Mark Galli on African-American Christianity
John Antrobus (1837-1907)
The Historic New Orleans Collection
The Bridgeman Art Library
The author Mark Galli has a fascinating account in an article for Christianity Today, "The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity" (February 21, 2014), on how African-American "slaves adopted their oppressor's religion -- and transformed it." He notes that very many slaveowners opposed the spread of Christianity among slaves, but under pressure from churches began to allow conversion, though only with teachings favorable to slaveowners:
The gospel presented to slaves by white owners, however, was only a partial gospel. The message of salvation by grace, the joy of faith, and the hope of heaven were all there, but many other teachings were missing.But many slaves were attracted to the emotional, experiential aspect of grace, faith, and the Spirit stressed by Methodists and Baptists, and as slaves converted to this style of Christianity, they found doctrinal implications that their white masters preferred to keep unspoken, so the slaves spoke about these implications, albeit among themselves only, and very quietly:
House servants often sneered and laughed among themselves when summoned to family prayers because the master or mistress would read, "Servants obey your masters," but neglect passages that said, "Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free."
One white evangelist to slaves, John Dixon Long, admitted his frustration: "They hear ministers denouncing them for stealing the white man's grain, but as they never hear the white man denounced for holding them in bondage, pocketing their wages, or selling their wives and children to the brutal traders of the far South; they naturally suspect the Gospel to be a cheat and believe the preachers and slaveholder [are] in a conspiracy against them."
Lucretia Alexander explained that after enduring the white preacher's sermon ("Serve your masters. Don't steal your master's turkey . . . . Do whatsoever your master tells you do to"), her father would hold worship secretly in one of the slave quarters. "That would be when they would want a real meetin' with some real preachin' . . . . They used to sing their songs in a whisper and pray in a whisper."But some grew bolder from what they found in their new faith:
To get a little distance between themselves and their masters, slaves would often meet in woods, gullies, ravines, and thickets, aptly called "hush harbors." Kalvin Woods recalled singing and praying with other slaves, huddled behind quilts and rags, hung "in the form of a little room" and wetted "to keep the sound of their voices from penetrating the air."
On one Louisiana plantation, slaves would steal off into the woods and "form a circle on their knees around the speaker, who would also be on his knees. He would bend forward and speak into or over a vessel of water to drown the sound. If anyone became animated and cried out, the others would quickly stop the noise by placing their hands over the offender's mouth."
Francis Henderson described her conversion this way: "I had recently joined the Methodist Church, and from the sermons I heard, I felt that God had made all men free and equal, and that I ought not be a slave -- but even then, that I ought not to be abused. From this time I was not punished. I think my master became afraid of me."Such experiences as these clearly suggest the early origins of what is sometimes called Black Liberation Theology. Anyway, the article is, as I noted, fascinating and worth reading for understanding the African-American experience of life in a 'free' land . . .