Conversion and Hypocrisy: Reflections on the Challenges of Teaching about the Christianity of Slaves and Masters

“…between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”  Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston:  Anti-Slavery Office, 1845)

When I teach about North American slavery, at the beginning of a quarter, at least a few students will invariably ask one particular question and share one specific comment. Thinking critically but also sympathetically about slaves, students wonder, “Why did slaves adopt the religion of their enslavers?” Eyeing masters with suspicion, students criticize Christian slaveholders as “hypocrites” or worse, as false believers. My answers to these concerns are both simple and complex. For example, my short answer to the slave question is that slaves chose to convert or not to convert to Christianity and that when slaves became Christian they profoundly changed theology and ecclesiastical practice such that their faith justified their resistance and even rebellion. My first response to the criticism of proslavery Christianity is less simple; I ask undergraduates for how long have slavery and Christianity developed not in contention, but in fact, in cooperation. My reflections on the consequent discussions and debates that arise from these initial questions and answers comprise the body of this piece.

The questions of agency, intention, hypocrisy and authenticity certainly dog professional scholars; however, undergraduates approach these issues with very static notions of slavery, religion, and culture. Most of my students have not seen the 1977 historical television series of Alex Haley’s Roots:  The Saga of an American Family (1976). However, it is the scene of the Mandinka slave Kunta Kinte whipped until he capitulates and accepts the new name of Toby that not only captured an American audience but also created a visual image that has come to represent slavery and conversion in the minds of undergradautes. Despite vast seas of scholarship that argue for the importance of time and place in studying human bondage, recent text books have focused on slavery as an issue but have spent far less time examining the diverse experiences of the slaves themselves.1 In addition, in many different states, especially those with histories of plantation slavery, the teaching of slavery as a system of dominance and oppression integral to the development of the United States is virtually ignored. Consequently, most of my students, even the most curious to learn about slavery, have an extremely narrow and superficial understanding of human bondage.

To compound initial problems of analysis, students understand religion as providing access to the sacred and to forms of being that are ultimately good and pure or they dismiss religion as an outdated mode of thought. All the students acknowledge that culture is important, but most think of culture as a discrete set of easily identifiable ideas, traditions, and practices that comprise national or ethnic identity. Either religion sits outside of culture or religion only distorts an empirical investigation of culture. Moreover, most students do not think of culture as a kind of phenomenon that exerts unconscious influence on people or as a kind of process that can be altered or transformed. Certainly, all of these deficiencies are to be expected; however, they create interesting pedagogical problems for the attempt to give coherence to the experience of slave conversion experience and to the belief in proslavery Christianity.

In addition, I have found that although many students have heard the word paradox, they actually are not able to quickly and easily give examples, much less a concise definition. Without a strong conceptual grasp of paradox, students initially approach difficult questions regarding power and domination wanting to first sort right from wrong. I am deeply sympathetic to this impulse and to corresponding concerns for justice, but I have to work consistently to try and have students step outside of their own ethical frameworks. Fortunately, I have never had a student make an apologist argument for slavery via the idea of paternalism, but I always have students who dismiss the various proslavery Christian arguments for slavery. I also always have students who see slavery conversion as acquiescence. For undergraduates, paradox does not exist in matters of religion and slavery. Students initially yearn for analysis that reinforces their ahistorical understandings of slavery and religion.

To address these challenges, I begin the class with a discussion about the definition of religion. I also explain how in some West African traditions, the idea of religion as a category of meaning and knowledge distinct from secular or profane perspectives did not exist. Sampling from the work of an array of scholars we talk about the always deeply political nature of religious belief and practice. I explain religion as a lens for understanding the world, but I do not argue for the existence of an actual sacred realm. I also explain how distinctions between science, magic, and religion undermine our understanding of how some slaves understood their relationship to time, the environment, and social and physical change.2  Our discussion of religion then moves from broad description to specific examples of African worldviews and specific kinds of Christianity like Catholicism, Protestantism, and evangelicalism. When religion is introduced this way, students begin to understand the difficulty of directly imposing religious belief in a way that is complete and absolute. Moreover, students begin to think about religion in ways that are contextual and historical rather than dismissive or just theological.

