Traditionally speaking, African-Americans are a church-going people; it is a part of who we are. There are a number of reasons as to how we came to be this way, however, the scope of this article does not permit me to address them in full. Suffice it to say that, from the cotton fields to our current state, the church has traditionally been a place where African-Americans could find hope, unity, purpose, a sense of self-importance, and a reminder of our connectedness to a God that is greater than “the struggle.” It can surely be said that, even with its flaws, the black church is unmatched in terms of having been both a spiritual and social resource for African-Americans; a very present help in times of Willie Lynch, Jim Crow, and so on.
Back in the day you would be hard pressed to find a black person that didn’t believe in God. Even the ne’er-do-well members of the community would refrain from using curse words when walking past “God’s house”, faithfully send their children off to Sunday school, or ask Grandma to pray for them the next time she went to church. Alas, we are in a different era now. There seems to be a burgeoning problem in the black community: People are coming to the erroneous conclusion that Christianity is “The White Man’s Religion” and thus incompatible with black empowerment. For the non-believer, this issue of reconciling their ethnic identity with the Christian faith is many times an insurmountable barrier; preventing their hardened hearts from considering the gospel of Jesus Christ. For many believers, who happen to be of African descent, the balancing act of holding onto the faith while being true to their ethnic heritage is like having a pebble in their shoe. It presents a nagging concern that remains with them as they walk with God.
This problem isn’t new. For some time now, the Farrakhans of the world have been declaring Christianity to be an accomplice of white supremacy. Today, this sentiment has reared its ugly head once again and with the potency of the internet, there is no shortage of memes, chat forums and Youtube pseudo-scholars purporting to have debunked Christianity and made known the true spirituality of our African ancestors. There is a resurgent new school of Afrocentric objectors to Christianity, like Brother Polight and Dr. Umar Johnson, who have captured the attention of the social media world: proclaiming that black and Christian don’t mix. But is this true? Do these opponents of the church really speak on behalf of our African ancestors who endured slavery? Is it really the case that Christianity was, to our forefathers, nothing more than the mental bondage that perpetuated the subjugation of their physical selves? My studies say otherwise.
History is not as black and white as some presume. History is not only something we remember but it is also something we interpret as we come to understand ourselves and the world around us. The implications of how we interpret our history affect both our present and our future. I suggest to the reader that if we resist the urge of imposing our modern sentiments onto the facts of history and allow our ancestors the dignity of speaking for themselves, we find ourselves faced with a very different picture of the relationship between Christianity and the slaves than what the “woke” community would have us believe.
“The Real Uncle Tom”
In the black community, being an “Uncle Tom” is without question a cardinal sin. I remember, growing up in the 1990’s, the term “Uncle Tom” was temporarily replaced with “Carlton Banks.” In either case we knew what it meant: To be an Uncle Tom or Carlton was to be a sellout to the black race. Interestingly, this application of “Uncle Tom” actually represents a reversal of meaning. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, intended for the character “Uncle Tom” to illustrate that African slaves were people rather than property with the hope that she could inspire compassion in her readers; stirring them for the cause of abolition. Indeed, the character “Uncle Tom”, was based on the life of a real person, Josiah Henson.
Henson had been born into slavery but managed to escape and went on to be a renowned minister and abolitionist. In one version of his autobiography, An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson, there is an exchange between Henson and the wife of his former slave-master that is pertinent to our discussion. Henson reports that, after living as a free man for over 50 years, he desired to visit the home of his childhood. As Henson arrives at the Maryland plantation, he describes it as being a run-down shell of the flourishing farm he remembered. Likewise, the wife of his former slave-master had experienced a great decline in health to the point of being bed-ridden. Initially she did not recognize Henson. Earlier in his autobiography, Henson describes how his arms had once been shattered from having come to the defense of his former slave-master. To aid the wife of his former slave-master in remembering him he allows her to touch the scars left from that encounter. Immediately, she remembers Henson and exclaims “It is Si! [Josiah] Indeed, it is Si! Oh! Si, your master is dead and gone!” To which Josiah Henson replied, “No, madam. My master is alive [Jesus Christ]. “My Master is alive!”
This simple and yet profound statement gives us a glimpse into what Christian conversion looked like for the slave. In giving themselves over to the lordship of Jesus Christ, the slaves found liberty from their earthly master through submission to the One who is Master of all. It was a declaration of independence: their way of saying, “you might have my body but you cannot have my soul!”
