Interview with Katharine Gerbner, author of Christian Slavery

For many, the connections between colonialism and Christianity are unquestioned: the spread of European colonialism went hand-in-hand with the spread of European Christianity. However, as Katharine Gerbner explains in her book Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, the narratives and events that constitute the 17th century colonial Caribbean and its relationship to the spread of Christianity are far more complex. As Gerbner details in her book, initially slave owners discouraged slave conversion to Christianity, and they relied on what they saw as the superiority of Protestantism to differentiate free Europeans from indigenous people susceptible to enslavement. It was only after encounters with Protestant missionaries and the subsequent gradual conversion of slaves to Christianity that notions of racial difference superseded religion as a way of demarcating and hierarchizing people. On May 31st, 2018, I sat with Dr. Gerbner over Skype to discuss how she sees that this history unfolded. --Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What is “Christian Slavery,” and what brought you to write a book about it?

KG: “Christian Slavery” refers to the belief that slavery could be reformed and made to be more Christian. Protestant missionaries often used this argument when they encountered resistance from slave owners who did not want their slaves to become Christian. It was an attempt to reconcile Christianity and slavery.

That said, I did not set out to write a book called Christian Slavery. I began by researching antislavery thought. I started by looking at the first antislavery document in American history, written in 1688 by a group of German Quakers in Pennsylvania. As I looked more closely at the 1688 Protest, however, I realized that it was rejected, even among Quakers, who later become so involved with antislavery and abolitionism. Why, I wondered, did Quakers and other Christians accept slavery in the 17th century? How did they justify slavery within their theological worldview? These became the questions that fueled my research.

KB: What is “anti-conversion sentiment,” and how do you see it play out in the history you explore in your book?

KG: As I mentioned earlier, most Protestant slave owners did not want their slaves to convert to Christianity. They thought of Christianity as a religion for free people, and they worried that a baptized slave would demand freedom. As a result, they excluded most enslaved people from Protestant churches.

There were a variety of reasons for anti-conversion sentiment: first, the idea that Protestantism was often equated with freedom; second, the (mis)conception that English laws would not allow slaves to become Christian; and third, the fear, among slave owners, that Christian slaves would rebel. In one of the first letters I found about this subject, Protestant slave owners wrote that Christian slaves would “rebel and cut our throats.”

KB: What role did what you call “Protestant supremacy” play?

KG: I coined the term Protestant supremacy to describe the way religion was functioning in early colonial slavery. In the 17th century, the concept of racial whiteness did not exist yet, so there was no “White supremacy.” Instead, slave owners used religious difference to govern and police the enslaved and free black population.

In my book, I argue that Protestant supremacy was the forerunner of White supremacy. White supremacy uses race to create and govern inequality. Protestant supremacy uses religion. But these ideologies are linked. In the earliest slave laws in the English colonies, colonists didn’t call themselves “white.” Instead, they call themselves “Christians.” Over time, however, slave-owning legislators introduced the language of “whiteness” into law books. They did so just as a critical mass of enslaved and free blacks had gained access to baptism. These men and women were claiming new rights as Christians. It was in this context that “White supremacy” grew out of “Protestant supremacy.”

KB: What kinds of sources or materials did you rely on when doing your research for this book? Did any item or source discovered during your research particularly interest or surprise you?

KG: I used a wide variety of sources. Most were handwritten letters and journals written by missionaries about their experiences trying to convert enslaved people to Christianity, and the difficulties they experienced with slave owners. But I also read through law books and governmental records in order to get a better understanding of the political and legal environment surrounding Protestant slavery.

The most exciting sources I found were the manuscript records of the Moravian church. Most of these sources are written in archaic German, so they’re very difficult to read, but they include some of the most extensive and detailed information about slave life in the 18th-century Caribbean that I have ever seen.

My favorite source comes from these Moravian archives. It’s a letter written by a free African woman named Marotta and addressed to the Queen of Denmark. It’s actually written in two languages—Marotta’s West African native language, probably Fon, and Dutch Creole, which was the language of the Danish West Indies. The letter is a plea for the Queen to intercede on behalf of black Christian women like Marotta, who were being beaten by white people for carrying Bibles and attending worship meetings. It’s an incredible and heart-wrenching appeal, from one woman to another.

KB: Why would an enslaved person during the time period you research want to convert to Christianity when Christianity was the religion of the masters who enslaved them?

KG: The idea that Christianity was the “white man’s religion,” and that enslaved people were just acquiescing to slave owner demands by becoming Christian, is one of the fundamental misconceptions about slavery and Christianity that I am trying to correct. Slave owners may have been Christian, but most of them did not want enslaved people to convert, especially in the early colonial period. For an enslaved person, becoming a Christian was a direct challenge to the reigning ideology of “Protestant Supremacy.”

As for why an enslaved person would want to become Christian, I think there were a lot of different reasons. Some of them may have been practical: some missionaries taught converts how to read and write, skills that were very powerful and attractive. Protestant baptism was also a prerequisite for political authority, and was sometimes a step on the way to manumission. Theologically, many enslaved people found the figure of the suffering Jesus meaningful. The Moravians, who were the most successful Protestant missionaries during the early colonial period, emphasized the blood and wounds of Jesus in their missions. Socially, enslaved people often converted with family members, and church congregations could become a source of strength and meaning in a very harsh world.