As students begin to understand slave conversions as processes where Christianity was reinterpreted and transformed, they also raise a different set of questions regarding Christians who owned slaves or supported slavery. To examine this historical problem, I recently used Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Despite the word “Origins” in the title, most of the book investigates antebellum proslavery Christianity in Virginia. A comprehensive review of the book is not necessary here; however, in addition to engaging undergraduate readers with clear prose, Irons, examines a significant occurrence that speaks to student concerns. Irons cogently argued that Virginian slaves constantly and continually “forced” whites to confront the religious and social paradoxes of “inhuman bondage.”3 However, the responses by whites and blacks to Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt introduce a complex problem of analysis to the students. From the colonial period up to Turner’s rebellion, Irons describes how slaves who converted slowly carved autonomous religious space for themselves in biracial churches and in informal but separate religious gatherings. Irons successfully makes the “invisible institution” more visible. Turner’s revolt caused major systematic suppression of semi-autonomous black religious practice and increased surveillance of the religious independence that slaves were allowed. Black evangelicals pushed back and even expanded their numbers in Turner’s wake. Yet, Irons argued that the growth of black Christianity also inadvertently “validated white evangelicals’ conviction that chattel slavery and Christianity could go hand in hand.” “Seen this way,” Irons added, “the concessions that blacks won for more ecclesiastical autonomy were only a short-term victory, for their enlistment in the evangelical ranks was increasingly valuable to apologists for slavery.”4

Interestingly, reviewers’ responses to Irons’ interpretation echo the initial concerns of my undergraduates. Did slaves who converted to Christianity play a role in their own oppression by unintentionally validating the paternalism intrinsic to proslavery Christianity? Students arrive to Irons’ examination of Turner’s rebellion and its consequences midway through the course. We return to their first question about slaves, but now we can reinforce our understanding of different slave perspectives by comparing and contrasting Nat Turner and those who followed him, blacks who willing participated in biracial churches, slaves who sought spiritual refuge in their own hush harbors, and slaves, whether Muslim or animist, who rejected Christian conversion.

We also further our conversation about structural racism and paternalism arising from the ideology of race as a mechanism that orders classes of people in society. I steer our conversation away from the view of proslavery Christians as a group of individual racists towards a discussion about the paradoxes of proslavery Christianity generated from seeing slaves as requiring both conversion and enslavement. It is this conversation about racist evangelical paternalism that helps students to grasp the tensions between social change and continuity in a society premised on racial inequality and oppression. I agree with one reviewer that Irons emphasizes the coherence of proslavery thought in Virginian antebellum evangelicalism to the detriment of exploring those ideological instabilities that slaves constantly highlighted and tried to leverage.5 However, the book provides an excellent platform to discuss this very question.

Teaching about antebellum slavery and religion has made me realize that some of the questions that continue to interest scholars are also mere variations of the questions that engage undergraduates. Although students might ask these questions in ways that reveal serious deficiencies in their historical imaginations, their ethical concerns are shared by the most sophisticated of historians. Hopefully, students leave my class with the ability to understand how slaves reinterpreted Christianity even while Christianity was used to justify their bondage. As I teach about the interconnected religious, political, and intellectual worlds of slaves, like my students, I also struggle to understand the past on it’s own terms while identifying patterns linking the past and the present. Yet, I hope that students begin to understand how, as Guy Emerson Mount emphatically reiterated in his response to David Brooks, in fact, American freedom originated from American slavery.

  1. Peter Kolchin, “Slavery in United States Survey Textbooks,” The Journal of American History, 84, issue 4 ( March 1998): 1425-1438.
  2. For an argument supporting the distinction between science, magic, and religion see Rodney Stark, “Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science,” Review of Religious Research, 43, no. 2 (December 2000): 101-120.
  3. Irons, Proslavery Christianity, 81. On “inhuman bondage” see David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  4. Irons, Proslavery Christianity, 170.
  5. Monica Najar, Review of The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia, Charles F. Irons. Journal of Southern History, 76, issue 4 (November 2010): 986-987.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “Conversion and Hypocrisy: Reflections on the Challenges of Teaching about the Christianity of Slaves and Masters

  • I suppose I want to understand this issue more than any other. This about America when the church had more influence that has perplexed me as I remember in 1968 at age nine looking at nude teenage girls in the back of national geographic in my school in “Mayberry”. Even then my heart knew If those girls were white, this book would be regarded as trash. That was when the paradox started for me.

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