would spark dramatic doctrinal changes, heated theological debates, and the conversion of blacks in record numbers. Religion in America was in a crisis; the intellectual sermons that had become the hallmark of that era were failing to inspire congregations, and church membership was on the decline. But a spike in the nation's collective religious piety, "The Great Awakening," brought on by a handful of devoted evangelical preachers, would forever change the religious discourse in America and shape our national identity.

Jonathan Edwards, a minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, set out to reawaken spiritual devotion through a simple but radical message of salvation. Departing from the academic, rigid sermons of the day, Edwards preached spiritual rebirth with a message aimed at parishioners' hearts. At the core of his message was the belief that all humankind is sinful and must seek redemption by surrendering to God's will. According to Edwards, that meant experiencing a conversion in both body and soul, with parishioners being physically overwhelmed by a sense of profound despair followed by blissful calm. In one six-month stretch, Edwards allegedly converted 300 souls.

Like Edwards in New England, William Tennent and his son Gilbert led religious revivals in New Jersey and throughout the rest of the middle colonies. Their emotional, impassioned style of preaching became their signature and was intended to provoke conversions of sinners. The Tennents even established a seminary to train missionaries in their unique style of preaching. It was called Log College, and would later be renamed Princeton University.

The Great Awakening reached the South with the help of a Virginian, Samuel Davies. A licensed Presbyterian minister and evangelist, Davies traveled extensively throughout the South, preaching to whites as well as slaves. He took special interest in the spiritual and physical well being of black people, baptizing slaves and teaching them to read. His work planted the seeds for the growth of the Baptists in North Carolina and Methodism throughout the South.

One of the most memorable and effective leaders of the Great Awakening was George Whitefield. A Methodist minister, Whitefield toured widely throughout the colonies, preaching a message of spiritual equality: we are all sinners and equally beholden to a merciful God for salvation. This theme resonated with the poor and oppressed, whom traditional Christian sects had rebuffed.

His emotionally charged sermons stood in stark contrast to the quiet, intellectual, and demure masses of the Anglican Church. Whitefield frequently wept openly and spoke extemporaneously with wild, dramatic gestures, making haunting predictions of the hellfire and brimstone awaiting unrepentant sinners. Legions of Whitefield imitators appeared, copying his gestures and mimicking his gripping, dramatic style. Before long, Whitefield's following had grown exponentially, and he began to preach outdoors, under tents, and in fields. Particularly captivated by Whitefield's unique preaching strategy were poor whites and enslaved blacks, who were finally beginning to embrace Christianity.

DID YOU KNOW The slave trade flourished during religious revivalism.

Religious Revivalism and the Slave Trade

Even as religious revivalism took over the country, the slave trade flourished. It fueled the Charleston economy during the 1700s. Three quarters of all slaves entering the United States came through Charleston's ports, and by the end of the century, so many slaves were coming to the city that the majority of its population was black, reaching nearly 60% by the start of the Civil War.

DID YOU KNOW Phyllis Wheatley, born a slave, wrote a poem for Whitefield when he died.

A Eulogy for George Whitefield

This is an excerpt from the eulogy that Phyllis Wheatley, who was born a slave, wrote for George Whitefield:

HAIL, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequall'd accents flow'd,
And ev'ry bosom with devotion glow'd;
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin'd
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.

Behold the prophet in his tow'ring flight! He leaves the earth for heav'n's unmeasur'd height, And worlds unknown receive him from our sight. There Whitefield wings with rapid course his way, And sails to Zion through vast seas of day.

To read the rest of the poem, go to:


Origins of Religious and Social Upheaval

The Great Awakening was a watershed moment in the maturation of America, both politically and spiritually. The country was in the midst of a population shift as people moved south and west. They faced hard lives, trying to draw subsistence from the land while locked in violent confrontation with the Native Americans, whose land they were colonizing. Social democratic ideals were still forming in the heartland of colonial America and would come to the fore with the onset of the Revolutionary War. The radical evangelical message of Whitefield, Tennent, and Edwards had at its core those very same democratic ideals: all humankind is created equal before the eyes of God.

The Great Awakening was fundamentally a humanitarian movement, fostering religious, class, and racial tolerance. In its simple language and emotional fervor, it appealed to those who faced hard lives, whether black or white. And in its offer of spiritual fellowship and solace, it spoke directly to the black community.

