Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870 (review)
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Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870. By Daniel L. Fountain. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 159. $36.00 cloth)

In their important work Come Shouting to Zion, historians Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood proclaim that the "conversion of African Americans to Protestant Christianity was a, perhaps the, defining moment in African American history." A number of older, classic works, notably Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion (1978) and Mechal Sobel's Trabelin' On (1979) have portrayed conversion and the development of a distinctive form of Afro-American Christianity as central to understanding the experiences of slaves. More recently, a number [End Page 404] of scholars have issued revisionist correctives. Michael Gomez, Sylvia Diouf, and now Daniel L. Fountain have insisted that diverse religious and secular traditions—traditional African practices, Islam, Conjure, and simple indifference—were as central as Christianity to the religious worlds of enslaved peoples.

Fountain's work provides a nice, succinct summary of this revisionist view. Fountain adds substantive statistical work drawn from a database of WPA narratives, whereby he provides an—and, as he points out, inflated— estimate of a little under 40 percent of slaves claiming Christianity by the time of the Civil War. The true number, he suggests, is probably closer to between a quarter and a third of the slave population. Fountain then details the numerous obstacles to slave conversion—planter resistance and indifference, alternative and competing religious traditions in the slave community, laws against slave literacy in a largely Protestant country, and the relative isolation of many slaves in North America from religious institutions. After the Civil War, by contrast, evidence of conversion in the African American community was immediate, and dramatic. Church membership rolls shot up quickly through the postbellum black South. It was then, not in the antebellum years, that black Christianity assumed its central place as a bedrock institution for African Americans, Fountain concludes in a very strong concluding chapter.

The debate between the older scholarship (Raboteau, Sobel, and Frey/Wood) and the revisionist critiques (such as Gomez and Fountain) is a healthy one, because it highlights and historicizes change over time in African American religious expression. It is also something of a half-full/half-empty question. Should Fountain's figure of slightly under 40 percent, or even Raboteau's estimate of one-third of the slave population claiming Christianity, be seen as very high given the many obstacles to the spread of Christianity among slaves, or very low in comparison to the prominence slave Christianity receives in scholarship? Further, we may ask, other religious traditions and practices certainly vied with Christianity for attention and allegiance, but those competitors lacked any institutional structures to carry them [End Page 405] forward as more than subterranean folk traditions. Thus, "Christian" slaves on the Sea Islands carried on Islamic practices (such as bowing and praying to the East) but did not recognize the religious roots of what they were doing. As far as they were concerned, they were Christians. That's why the spirituals and the ring shouts (the latter of which may also have had some African Islamic roots) focused on "King Jesus" and other biblical characters.

Finally, if we accept the figure of about one-quarter to one-third of the slave population being Christianized, this is about what we found find with whites as well. In other words, what Jon Butler called the "Christianization of the American people" proceeded apace through the nineteenth century among whites and blacks alike, even as "Christianity" in America constantly took on new forms and incorporated diverse older practices from myriad other cultural traditions. Perhaps the most important point to be taken here is that "Christianity" needs to be historicized; in doing so, the apparent debate between these generations of scholarship fades, and a more interesting conversation about the accretion of diverse and multiple religious practices among this community begins afresh.

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey teaches history at the University of Colorado, in Denver, Colorado, and together with Edward J. Blum is the coauthor of Jesus in Red, White, and Black: The Son of God and the Saga of Race...