Religion in the Early Republic
|Enslaved African Americans and Religious Revivalism
|Digital History ID 2994
One of the most dramatic consequences of the revivals was the conversion of hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans to Christianity. During the 17th century, many slaveholders feared that baptized slaves would have to be set free. But by the second quarter of the 18th century, a growing number of slave owners concluded that Christianity would make slaves more conscientious. It would place them:
under strong Obligations to perform [their] duties with the greatest Diligence and Fidelity...from a sense of Duty to God.
The first concerted campaigns to convert slaves to Christianity were led by Quaker, Moravian, and Anglican ministers and missionaries during the early 18th century. But it would not be until the late 18th century when Methodists and Baptists licensed African Americans to exhort and preach that truly significant numbers of slaves converted to Christianity. Most slaves attended churches alongside whites, although a small number of separate black churches (mainly Baptist) began to emerge as early as the 1760s.
Within the Baptist and Methodist churches, slaves created a hybrid form of Christianity, blending Christian rituals and beliefs with elements of West and Central African cultures. The result was a religion with its distinctive forms of preaching and worship, including rhythmic sermons, ecstatic behavior induced by spiritual possession, and singing and dancing influenced by African traditions. This African heritage gave many slaves a hopeful, optimistic view of life, which contrasted sharply with the evangelical stress on human sinfulness.
In evangelical religion, many slaves found a stress on love and spiritual equality that strengthened their faith in eventual deliverance from bondage. Spirituals such as Go Down, Moses, with its refrain, "Let my people go," indicate that slaves identified with the Hebrew people who had overcome oppression and enslavement.