African slaves adopted the religion of the very people who enslaved them. Their masters used the Bible to justify their enslavement to the europeans, and the way they were treated. To justify this, they often referred back to the “Curse of Ham“, a biblical story in which Noah’s son and his bloodline are forever cursed to be servants to Noah’s other son’s bloodline, Shem.
So how did the Christian faith grow into something the African-American community holds so dear? What did Christianity look like through the eyes of these slaves? And what does this mean for religious people of African descent today?
Using the Bible to Justify Slavery
The african population that was brought to America in 1619 carried countless religious beliefs with them. Nearly a third of them were said to have been Muslims, and many practiced traditional african spirituality.
The slave traders cared about as much for the religious beliefs of their slaves as they did their human rights. In fact, many saw the slave trade as a form of providence. They saw their passage to America as their path to God. It was only thanks to the slave trade, they argued, that they were able to “find” God.
But God did not ‘find’ them. The Christians did. They wiped out their previously held beliefs and replaced them with their own. They encouraged the largely illiterate population to visit church services and hear the sermons of pro-slavery preachers. Those who could read were given ‘Slave Bibles‘ in which certain passages that promoted rebellious thinking – such as Moses’ liberation of the Israelites – had been removed.
Any abolitionist who tried to oppose using the Bible to justify slavery was shot down on the grounds that it was “so obvious” that the Bible supported it. This sheds light on a larger issue that comes with the idea of scripture. Interpretation can turn the Bible from anti-slavery to pro-slavery as quickly as it can do the reverse.
Literacy was the Key to Freedom for African Slaves
Once the enslaved learned to read english, things quickly took a turn for the better. They understood that the only way to appeal to their masters was in their own tongue, and along the lines of the holy text they held so dear. Slaves began protesting the idea of slavery being justified by the Bible and instead saw in those pages a profound sense of hope.
The ideas that the figure of Jesus Christ brought to the western world spread throughout their communities. Although many turned their backs on the religion of their oppressors, others saw in Jesus the promise of eternity, joy and peace.
And so the Bible, though once used to subjugate the african people, became a powerful weapon in the fight against slavery. Through the music we now know as the “African-American spirituals” and their “call and response” chants, they were able to empower slaves all across America. Christianity began to take a new form within the african population.
Religion Amongst African-Americans Today
According to Pew Research Center, around 80% of American churchgoers attended a church where at least 80% of the congregation is only of one race. This shows that the divide in their religious activity is still rampant today. As a result, white evangelicals and black believers often stand different politically. The former focus more on issues like abortion and sexuality. The latter focus more on issues of inequality and criminal justice.
So, if you’ve ever asked why Christianity has such prevelance in African-American culture, you have an answer. It’s because of the role it played in freeing their people, not just in enslaving them. Something we should keep in mind as we work to make the world less reliant on religion as a whole.