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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Where Do We Go from Here?

Published Saturday, September 1, 2018 By Ayrian Yasar, Katharine Gerbner

It’s not exactly a revelation to say that racial tension is part of American existence. The fact that the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and others have elicited such polarizing responses and reactions is evidence of this. The tension isn’t new—the social and legal boundaries separating black and white Americans were drawn clearly from the moment the first African stepped onto the shores of Virginia in 1619—but that it has continued for so long is, in a sense, perplexing. After all, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery, established citizenship for all persons born in the US, and granted persons of color the right to vote. The Civil Rights Voting Acts of 1964 outlawed unequal application of voter registration rights and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public facilities, and the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965 prohibited legislation that resulted in the discrimination of racial and language minorities. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that legislation counteracting a racially biased system doesn’t automatically result in the eradication of a racially biased society. Enacting laws is a good, necessary, and foundational first step—but establishing a nation where all citizens of every cultural and ethnic heritage enjoy equally unfettered use of their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness takes much, much longer. When the separation of white citizens from the black population is written into a nation’s government, societal, and religious institutions from its inception forward, it takes more than a presidential signature to undo its effects. While it’s true that the church has contributed significantly to that reparation through the efforts of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, Charles Finney, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, it’s also true that the church has participated in its continuance through slaveholders such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Richard Fuller.

What do we do with this? How does the church acknowledge and own its past—both good and bad—without falling into either unconstructive guilt or superficial virtue signaling? To better understand the history of the relationship between black and white Christians, we asked a black theologian, Ayrian Yasar, and a white historian, Katharine Gerbner, to talk about Dr. Gerbner’s recently released book Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

AY: In your book, you write (p. 267) that this project began as a study of Quaker antislavery thought. What motivated you to focus instead on the Protestant influence of pro-slavery thought?

KG: I began by researching the 1688 Quaker Protest against slavery, the first antislavery petition in American history. I was interested in the emergence of antislavery thought and how it took root. I thought I would mostly write about the German influence on abolition. As I looked closer at the 1688 Protest, however, I became less interested in the petition itself than in the fact that it was rejected—even among Quakers, who later become so involved with antislavery and abolitionism. Why did Quakers and other Protestants accept slavery in the seventeenth century? How did they justify slavery within their theological worldview? These became the questions that fueled my research.

AY: As you explain the Protestant theological and legal thought of the seventeenth century, the picture painted is one of uncertainty with the relationship between Protestant conversion and manumission. Why were these such difficult issues for Protestant nations who regarded themselves as “free soil”?

KG: The underlying issue was how to legally justify keeping Christians as private property. Virtually all Europeans in the seventeenth century—both Protestant and Catholic—believed that slavery could be legal and good, as long as it was practiced correctly. For example, most Christians would have agreed that enslaving non-Christians in a “just war” would have beneficial effects by expanding Christianity.

The problem is that once they had slaves, most Christian slave owners did not want to give up their human property—even when their slaves converted to Christianity. This wasn’t as much of a problem in Catholic regions such as the Spanish and Portuguese empires, where the law was clear that conversion would not affect a slave’s status as property. But in Protestant empires, such as the Dutch and English, there was no such law. The idea of “free soil”—which stated that any slave would become free upon arriving in a place such as England or the Netherlands—added uncertainty to the question of Protestant slavery. So Protestant slave owners reacted, in most cases, by preventing their slaves from converting to Christianity.

AY: When writing about “Protestant Supremacy,” you say that it defined mastery through religious belonging and excluded most enslaved people from the established Protestant churches (p. 31). In light of the fact that imperial nations touted evangelization as a major justification for expansion and used slave baptism to mobilize support for a regime (p. 92), where did the breakdown occur? How were Protestant sacraments coopted to create an atmosphere that restricted the religious opportunities for enslaved and free Africans in the Dutch, English, and Danish colonies (p. 14), while using the term “Christianity” as an ethnic category in opposition to the categories of “Negro” and “slave” (p. 45)?

KG: The quick answer is that the justification for imperial expansion—i.e., spreading Protestantism—largely turned out to be an advertising ploy. Once Protestants relied on slaves to produce cash crops such as sugar and tobacco, their priorities became (1) protecting their income (i.e., slave labored-produced materials) and (2) security (i.e., preventing slave revolts).

In the seventeenth century, most Protestant slave owners believed that allowing slaves to become Christians would endanger both their income and their security. They feared that Christian slaves were more likely to rebel and would refuse to work. So they created the ideology of “Protestant Supremacy,” which I argue was the forerunner of White Supremacy. They excluded slaves from Protestant churches and used religious difference to justify both enslavement and cruel treatment. This is why missionaries tried to argue that Christian slaves would be more obedient. They were trying to counter the ideology of “Protestant Supremacy” and encourage slave conversion. But really, it wasn’t until the development of race—the idea that people of African descent could be legally enslaved solely because they were black (rather than non-Christian)—that slave owners gradually allowed more slaves to convert to Christianity.

