In this impressive and important book, Rebecca Goetz shows how religion helped to create racial categories in early America and the English Atlantic. She focuses on the colony of Virginia, long a favorite of scholars of race and slavery. Yet, as Goetz is quick to point out, religion has often been downplayed in scholarship about the development of race in colonial Virginia. Goetz convincingly shows that Anglo-Virginian ideas about Christian community and baptism helped to create the foundation for racial categories in seventeenth-century Virginia.
Her study builds on recent work by Travis Glasson and Nicholas Beasley by emphasizing the role of Anglicanism in colonies that have often been regarded as "irreligious." Goetz also contributes to an older historiography on the relationship between race and religion pioneered by Winthrop Jordan in White Over Black (1968) and more recently addressed by Colin Kidd in The Forging of Races (2006). One of her most significant contributions to this scholarship is her conceptualization of "hereditary heathenism." According to Goetz, the idea that Christianity could be hereditary—and that some "races" were incapable of becoming Christian—had a long history, but "found its full expression in the Americas" (p. 5).
Goetz's story begins in the early seventeenth century when eager colonizers hoped to build an Anglo-Indian Christian commonwealth in Virginia by pairing evangelization with economic prosperity. English settlers believed that Indians would benefit from the Christian religion and civilization while the English would gain economic partnerships and access to labor. Despite high hopes, the Anglo-Indian [End Page 439] Christian commonwealth was never realized, and Opechananough's attack on English settlers in 1622 effectively ended that vision.
In the decades following 1622, Anglo-Virginians passed laws regulating marriage and sex between Christians and non-Christians (both Indians and blacks), suggesting growing unease about "the mixing of Christian and heathen bodies" (p. 6). Virginia also passed the first laws severing the connection between baptism and freedom. These laws helped to define Christianity as a religion for white people and made conversion increasingly inaccessible to Afro-Virginians and Indians. By the end of the century, Anglo-Virginians had developed a full-blown ideology of hereditary heathenism that marked white people as Christian and nonwhite people as unable to become Christian. The Anglo-Virginian ideology of hereditary heathenism was adopted and mobilized elsewhere in the English Atlantic, particularly in Bermuda and Barbados.
Even as hereditary heathenism gained cultural power, it remained contested by imperial officials, missionaries, and enslaved and free blacks. Anglo-Virginian ideas clashed with English ideals of Christian community, which emphasized unity and conversion. A second attack on hereditary heathenism came from enslaved and free blacks, some of whom sought baptism and connected Christianity with freedom.
Goetz's study is a major contribution to scholarship on race and religion in the Atlantic World. She raises important questions, not all of which are fully answered in this impressive study. How, for example, did the conversion of slaves affect Anglo-Virginian attitudes toward Indian conversion, and vice versa? While Goetz treats both Indian and black conversion, the relationship between the two remains unclear. Second, how much did Anglo-Virginian ideas about race and whiteness influence other colonies, both English and non-English? Goetz gestures to this broader narrative by including Bermuda and Barbados in her analysis, but more questions remain about the influence of Anglo-Virginian ideology elsewhere in the Atlantic world.
Overall, Goetz has done a impressive job bringing religion to the center of the historiography on race, and her study is a must-read [End Page 440] for all scholars interested in the development of race and the role of Protestantism in the Atlantic world.
Katharine Gerbner studies the history of religion and slavery at Harvard University. Her dissertation is entitled "Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760" (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2013).