When I’ve had the opportunity to teach the history of religion in America, I’ve regularly used Albert Raboteau’s Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans* (Oxford University Press, 2001). I recommend it as an accessible, evenhanded historical overview of the African American religious experience in the American colonies and the United States. 

A couple of decades before publishing Canaan Land, Raboteau wrote Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South* (Oxford University Press, 1978; rev. ed., 2004), which was based on his dissertation. That book became important in opening doors to a much-neglected area of American religious history. And it still deserves attention today for its insights. 

Chief among those insights is his tracing of the transformation of African religious practices as Africans were transported to the New World. This theme is echoed throughout the book and appears in different forms. 

Early in the book, for example, Raboteau observes that the religious experience of slaves differed between the southern hemisphere and the northern hemisphere. Slaves in the southern hemisphere retained a greater degree of their African religious heritage than their counterparts in the northern hemisphere. Why was that the case? 

Interestingly, the US and Canada imported only 4.5 percent of slaves that traversed the Middle Passage, yet by the mid-twentieth century North America held 31.1 percent of those of African descent in the New World. So while North America imported fewer slaves proportionately than places in South America and the Caribbean, Blacks grew in larger numbers in the US and Canada (89–92). So, as Raboteau says it, “the bulk of the slave population in North America was native-born” (92), which allowed them to be influenced more by the white population, with which they had more frequent contact. Factors like these (as well as others) account for different slave religious experiences in the northern and southern hemispheres. 

As he focuses on religious experience particularly in the US, Raboteau notes how slaves adapted Christianity to fit with their own African heritage. Sometimes this appeared in a more syncretistic fashion, but in many other cases—especially in the US—it meant that they adopted orthodox Christian theology and belief as their own and translated it into their experience, retaining elements of African religion, particularly forms of dancing and singing. 

Another key theme of the book is the tension between slaveholding and Christianization. In an earlier post, I spotlighted Frederick Douglass’s Narrative* of his life, in which he highlights the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholding. In Slave Religion*, Raboteau shows how this hypocrisy manifested itself in several specific ways. 

Many justified their slaveholding with the notion that it would be good for the slaves, since it would enable masters to give their slaves true religion. But that theory was hard to uphold in practice, and many resisted the evangelization of their slaves for fear that it would lead them to desire freedom. Such thinking is rife with irony! Slaveholders seemed to intuitively understand the freedom offered in the gospel, which was in conflict with their own act of slaveholding. 

Marriages between slaves became a surprising source of tension in Southern churches. What better institution to inculcate among slave converts than marriage, which celebrates God’s unifying of husband and wife as one? Marriage itself is identified by Paul as a picture of Christ’s union with the church, a theological mystery of great depth. And it also provided a way out of sexual sin, upholding Christian morality. And yet hypocrisy was rampant among slaveholders professing to be Christian on this very issue. 

For one, too many masters failed to uphold Christian morality, crossing the line of marital fidelity by having sexual relations with their female slaves. Beyond that, the idea of marriage until death parts a couple was tenuous at best in a society that allowed slaveholders to sell their slaves at any moment, which would essentially end a slave marriage. And the churches then had to deal with the question whether slaves who had remarried after either being sold away or having their spouse sold away could be admitted to the church as members in good standing. That the churches sought to navigate this system without confronting the double standard that slavery had created underscores the deep hypocrisy of those involved in it. 

Amazingly, despite the hypocrisy of their slaveowners, African Americans embraced Christianity in remarkable numbers. And as they did so, they rejected elements of their white masters’ religion and made it their own. As Raboteau points out, as seen especially in the spirituals, “Christianity was fitted by the slave community to its own particular experience. At the same time the symbols, myths, and values of Judeo-Christian tradition helped form the slave community’s image of itself” (213). 

In his 2004 afterword to the revised edition of Slave Religion*, Raboteau observes that slaves redeemed a religion that their masters profaned. And he suggests that slave Christians should be viewed as martyrs and confessors much like the martyrs of the early church and that their prayer meetings should be understood as nineteenth-century equivalents of the early church catacombs. 

I think these comparisons are helpful on a couple of levels. First, they rightly weave African American Christians into the longstanding history and experience of the church from its earliest days—which is right where they belong. And second, it helps us better perceive their contributions to the church and their testimony to the gospel, for, as Raboteau notes, engaging in religion was often viewed as an act of rebellion by masters (305). And yet many stood firm in preaching the gospel despite opposition. 

If one is looking for a nice overview of the African American religious experience, Raboteau’s Canaan Land* is a valuable resource. For a more detailed and focused treatment of the antebellum religious experience of slaves, it remains illuminating to explore Raboteau’s Slave Religion*. Thanks go to Albert Raboteau for guiding us in understanding this important area of American Christian history.

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