Finally, I should add that enslaved people were consistently critiquing the so-called Christianity of slave owners. In my records, I find these criticisms of white Christianity with great frequency. Many enslaved Christians felt that slave owners were not true Christians, and I think that this was, in itself, an powerful source of meaning.

KB: For those enslaved people who were able to be baptized Christian, how were they able to accomplish this? What sorts of resources and/or networks were required or made this conversion possible?

KG: Some enslaved people were able to cultivate relationships with white people who then supported their baptism. But many of the enslaved Christians I studied joined missionary congregations that were separate from the churches that slave owners attended. They were often introduced to the congregation by a friend or family member.

One thing that is more difficult to learn about is black Christian practice outside of missionary churches. Since most of my sources come from white missionaries, I sometimes get hints that black people were meeting on their own for Christian worship meetings, but I don’t have as much information about it.

KB: Chapter 5 addresses the “imperial politics” of slave conversion. Could you briefly explain what you mean by that?

KG: The ideology of Protestant Supremacy meant that most slaves in the English colonies were not allowed to convert. Some enslaved people chose to escape to Catholic colonies, where they were baptized. In many cases, these escaped slaves—who were by then Catholic—argued that they should not be sent back to the English colonies because they would not be able to practice their religion. And in some cases, the Spanish or French governments defended them, though not necessarily for altruistic reasons.

A good example can be found in colonial South Carolina and Florida. Florida was a Spanish colony, and enslaved Africans in South Carolina would flee their enslavement to escape to Florida, where they were promised Catholic baptism and freedom. The same thing happened in the Caribbean. Enslaved people in the Danish West Indies would flee to Puerto Rico, or from the British to French sections of St. Christopher. What this shows is that the conversion of slaves to Christianity had a huge impact on imperial politics.

KB: And for those slaves who were able to convert, how did their Christianity differ from that of their slave owners, in both practice and in theology? For instance, what practical restraints on slave conversion eventually altered how Christianity was practiced by enslaved or previously enslaved people? I ask this because postcolonial studies in religion usually speaks of religious syncretism as a result of enslaved people adapting to forced conversions. To what extent, if at all, can one see forms of religious syncretism in the history you explore in which conversion was not forced but actually desired and sought out in many cases?

KG: Enslaved Christians were often drawn to different aspects of Christian practice and theology than white slave owners, as I’ve already mentioned. They also challenged white Christians on doctrinal issues, such as the meaning of “turning the other cheek” or the proper preparations for baptism.

As for “religious syncretism,” this is a term I avoid in the book. My problem with the concept of syncretism is that it implies that European slave-owner Christianity was “Christian,” while the practice of black Christians was “syncretic” and therefore less authentically Christian. I prefer to use the language of “lived religion,” which acknowledges that religious traditions are constantly changing and adapting as practitioners change and adapt.

That said, when enslaved people began to identify and practice as Christians, they brought their experiences, both in Africa and in the Americas, to bear on their interpretation of religious practice. So in my book, I try to emphasize how enslaved converts and missionaries often disagreed about the significance of scriptural passages and “true” Christian behavior. I’ve found debates about everything from the Sermon on the Mount to the meaning of marriage. For me, it’s important to show that the practice of Christianity was always in flux, always shifting, and that enslaved and free black people who converted to Christianity changed and opened up new interpretations and meanings within Christianity.

KB: In what ways, if any, do you see traces of the history you explore in your book in contemporary Christianities and their approaches to race? In other words, do you see the history you write about as lingering within or haunting, so to speak, contemporary Christian approaches to race relations?

KG: The history I write about is absolutely still present. I recently read that black evangelicals have been leaving white churches since the last election. I think this is partly because many white Christians either do not know about, or think we have “moved past” this history. Nothing is farther from the truth. One of the arguments I make in my book is that race and religion are not just connected; our modern concept of “whiteness” was created during slavery in response to the conversion of enslaved and free black people to Protestant Christianity. I think it’s absolutely critical for contemporary Christians, especially white Christians, to acknowledge that the very term “white” was born in slavery in order to create a new way to exclude people of African descent from the privileges of freedom and citizenship. We are still very much living with this history. Anyone who wants to understand and combat white supremacy needs to understand Protestant supremacy.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to the field of American religious history?

KG: American Religious History, as a field, is usually confined to the geographical area of the current United States. My research intentionally goes beyond those borders and makes the Caribbean a central part of the story. My book also starts chronologically earlier than most work in American religious history. I think that being more chronologically and geographically broad is so important for understanding contemporary America, and the history of religion in this country. Barbados was, frankly, a more important place than Boston in the 17th century, but you wouldn’t know that based on the number of books written about New England’s religious history as opposed to that of Barbados.

This imbalance has created interpretive problems, especially when it comes to understanding religions of the African diaspora and the history of black Christianity. Most histories of black Christianity, for example, start with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. That’s when my book ends, and I do that intentionally because the century before the Great Awakening was so important in shaping later years. I hope readers will come away from my book with a new appreciation of the earlier colonial period and the Caribbean, and a willingness to integrate them more fully into American religious history.