Pointing to the inclusion of blacks and the unorthodox styles of the revivalist preachers, critics saw the Great Awakening as a threat to traditional clerical authority. Religious upheaval came in its wake, with growing Anglican and Quaker denominations becoming havens for those who disdained the flamboyant revivalist style. A rash of Baptist and Methodist denominations adopted the converted.

For black people, The Great Awakening marked the first time they encountered a Christianity they could wholeheartedly embrace. Even by the time of the Revolution, only one to two percent would profess Christianity. Yet, gradually, collectively, they reconfigured the religion of their oppressors. Evangelism presented them with a refuge. At revivalist meetings, they were recognized as full human beings. They were encouraged to shout, sing, feel, and discuss their faith with their Christian brethren. The healing power of evangelical religion, dramatically revealed to them in the revivalist movement, forged a bond between black people and Christianity that would endure for generations to come. White people, however, were now forced to provide answers. For years, slavery had been justified because Africans worshiped "heathen" religions. How to explain slavery now that they were Christians?

DID YOU KNOW The first black churches were established in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.

The First Black Churches

African Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia (1758); Silver Bluff Baptist in Aiken County, South Carolina (1773); and First African Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia (1777) are three of the earliest known black churches. Scholars believe that Africans were drawn to the Baptist tradition because of its emphasis on church democracy - any one could become a preacher, as long as he/she felt the calling. In Savannah, First African Baptist was built by slaves in their off hours, working at night. The church took twelve years to build. It still stands today.

A Religious Justification for Slavery

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have - you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” —Leviticus 25:44-46

Although today we see slavery in moral terms, during the early years of the slave trade up until the Civil War, most Americans saw slaves as property, like a car or a computer. Owning slaves was an inalienable right for those who had the money to afford them.

During the eighteenth century, slavery itself became inextricably bound up with consumerism. By mid-century, a third of the British merchant fleet was engaged in transporting 50,000 Africans a year to the New World. American ship owners, farmers, and fisherman also profited from slavery. Proponents of slavery needed to look no further than the Bible to justify "the peculiar institution."

A common argument for slavery was found in the book of Genesis, chapter 9, in which Noah's youngest son Ham saw the nakedness of his father and had his brothers cover him. Noah then cursed Ham to be a servant to his brothers forever: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25-26). Many interpreted Ham's curse as placed upon people of darker skin color - specifically, Africans. The argument's circular logic stated that since Ham's descendants were to be slaves forever, and Africans were already slaves and inferior, then they should remain in slavery. Proponents also pointed to the New Testament where, they argued, Christ never condemned slavery.

Some argued that, far from being an evil or a human institution merely permitted by God, slavery was in fact a "positive good" because it exposed "heathens" to Christianity. The plausibility of this argument would survive in the "Bible Belt" beyond the end of slavery, and would be used into the mid-twentieth century as a defense of the subjugation of Blacks as part of God's continuing plan for their progress from African savagery to civilized Americans.

Faced with the inherent paradox of this logic, the enslaved themselves reacted in a variety of ways. Some, by force of logic and painful personal experience, became atheists who scoffed at the religion of masters who prayed with them on Sunday, then beat them on Monday. Others sought to distinguish between slaveholding religion and Christianity proper. Still others held onto their African beliefs, mixing them into the potpourri of traditions found in the "bush arbors," the secret meeting places that became the invisible churches for those early African-Americans.

To read more, go to http://smith2.sewanee.edu/gsmith/Courses/Religion391/DocsMilitantSouth/1853-GovHammond.html

DID YOU KNOW Enslaved Africans built "an Invisible Church."

The Invisible Church

The "Invisible Church" met deep in the woods and swamps, as far as possible from the suspicious eyes of the master or his overseer. Leaders were often slaves from the Big House, or free blacks who had learned about the Bible in the white churches. At these secret religious services, wild game or pigs taken from the plantation were roasted over hot coals in a pit to avoid telltale smoke and flame. The roasted pig was seasoned with wild herbs, and legend has it that this originated the southern tradition of "barbecue." There, in the security of the wilderness, the black worshippers assembled around a large iron pot, inverted to capture the sound of the fervent preaching, praying, and singing, which marked the style of the Invisible Church.

