In his meticulously researched Father James Page: An Enslaved Preacher’s Climb to Freedom, a biography of one of Florida’s earliest ordained Black Baptist ministers, Larry Eugene Rivers invokes sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’ reflections on preachers. “The Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil,” declared Du Bois in his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk (Penguin Books, 1989). For Du Bois, the African American preacher gained “his preeminence” in plantation communities by serving as “a leader, a politican [sic], an orator, [and] a ‘boss.’” Though Du Bois neglected generations of Black women preachers, his close attention to this African American Christian figure offers a productive framework for understanding how power may have operated in early Black religio-political worlds.
As the first “scholarly, full-length biography of any 19th-century enslaved preacher from slavery to freedom,” Father James Page builds on Du Bois’ insights into Black religious authority under what the sociologist called the “plantation organization” while also contributing to Rivers’ already substantial body of scholarship on the history of slavery in Florida (2). Rivers commences the story of enslaved minister James Page with his birth into the Virginia slave system in 1808. As a child, Page learned to read and write from his Presbyterian enslaver, Colonel John Parkhill. Parkhill forcibly removed Page to the Florida frontier at age nineteen, and this involuntary rupture proved to be emotionally traumatic for the young man. Still, over the next few decades, Page utilized his literacy and connections to the Parkhill family to exert authority in his new locale, both as a Baptist preacher who ministered to Black and white audiences and as the enslaved overseer at Parkhill’s Florida plantations.
Following emancipation, Page’s “religious leadership evolved into political and educational leadership” (8). Before his death in 1883, he established a school for Black children and adults, held public office, and founded Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which served as a pivotal institution in 20th-century movements for Black freedom. Rivers emphasizes that Page was conservative when compared to other Black religious and political leaders of his time, such as enslaved preacher Nat Turner. In striking contrast to Turner, who led his enslaved Virginia community in a rebellion in 1831, Page’s lasting allegiance to the Parkhills culminated in his encouragement of his fellow formerly enslaved laborers to continue working for the slaveholding family after emancipation.
Since many biographies veer toward valorizing or even deifying historical actors, Rivers makes a significant intervention in the biographical genre by presenting Page as someone who “lived the most human of lives” and refusing to look away from the more complicated sides of his story (10). For instance, despite his advocacy for Black literacy as a whole, Page never pushed for women’s education or rights. On a more personal level, Rivers shows, the preacher never taught “his wife [Elizabeth] how to read or write” and only consulted her on domestic matters (9). In stark contrast to his relationship with Elizabeth, a Black woman, Page viewed Harriet Parkhill, his former enslaver’s white wife, as his chief source of “emotional support and intellectual advice” (191–92). Rivers underscores that the preacher’s brand of Black masculinity differentiated between Black and white women as it propped up racialized patriarchy.
Rivers also interrogates Page’s complicated politics through his analysis of the preacher’s use of the phrase “strange practices” to portray the religious traditions of other enslaved people (149). Here, he raises questions about Page’s potential competitors in the spiritual marketplace of the plantation, who may have included conjure specialists. Page’s targeted description of what were likely African-descended religious customs provides an early window into the “black Baptist hegemony” that his denomination sought to establish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, Harvard University Press, 1994).
Rivers’ impeccably written biography is an impressive undertaking that required years of archival digging and a careful examination of the limited primary sources available, such as Page’s ten extant personal letters. Still, the insightful biography raises several questions. At times, Rivers puts forth arguments that inadvertently make normative claims about the influence of religion. As one example, when discussing the lack of evidence that Page attempted to stage a revolt, Rivers remarks that “as a man of God, he did not believe in physical violence” (133). Rivers then substantiates this claim by contending that “Page knew the Ten Commandments, which made clear his faith’s prohibition on murder” (133).
This reading of Page historicizes his actions using a theological idea as evidence and implies that belief predetermines historical subjects’ actions. Moreover, justifying Page’s aversion to violence through his religion overlooks the pervasiveness of Africana religions in violent slave rebellions across the Black Atlantic. Historically, Black religious thinkers have anchored both accommodationist politics (in the cases of preachers Jupiter Hammon and Page) and insurrectionary ones (as Turner evinces) in their Afro-Christian traditions.
The study’s subtitle—An Enslaved Preacher’s Climb to Freedom—and its general framing of Page’s life as a linear progress narrative spark additional questions. What does the analogization of Page’s experiences to “a climb up the ladder from the fiery depths of slavery to a heaven of freedom” suggest about the amount of control he wielded over his status as an enslaved person (230)? For one, it risks depicting the institution of slavery as a condition that an enslaved person could escape if she worked hard enough and climbed high enough, overestimating the amount of control that enslaved people like Page actually had.
Nonetheless, Father James Page models the practice of vivifying overlooked historical figures on the page, making formative contributions to the fields of Baptist denominational history and African American religious history. The biography joins with Nicole Myers Turner’s recent Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) to bolster the historiography on the interplay between Black religion and politics in the post-Civil War South.
Mélena Laudig is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.
Date Of Review:
January 10, 2022
Larry Eugene Rivers is a Distinguished Professor of History at Florida A&M University and the author or coauthor of eight books, including Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation and Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in Nineteenth Century Florida.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.