Not only was Christianity adapted as a form of personal resistance against slavery, it was also a means of reclaiming a sense of personal worth. Princeton Professor and prolific author, Dr. Albert Raboteau observes:
“Amidst a system bent on reducing them to an inferior status, the experience of conversion rooted deep within the slave converts’ psyche a sense of personal value and individual importance that helped to ground their identity in the unimpeachable authority of almighty God.”
In what is probably Dr. Raboteau’s most famous work, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution, he describes how Christianity afforded slaves both an individual and collective way to defy the system of slavery and churches that failed to stand against it. At the risk of flogging or even death, slaves would steal away at night to have their own worship services in wooded areas or secretly in their slave-quarters. Consider this quotation from former slave, Lucretia Alexander:
"The niggers didn’t go to the church building. The preacher came and preached to them in their quarters. He’d just say, ‘Serve your masters. Don’t steal your master’s turkey. Don’t steal your master’s chickens. Don’t steal you master’s hogs. Don’t steal your master’s meat. Do what your master tell you to do.’ Same old thing all de time.
My father would have church in the dwelling houses and they had to whisper. My mother was dead and I would go with him. Sometimes they would have church at his house. That would be when they would want a real meetin’ with some real preachin’….They used to sing their songs in a whisper and pray in a whisper. There was a prayer meeting from house to house once or twice—once or twice a week.”[emphasis added]
There was a definite dichotomy between what Frederick Douglas describes as, “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ…” and, “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land.” It is evident that among the slaves there was a distinction to be made between the slave-master’s religion and the true way of Christ. As we look back on that period of history, it seems that most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between the two. Well-rounded depictions of the complex relationship between African slaves, Christianity, and the slave economy have been eclipsed by a watered-down one-sided account of our ancestors’ religious experience.
Before I began to study this topic for myself, I took it as a given that slaves became Christians the same way that Kunta Kinte became Toby—End of story. Thankfully, I am no longer a victim of that deception. I am now more careful to give my African ancestors the credit they deserve. I will no longer be chained by the mischaracterization of my forefathers as being mentally impoverished victims that were duped into adopting an oppressive belief system.
If it is the case that Jesus Christ is God, lived among men, was crucified for our sins, and rose from the grave for our salvation in the first century AD, how is any of that diminished by the evil deeds of white slave-owners over 1500 years after the fact? I would contend that there is no evil that has been committed “in the name of” Jesus that is big enough to eclipse the love, grace, and sacrifice that was displayed by Jesus Himself as He gave His life on the cross for mankind.
As we have seen, we do our ancestors a disservice if we assume they did nothing more than mindlessly succumb to the indoctrination of evil men. In reading through slave narratives like Josiah Henson’s, we find that slaves were able to cast aside the husk of that false Christianity and discover the true gospel. In stark contrast to the impotent religious practices of the slave-masters, Africans embraced true Christianity as a vibrant source of self-worth, hope, and personal resistance against the system of chattel slavery. In other articles, I provide arguments that directly challenge the notion that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” but for now I will end with this.
I can surely sympathize with anyone who, in light of modern slavery, struggles with reconciling Christianity with their African ethnic identity. With that said, it seems to me there remains an egregious sin committed by those slave-masters, that is still being perpetrated upon us today. It is my fear that the most heinous atrocity committed by those slave masters was not in robbing African slaves of the here and now, but rather in stealing eternity from their descendants. As for me, I agree with Marcus Garvey:
“I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I endorse the Nicene Creed. I believe that Jesus died for me. I believe that God lives for me as for all men, and no condition you can impose upon me by deceiving me about Christianity will cause me to doubt Jesus Christ and to doubt God. I shall never hold Christ responsible for the commercialization of Christianity by the heartless men who adopt it as the easiest means of fooling and robbing other people out of their land and country.”
Henson, Josiah, 1789-1883. (1876). “Uncle Tom’s story of his life.” An autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”). From 1789 to 1876. London :Christian age office,
Raboteau, A. J. (1978). Slave religion: The “invisible institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.
(2004). Voices from the days of slavery : former slaves tell their stories. Washington, DC :Library of Congress, Lucretia Alexander pg. 12-13