Christian Slavery

Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

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Katharine Gerbner
Early American Studies
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Katharine Gerbner’s well-researched book argues that the origins of the modern terms “white” or “white supremacy” can be found in Protestant missionary ideologies of the early 17th-century Protestant Caribbean milieu, which aimed to control the bodies and souls of African slaves. In the early colonial period, Protestant slave owners in the English, Dutch, and Danish colonies did not want their slaves to convert to Christianity because they believed that their religion was for free people only. As slaves converted and were baptized into the Christian religion, slave owners developed ways to integrate race into their colonial discourse in order to justify the bondage of non-Europeans brought to the colonies to work as slaves. Gerbner describes the many ways in which Quakers, Anglicans, and Moravian missionaries “fought hard to accommodate slavery to their Christian principles and argue that their effort bore fruit in legislation affirming that Protestant status was compatible with perpetual bondage” (4). Gerbner also shows how the emergence of Protestant supremacy was due to the lack of a legal framework as well as the absence of theological clarity concerning, in particular, what to do with slaves who accepted Protestant baptism in the early modern Atlantic world. 

Chapter 4, “From Christian to White,” shows how “whiteness” came to replace the term “Christian” in the discourse of the day and in legal documents used by Protestant slave owners. In other words, by redefining Christian to mean white, slave owners were able to exclude black slaves from Christian rites. In chapter 5, “The Imperial Politics of Slave Conversion,” Gerbner focuses on Christopher Codrington, a third-generation Anglo-Barbadian who was appointed governor-general of the Leeward Islands. His life illustrates the conundrum some white Christians faced when trying to reconcile Protestantism with slavery within a colonial/imperial context. Chapter 6 describes how members of “the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts” colluded with slave holders to condone their practices. Gerbner is at her least convincing here as she provides the reader with great detail but cannot situate the details within a particular argument. 

Gerbner is more successful in chapter 7, where she focuses on inner slavery and spiritual freedom. Protestant slave owners were not homogeneous but adopted various stances with regard to slavery and slaves. Some viewed conversion as a destabilizing and unpredictable force to the slave system, whereas others believed that slaves could become Christians and be taught how to read in order to understand the teachings of the Bible. The Moravians were at the vanguard of this particular endeavor but did not hold to that approach over time. They never questioned the legitimacy of institutional slavery, even though teaching African slaves to read and write challenged the racial and religious structures of the Protestant slave society.

Chapter 8 is a continuation of Gerbner’s treatment of the topic of true conversion. Slave owners and slaves struggled with defining conversion. Many slaves felt it beneficial to convert to Christianity so that they could gain access to reading lessons and books. Many Afro-Caribbean slaves learned how to read the Bible and came to question some of the missionaries’ interpretations of the Bible, and developed other, more liberative alternative interpretations of the biblical text. Because of that, some planters developed “a distinctive form of antimissionary resistance” (173). Many slave owners burned books since they feared that literate slaves could ignite a rebellion against the slave system. And to appease the white slave owners, the missionaries conformed to the status quo and developed racialized/proslavery discourses that allowed the slave system to flourish unabated. More and more, missionaries rejected the importance of reading for the African slaves and followed the established institutional norm of slavery. However, “despite the missionaries’ shifting stance on reading, black Christians continued to view literacy as an important practice. Literate black leaders taught others how to read and write, thereby creating an alternate hierarchy within the Moravian church” (187). For slaves, reading, and to a lesser extent writing, were important tools in the struggle for liberation. 

Gerbner ends with a reflective epilogue that deals with the development of proslavery theology vis-à-vis a black Christianity’s focus on liberation. Gerbner shows us how a new and divided Christianity emerged when, she states, “as white evangelicals increasingly turned to the ideology of Christian slavery to articulate their embrace of both slavery and evangelization, black Christians continued to challenge white interpretations of the Bible and Christian practice to emphasize suffering, resistance, and liberation” (193). Two streams of Christianity surfaced in the Atlantic world, one that catered more and more to an unjust system based on a highly racialized discourse and rationale, and another fueled by the black slaves’ desire to find freedom through education and community. The book is insightful and well-researched. Gerbner has made an important contribution to helping us understand the role of Christianity in the development of race, slavery, and the struggles for liberation in the Atlantic world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Charles is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katharine Gerbner teaches history at the University of Minnesota.



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