Dispelling the myths of racism in American Christianity

Allezo N. Owens Assistant Professor of Religion talking about the definition of a myth last Wednesday evening in the Black Archives as part of the his "Racism in Christianity" presentation.
Photo Submitted by Alexis Gollman.

As the prominent abolitionist Fredrick Douglass once wrote: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

This sentiment remains today among many religious historians and theologians.

Last Wednesday evening in the FAMU Black Archives, the topic of racism in Christianity was discussed in part of the “Understanding Racism” series created by FAMU anthropology professor Nzinga Metzger.

 “My biggest takeaway is that even though they don’t speak about race (in the bible) there was this idea that there was race inside the bible and many white people utilized race to put people in boxes,” said FAMU student Ife Calhoun, a sophomore biology major who was attended the event.    

Several myths associated with the slaves in the United States on Christianity were addressed.

The first and probably most common myth is that all slaves were forced to be Christian — it is actually quite the contrary.

Kathrine Gerbner an assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of the book “Christian Slavery,” believes that it was more of an obstacle for slaves to become Christians early on in the United States than a forced decision.

“I saw a very different picture in sort of the 17th and 18th centuries where it was very difficult for enslaved people to gain access to Christian baptism,” said Gerbner in a podcast interview with the Jude 3 Project.

This was because the majority of Protestant slave owners in the early colonial period did not want their slaves to convert to Christianity.

“They thought of Christianity as a religion that was for free people and they worried that a baptized slave would then demand freedom,” said Gerbner in the Jude 3 Project podcast. “So as a result, they excluded a vast majority of enslaved people.”

Slaves would work all week and sometimes at night and then have to travel several miles just to go to worship meetings.

“I really see black Christianity as forged in opposition to pro-slavery theology, I argue that it was created by white missionaries who were trying to combat Protestant supremacy,” Gerbner said in the Jude 3 Project podcast. “Well, what they end up doing — in order to convince slave owners to allow enslaved people to convert — they argue that Christian slaves would be obedient and docile, and they drew on arguments on slavery in the bible to do so.”

“But as we as we’ve seen I don’t think black Christianity was obedient or docile there was a lot of opposition to slave baptism and enslaved Christians also created their own interpretations of scripture,” Gerbner added.

Gerbner believes pro-slavery theology has had an extraordinarily long-lasting and negative legacy because the white missionaries were the ones who wrote the majority of the notes during that period.

On the other side of the spectrum, some slaves from the Kongo and other parts of West Africa like Nigeria were already Christians and were literate.

“Among the Africans that are enslaved a group of them 5-10 percent were probably Christian another group of them were familiar with Christianity and then within that group some were literate already before (coming) to the Americas,” said David Daniels, a professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in a podcast interview with the Jude 3 Project.

The Kingdom of Kongo was unique because they voluntary became Christians in 1491 as an uncolonized nation and before the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The son of King Afonso I was instrumental in institutionalizing Christianity and he set up an educational system. According to the scholar John Thornton by 1520 there were 1,000 students enrolled in their education system in the Kingdom of Kongo.

According to Britanica.com King Afonso I is sometimes called “The Apostle of Kongo” for his role in making Kongo a Christian kingdom.

Although some slaves were already Christian, some weren’t as receptive to the slave masters’ theology.

“At first they (slave masters) didn’t want slaves to be Christians, but then they developed theology and doctrinal stances," said Lisa Fields who is the founder and president of the Jude 3 Project (their vision of their Ministry encompasses apologetics that addresses current issues and the intellectual struggles of Christians of African descent in the United States and abroad). "They used passages like ‘slaves obey your masters’ to oppress Africans further.”

That myth is that the biblical scripture Ephesians 6:5(Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ) was also directed at chattel slavery.

“Their slavery during Paul’s (the apostle in the Bible) time, usually was indentured servitude, some of them would sell themselves into slavery, it was not about necessarily snatching someone from their identity like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Fields. “He was saying treat them with respect, but he also challenged (the slaveholders) in other passages, to treat their servants with respect, he’s saying 'don’t threaten them' (in the following verse).”

Not all of the slaves blindly accepted the slave masters’ theology. Some of the slaves had discernment, they knew when the slave masters’ misused scripture, and they would often challenge misused scripture and critically evaluate it.

“There’s a book called “The Genesis of Liberation” that talks about how slaves would challenge the masters when they would read the bible for themselves, and they would say ‘well your teaching us these verses, but these verses are out of context’ and so that’s why they (slave masters) didn’t want them to read the whole Bible,” said Fields.

“So essentially if you’re not reading it (the Bible) or if you’re throwing it away you're doing what slave masters wanted you to do in the first place,” said Fields. “I tell black people (today) that an act of protest is to read the full verses because white people during that time didn’t want people to read the scripture.”