- Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
Jon Sensbach may have found the first black woman to be ordained in Christian history. Her name was Rebecca and her story is told in Sensbach's new book, Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World. Sensbach deftly weaves Rebecca's life through the stories of the international slave trade, Creole and Dutch presences in the Caribbean, and the history of the Moravian church. This ambitious and lucid text, like Rebecca herself, operates simultaneously between three continents, countless islands, and a dozen histories. It is best read as the opening salvo to an unfolding history of the connections between black women and Christianity in the New World, Europe, and Africa.
Sensbach's imaginative and cadenced prose is suited to storytelling. Throughout the text he efficiently communicates Rebecca's tribulations and their consequences. This is also true when he discusses the Moravian Church, its missionaries, and Rebecca's second husband—a Moravian missionary to Africa named Christian Protten. Sensbach is not as successful, however, when he tries to relate the histories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Dutch colonization of the Caribbean. He does a tolerable job considering the scope of the histories he attempts to tackle, but these histories are just too big to be contained in a few chapters.
His work on Dutch attempts to extend an empire into the Caribbean does, however, make a way for other scholars interested in this history. Fearful of slave insurrections like the one at Coral Bay on St. John in 1733, Dutch officials and planters on the Dutch-held islands of the Caribbean began imposing increasingly harsh penalties on slaves. At the same time, Sensbach argues, Dutch-held islands were particularly energetic when it came to Christianizing slaves. The result was a brutal caste system in which slaves were pressed to embrace both Christianity and the obedience required of chattel slaves because God had ordained it.
Sensbach says Rebecca (or Shelly as she was known before her baptism) came of age in this contradictory era. A native of Antigua, Shelly was born in 1718. She heard the call to preach the word of God and did so as a teenager, before she was baptized by a Roman Catholic priest. By the time she was twenty Rebecca met a Moravian missionary named Friedrich Martin who taught her that the Moravian church encouraged women preachers, and she soon began the work of converting [End Page 573] slaves and freed-blacks to Christianity with Martin. The Moravian church ordained women to teach other women; Sensbach estimates that Rebecca and another woman named Maria were the first black women ordained in Christian history. Rebecca spent much of the rest of her life working for the Moravian brethren in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, where she was often in a position of authority over white women. Her former status as a slave gave her the credibility needed to speak to slave populations of the Caribbean.
Sensbach does his most important work in Chapter Four: "The Path." Here he hypothesizes that captive Africans and Dutch-creoles were receptive to Moravian Christianity based on an exploration of the connections between prior exposure to Christianity (mainly the Catholic influence brought to West Africa by the Portuguese), West African rituals (including sacrifices), and the Moravian emphasis on the persecution and blood of Christ. Sensbach points out that the Moravians were aware of these prior connections and used them to ease slaves and freed blacks into Christianity through a series of cleansing rituals and welcoming committees. Unlike others who have argued that the Middle Passage and subsequent Christianizing of slaves represented a spiritual holocaust, Sensbach suggests that the Christianization of the enslaved population involved appeals to the familiar for men and women of African descent. At the same time Sensbach does not fail to emphasize that any discovered instance of "witchcraft" among the newly converted Christians would not go unpunished by representatives of the Moravian church or other secular island officials.