Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World
Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery is a meticulously researched, insightful, and at times haunting read—haunting because it feels like the past is always with us. First and foremost, this is an academic work of religious history, but as Gerbner goes into the historical roots of, to use Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s phrase, “slaveholder religion,” the book’s significance doesn’t seem confined to the past. Throughout its pages, Gerbner endeavors to trouble accounts of this historical period that overly-focus on searching for possible early precedents of the 19th century antislavery movement. She argues that it’s significant to acknowledge and recognize that the history of early Protestant missionary efforts unfortunately includes both ideological accommodation to slavery as well as struggle against it (3-4).
In terms of scope, Gerbner spends most of the book’s pages exploring the dynamics of Atlantic Protestantism in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, tracing especially the entanglement of Anglicans, Quakers, and Moravians in the African slave trade (3-4). Near the heart of her subject is an examination of the changing ways in which people in these societies thought about the relationships between Protestant identity, freedom, and slavery. In these societies, Gerbner tells readers, owners were often deeply set against allowing slaves to become Christians and participate in religious rites such as baptism or communion. She explains that this was the case because, “In these colonies, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran slave owners conceived of their Protestant identities as fundamental to their status as masters” (2). This ideology of “Protestant Supremacy,” as she calls it, was undercut by the conversion of African slaves to Christianity. Gerbner suggests how this helped lead to the formation of White Supremacist ideology by noting that:
[T]he baptism of enslaved and free Africans implicitly challenged the religious justifications for slavery in the seventeenth century Protestant Atlantic world… Faced with a growing population of black men who were both free and Christian, Protestant slave owners changed their laws to incorporate race and exclude Africans and their descendants from enfranchisement. (12)
One of the ways in which Gerbner substantiates this claim is by tracing changes in the language of seventeenth and eighteenth century legal codes in Barbados. As the number of free black Christians increased, the use of explicitly race-based language to deny them enfranchisement increased along with it (84-87). Gerbner may underemphasize the extent to which the growth in use of race-based language reflects the making explicit of something that was already explicit, but it is also true that the shift is important since it occurred—at least in part—as Protestant missionaries worked to both convert slaves and assure masters that this wouldn’t require them to free slaves who became part of the Christian faith. This was neither a quick nor smooth process of ideological change. Gerbner suggests that, “The sustained resistance to slave conversion demonstrates the persistent connection between Protestantism and whiteness” in the eyes of many in these seventeenth and eighteenth century societies, and this leads her to also observe that the religious undertones that influenced the construction of whiteness are too-seldom recognized by some scholars (89, 194).
Throughout this book, Gerbner adds to the state of scholarship by detailing the troubling process by which early Protestant missionaries built the foundations for later proslavery ideology as a way of defending their work to spread the Christian faith in slave populations. She writes, “The irony is dark and yet unambiguous: the most self-sacrificing, faithful, and zealous missionaries in the Atlantic world formulated and theorized a powerful and lasting religious ideology for a brutal system of plantation labor” (196).
Given this context, it’s interesting to consider the question of why slaves would want to embrace Christianity at all, given that it was the religious tradition of their masters. On the one hand, Gerbner makes clear that it’s important to remember that some enslaved Africans may have encountered Christianity either in the continent of Africa itself or Latin America (9). For those who chose to seek out Christian communities in colonial settings, one pragmatic reason that can be noted is that some were interested in the Protestant communities around them because they wanted to achieve the power of literacy (11). Indeed, it seems that literacy education was a powerful draw, and it was one of the things led planters to resent and work against missionaries active in colonial regions (167).
There were also more straightforwardly theological reasons for conversion. The experiences of slaves led them to read Scripture in ways that highlighted God’s care for the oppressed and enslaved. As Gerbner puts it, “By the late eighteenth century, missionary Protestantism had helped form the foundation of proslavery thought, while black Christians developed a theology focused on liberation” (188). Thus, Christianity was used by slave owners as a means of social control—attempting to get slaves to see submission to masters as their Christian duty—but also as a resource of resistance by free and enslaved black Christians who interpreted the Bible in ways that highlighted “suffering, resistance, and liberation” (193). I think that it is to Gerbner’s credit that she points out this aspect of the conversion of some slaves to Protestantism, rather than focusing only on socioeconomic reasons for being curious about the Christian faith (191).
In conclusion, Christian Slavery may occupy itself with exploring the past—the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in particular—but as we noted near the beginning of this review, this by no means robs the book of contemporary relevance. Like the rest of America, the Church as a whole continues to grapple with issues of racial justice, sometimes failing through denial, and on other more hopeful occasions responding with repentance and solidarity. In this day and age, I’m convinced that one of the important dimensions of this journey is clear-sighted acknowledgment of darker aspects of the Church’s history. God may always take the side of the oppressed, but Gerbner’s thorough efforts shed light on some of the ways in which Christian societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries failed to do likewise. She sets forth a more nuanced reading of this period of history, shedding light on the accommodation of many to the practice of slavery while also recognizing ways in which free and enslaved black Christians practiced their faith in the face of cruelty. I found Christian Slavery to be a sobering, yet interesting read, and I hope others will also come to the same conclusion.