AY: When you write about the different missionaries sent to evangelize slave populations, you recount how the slaves desired and highly valued the skills of reading and writing and the possession of books. You write: “The governor worried that learning how to write and converting to Christianity would make slaves believe that they were free, break down the social hierarchy, and destroy the work schedule.” Why did slaves pursue reading and writing, and why did slave owners believe that reading, writing, and—in some cases, school meetings—were dangerous (p. 182)?

KG: Enslaved people recognized that reading and writing were important and powerful skills, and they actively sought out missionaries so that they could become literate. Aside from learning to read the Bible, enslaved men and women could use reading skills to learn more about the government, their enslavers, the empire—really anything. Writing was even more powerful; if enslaved people could write, then they could communicate over long distances, even over oceans. In fact, a group of enslaved people in Virginia did write a letter to the bishop of London in the 1720s, arguing that they should not be enslaved.

Slave owners saw all of this as a threat and, partially, they were right. Writing could be used to plan a revolt, to build closer ties between enslaved people, or to become more informed about religious and political matters. During this period, not all Europeans were literate, so learning how to read and write was also a claim to class status.

AY: In what ways did slaves use religion and education to benefit their lives socially and legally, in contrast to the missionaries who stressed spiritual freedom over physical freedom and were intent on pacifying plantation owners with their arguments?

KG: Even when missionaries stopped teaching literacy, enslaved and free blacks continued to teach one another how to read and write when possible. This was an important and consequential benefit, though it could also be dangerous, since most slave owners did not want literate slaves.

Joining the church also provided enslaved people with an opportunity to advocate for their family members. I’ve found numerous examples of enslaved people asking to live closer to their families and citing the church congregation as a primary justification for their request. Being part of a church community furthermore provided an institutional venue that, while sometimes rigid, still provided a new way to create community.

AY: How do you think the singular focus on evangelization by the missionaries proved to be both a positive and a negative force for the slave populations they sought to reach?

KG: Literacy education—when offered—had an important and mostly positive effect. Missionaries also, in many cases, advocated for enslaved and free black families. Even if most missionaries were intent on pacifying slave owners, many also tried to keep enslaved families together and to help congregants who wanted to visit or live closer to their spouse, children, or siblings.

On the negative side, missionaries did real and lasting damage by creating the ideology of “Christian Slavery.” They argued that Christianized slaves would be more obedient and pliant than others and that Christianity was a beneficial force on slave plantations. This depiction of Christianity formed the cornerstone of pro-slavery theology in the nineteenth century. It has also, I think, painted an inaccurate picture of how Christianity actually functioned within slave societies. Christianity played a complex role for enslaved people, offering both opportunities and new restrictions.

AY: Are there ways you see religion and education used now to create social barriers between ethnic groups, and do you have any thoughts, based on your study of history, about how to overcome any such barriers?

KG: Slave owners absolutely used religion to legalize slavery and to create a social and legal barrier between themselves and their slaves. In the seventeenth century, religious difference (i.e., not being Christian) was the primary justification for slavery. By the nineteenth century, most slave owners allowed their slaves to become Christians, but they erected new barriers at the same time—forcing slaves and free blacks to sit in the balconies of churches, for example. This type of racism led free blacks such as Richard Allen to found separate institutions, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In my opinion, the way to overcome these barriers is quite simply by breaking them down. Even when churches have been integrated, there are still barriers erected (intentionally or not) that make it difficult for minorities to claim leadership positions. Being cognizant of the history of oppression within Protestant churches can, I hope, help Christians today recognize the historical roots of these inequities and overcome them. It is especially important for churches to understand the role that Christianity played in supporting slavery. Instead of avoiding this history, or pretending it didn’t happen, an unflinching examination of history can provide perspective and strength for people to do the right thing, which is usually the hard thing.

I hope that my book shows that individuals made decisions that led to “Protestant Supremacy.” They allowed religion to become a tool for oppression. It did not have to be this way. Evangelical Christians and Quakers also played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Protestant Christianity could be used to support emancipation. These divergent stories show us how religion can be used as a force for division or as an opportunity to break down barriers.


Ayrian Yasar holds an MA in biblical studies from Westminster Seminary California and is an associate editor at www.beautifulchristianlife.com.

Katharine Gerbner holds a PhD from Harvard University and is assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

  • Ayrian Yasar
  • Katharine Gerbner

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