Religion and African Americans: Virginia

Just what the spiritual lives of Africans in Virginia were like remains elusive and controversial. Whether free or enslaved, it is likely they held onto familiar African religious practices. As Africans became Americans, traditional African religious systems and European Christianity locked in a dynamic process of change brought on by physical relocation and cultural clash and accommodation. As Africans adapted to life in Virginia, they sometimes heard about Christianity from a few sympathetic Anglicans or had contact with small groups of dissenters from the Church of England. Slaves early became familiar enough with Anglican religious practice and culture to suppose that baptism would set them free. The Virginia General Assembly closed that loophole in 1667, but the idea still heartened slaves as late as 1730. Many slaves saw little to recommend the religion of their masters and rejected Christianity altogether. Some Anglican clergymen cooperated with slave owners by counseling slaves to accept their subservient status and to obey their masters, thereby attempting to use religion as a method of control, with arguable success. Until the Baptists and Methodists did so in the 1760s and 1770s, no Christians — including Quakers — in Virginia challenged the institution of slavery itself.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, enslaved men and women had largely replaced indentured white servants in the workforce. Many slave holders were simply indifferent to the spiritual needs of their enslaved workers. Other Virginia masters sought to stamp out African practices but also resisted religious instruction out of fear that the spiritually liberating effect of Christian teachings would make their slaves proud and unmanageable. In the minds of some white Virginians, religion became indelibly linked with slave resistance and rebellion. At the urging of the Bishop of London Edmund Gibson in the 1720s, a number of Anglican ministers in Virginia, among them Commissary James Blair of Williamsburg, began catechizing slaves in their parishes. Some slave holders began to agree that it was their duty to "Christianize" their slaves. Blair reported that sincere Christian belief distinguished a number of slaves who attended his church in Williamsburg. In the 1740s evangelical Presbyterian Samuel Davies ministered to black and white congregants in Hanover County. By the 1760s and 1770s, Baptist and Methodist ministers not only preached to mixed congregations but also called upon their white converts to manumit their slaves. In 1771, William Lee expressed the reaction of many slave owners when he wrote, "the wandering new light preachers from the Northward have put most of my Negroes crazy with their new light and their new Jerusalem." As a remedy, Lee advised his overseer to encourage all his slaves to go every Sunday to the Anglican parish church. By the mid-1770s in Virginia, the message of equality before God was on the lips of black preachers and in the hearts of many black Virginians. Often quick to associate slave religion with rebellion, whites passed laws to limit the number of blacks who could meet without permission. As the War for Independence approached, mixed congregations of black and white worshippers continued for a time. An all-black Baptist church in Williamsburg formed in secret at this period, gaining public recognition within ten years of the end of the War.

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