Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760
Author(s)Gerbner, Katharine Reid
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Abstract"Christian Slavery" shows how Protestant missionaries in the early modern Atlantic World developed a new vision for slavery that integrated Christianity with human bondage. Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries arrived in the Caribbean intending to "convert" enslaved Africans to Christianity, but their actions formed only one part of a dialogue that engaged ideas about family, kinship, sex, and language. Enslaved people perceived these newcomers alternately as advocates, enemies, interlopers, and powerful spiritual practitioners, and they sought to utilize their presence for pragmatic, political, and religious reasons. Protestant slave owners fiercely guarded their Christian rituals from non-white outsiders and rebuffed the efforts of Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries to convert the enslaved population. For planters, Protestantism was a sign of mastery and freedom, and most believed that slaves should not be eligible for conversion. The planters’ exclusive vision of Protestantism was challenged on two fronts: by missionaries, who articulated a new ideology of "Christian slavery," and by enslaved men and women who sought baptism for themselves and their children. In spite of planter intransigence, a small number of enslaved and free Africans advocated and won access to Protestant rites. As they did so, "whiteness" emerged as a new way to separate enslaved and free black converts from Christian masters. Enslaved and free blacks who joined Protestant churches also forced Europeans to reinterpret key points of Scripture and reconsider their ideas about "true" Christian practice. As missionaries and slaves came to new agreements and interpretations, they remade Protestantism as an Atlantic institution. Missionaries argued that slave conversion would solidify planter power, make slaves more obedient and hardworking, and make slavery into a viable Protestant institution. They also encouraged the development of a race-based justification for slavery and sought to pass legislation that confirmed the legality of enslaving black Christians. In so doing, they redefined the practice of religion, the meaning of freedom, and the construction of race in the early modern Atlantic World.Their arguments helped to form the foundation of the proslavery ideology that would emerge in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
TypeThesis or Dissertation