Quakers: From Slave Traders to Early Abolitionists

“What greater Oppression can there be inflicted upon our Fellow Creature, than is inflicted on the poor Negroes…cruel Whippings, and other cruel Punishments, and by short allowance of Food.” —George Keith, "An Exhortation and Caution to Friends concerning buying or keeping of Negroes", 1693

The Quakers were among the most prominent slave traders during the early days of the country; paradoxically, they were also among the first denominations to protest slavery. The denomination's internal battle to do so, however, took over a century. Their fight began in Pennsylvania. There, in April 1688, four Dutch members of "The Society of Friends," as it was then known, sent a short petition "against the traffick of men-body" to their meeting in Germantown.

Pennsylvania had existed for four years; slaveholding had been present for at least three of those. These Dutch Christians, alluding to Matthew 7:12, believed that Jesus' morality demanded a higher standard: "Is there any that would be . . . sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? …There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men as we will be done ourselves."

The 1688 Quaker Meeting, however, ducked the petition of its Dutch members, as they found the matter "so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here." The petition was filed away, to be discovered again and published in 1844, 156 years later. While previously, English Christians such as George Fox and William Edmondson, both Quakers, and Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian, had criticized slavery and called for reforms, the Germantown petition may well have been the first direct protest against the system of slavery itself.

For the next half-century, similar scattered protests against the slavery system were offered to an indifferent or actively hostile North American public. Before the Revolution, Quakers like George Keith and Samuel Sewall criticized the common practice of purchasing Africans who had been made captive in wars. Since "every War is upon one side Unjust," Sewall observed, "an Unlawful War can't make lawful Captives. And by receiving, we are in danger to promote, and partake in their Barbarous Cruelties." Early opponents of slavery often paid a high price for their outspokenness. They were disowned by family and fellow congregants, and faced public ostracization. Despite their efforts, the moral question of slavery would not be joined nationally until a decade before the Civil War.

Quaker Activists, Achievements, and Impending Revolution

During the 1740s and early 1750s, the Quakers began to shift positions. In part, this shift coincided with the death of some wealthy, politically and religiously influential Quakers who had been large slave owners and had thrown roadblocks in the way of any meaningful anti-slavery stand at the Yearly Meeting. But, even more so, this shift was encouraged by the gentle persuasion of a new generation of anti-slavery reformers, the most significant of whom were John Woolman and Anthony Benezet.

A New Jersey tailor and scrivener (writer of wills), Woolman was asked at age 19 to write a bill of sale for a female slave. He complied with this request, but found his conscience so troubled that he became an abolitionist. He traveled extensively, ranging as far afield as Rhode Island and North Carolina, but mostly within Pennsylvania and New Jersey, visiting slave owners and urging them to free their slaves. He insisted on paying for hospitality that he received from slaveholders, often paying their slaves himself. Most male Quakers wore clothes dyed with indigo, a product of slave labor. Woolman's insistence on wearing undyed clothing made his appearance quite unusual. He was a regular attendee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where the abolition of the slave trade was still extremely controversial because some Quakers still owned slaves, with many more wishing that they did.

Anthony Benezet was a French Huguenot refugee who came to America to flee religious persecution. He became a Quaker and a schoolteacher in his new home in Philadelphia. In 1750, Benezet opened the first school for African-American children in Philadelphia. His main contribution to the anti-slavery cause was as an author of several detailed books and as an indefatigable correspondent on the slavery issue with such noted figures as the Methodist John Wesley and England's Queen Mother Charlotte. Wesley was one of Benezet's converts to the antislavery cause. Then, in 1775, Benezet helped to found the first American anti-slavery society, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Meanwhile, at 1758's Yearly Meeting, Woolman and his anti-slavery allies realized their most notable achievement. That Yearly Meeting decided to prohibit members from buying or selling slaves, and it organized committees to visit slaveholders and urge them to free their slaves. These actions committed the Yearly Meeting to prohibit slaveholding altogether, but they did not do so officially until 1776, eighteen years later.

Further achievements by the Quakers were to come: Benezet's lobbying of the Pennsylvania legislature helped to produce the first gradual emancipation statute in North America in 1780, and by 1781, Quakers throughout the colonies had prohibited their members from slaveholding. First, however, all inhabitants of the Colonies had to face a greater challenge - Revolution.