A Tribute to Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion

Paul Harvey

Some years ago, several folks helped to organize a tribute to Donald Mathews's classic work Religion in the Old South at the 2002 SHA, on the 25th anniversary of its publication. My friend Lauren Winner and others organized this wonderful event.

I had the same warm feeling today at the session for the 30th anniversary of Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South. Of course, anyone who knows this field will recognize that this is one of the seminal works in all of American religious history, its influence reaching down through (by now) generations of scholars.

The Hilton Hotel provided us a malfunctioning microphone and a room about as unfriendly to dialogue as possible. Nonetheless, everyone present made it a great event, and I was thankful to be present and a participant. 5 panelists (including myself) were privileged to be able to reflect on the life and influence of Raboteau's classic work. Younger, middle-aged (that would be me), and older scholars were represented. Professor Raboteau responded, characteristically thoughtfully and incisively, at the end, and the audience provided excellent questions and commentary. In all, it was a great day in Chicago, and we all have Phil Goff to thank for putting the session together.

For anyone's interest, I'm pasting in my commentary below. As mentioned, there were five responses today to Raboteau's work. Each presenter had a distinctly different set of comments. My comments below briefly mention the influence of newer work on the African diaspora, foreshadowed in Raboteau's work; Jalane Schmidt of the University of Virginia spoke at length about this. Mark Noll (Notre Dame) and Dennis Dickerson (Vanderbilt) discussed theological issues in Raboteau's work. Curtis Evans drew from his significant work on the history of the concept of "black religion" and gave a religious studies perspective on Raboteau's book. I discussed historical issues remaining for further exploration, further detailed below. Anyone who was there and has read this post, feel free to comment. Mostly, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Prof. Raboteau for creating this work of enduring significance, and for his subsequent career in exploring avenues of African American religious history.



When I was in graduate school, I hung out a lot at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, on a beautiful spot overlooking the Bay Area. When I was there “back in the day,” I checked out a lot of books on African American religious history, which I was just then starting to study with my mentor Leon Litwack. Time after time while there in the pre-historic pre-computer library days, I wrote my name in the little check out cards. Time after time, when I did that, I wrote my name under another name, the last person to have checked out these often rather obscure books, mostly about nineteenth-century African American religious history: Albert Raboteau. I spent those years wondering whether I could ever write such a work as Slave Religion. A ghost was haunting me: the specter of Albert Raboteau. I’m still trying to write such a book, and that specter still looms before me - - today, in person!

So I started my career following in Albert Raboteau’s footsteps. And I’ve continued my career in those footsteps since. Re-reading SLAVE RELIGION reminded me of that. It reminds me of recently re-reading Winthrop Jordan’s WHITE OVER BLACK, parts of which I had assigned for a class. Re-reading it reminded me of how much Jordan had anticipated decades of scholarship to come. Jordan didn’t use the word “whiteness,” but he was exploring that concept long before most scholars (aside from DuBois, of course), were using the word. Likewise, re-reading SLAVE RELIGION for this session reminded me of how much Raboteau had not only shaped, but also anticipated, the state of the field then and to come.

In the initial section of his book, Raboteau depicts the “death of the gods,” meaning the inevitable demise of African religions in any systemic form. There were “retentions” and “survivals,” fragments of surviving African religious customs (as Melville Herskovits had documented in his older classic Myth of the Negro Past), but the brutal passage to the New World meant that African religions would not survive intact. Nonetheless, while African religions died, from their remnants African-American Christianity took its characteristic cultural forms. In Raboteau’s account, enslaved Christians might have attended white-sanctioned and supervised services, sung Anglo-American hymns, and listened to southern ministers instruct them in the virtues of obedience, patience, and humility. But they also created their own covert religious culture, one with its own distinctive theology and rituals. In services held in slave cabins, in the woods at night, and in "hush arbors," enslaved African Americans developed a religious culture that brought together elements of their African past and their American evangelical training. Before the war, when independent institutions were impossible, black religious life emerged most clearly in religious rituals such as ring shouts, spirituals, and chanted sermons.

Raboteau’s book surveys the field in a way that is still unexcelled, and still sets the standard for all other work in the field. If Raboteau still defines the field as it exists, what of the field as it is to come? We don’t have any new overall synthesis that encapsulates seemingly everything, such as Raboteau accomplished thirty years ago. But we do have trends, new books and articles, and interesting forthcoming work that suggests what such a synthesis would look like in the future.

I’ll suggest what it will look like in three areas. First, African American religious history is now about the diaspora, rather than North America per se. Raboteau anticipated this, but it’s now come full bloom. Second, as Raboteau acknowledges in his new afterword, traditions outside of Christianity per se, or evangelicalism of the Protestant variety, are in need of much further exploration. That, too, is now well underway, especially in the earlier history of African American Islam. Finally, the period from the early seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth remains terrain in need of further exploration.

I want to dwell for a moment on the last point: the earlier story of African American religious history. We have a lot of work to do to correct an evangelical Protestant teleology that still implicitly tends to write our American religious history. Examining the earlier periods of African American religious history brings a few thoughts to mind.

First, if we import the concept of lived religion into the study of African American religious history, what would we find? I think we would discover what archaeologists are increasingly finding as they unearth the artifacts of early slave plantations: the remnants of everyday religious practice. Scholars such as Lauren Winner are examining the quotidian religious practices of eighteenth-century Americans, in her case elite Anglicans, in a manner much like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has done for the now-famous midwife Martha Ballard. We’ll never be able to reconstruct the world of early African Americans in the same way. AT this point, for example, we’re not even very sure anymore where such a well-known figure as Olaudah Equiano was even born, and the degree to which he might have invented his own tradition as a child of the African motherland. Nonetheless, even before the evangelical awakenings, African American religious life must have been practiced in myriad everyday ways.

Secondly, it now seems clearer than it was at the time Raboteau wrote that Anglicanism and Catholicism exerted far more influence in early African American religious history than has heretofore been understood. This doesn’t mean that Anglicans, or Catholics, effected mass or large-scale conversions as did the evangelicals later. It does mean that the idea that boring Anglicans presented a message with no appeal at all to slaves in Virginia, for example, no longer holds.

This is clear from a recently rediscovered document published in the William and Mary Quarterly. This document is a letter from 1723 in which a group of mixed-race slaves are writing to the newly appointed Anglican bishop, asking for their freedom based on their grounding in the Christian faith. They were, they wrote, “Baptised and brouaht up in a way of the Christian faith and followes the wayes and Rulles of the chrch of England.” They complained about the law “which keeps and makes them and there seed Slaves forever.” The hardness of their masters, they said, kept them from following the Sabbath: “wee doo hardly know when [Sabbath] comes,” they wrote, “for our task mastrs are as hard with us as the Egyptians was with the Chilldann of Issarall.” Their letter concluded with an explanation of why they did not sign their names, “for freare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the Gallass tree.”

These slaves retained an older, more radical view of Christian conversion: their religious status gave them rights to freedom and respect, for which they were willing to fight – in court rooms, in letters to imperial officials, and, as a last resort, in rebellions. Here, our language of Christian Englishmen and non-Christian Africans interacting in the Chesapeake fails completely, for what we see instead are Christianized Afro-Virginians utilizing the levers of power to try to leverage Christianity into freedom. They knew the language of power, and they spoke it eloquently and at great risk to themselves. John Thornton’s work on the timing of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which fit with a Catholic Kongolese calendar, also shows the ways in which religious sensibilties informed early slave life in America.

Younger scholars examining the history of Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley, moreover, as well as those studying the diasporic connections of Africans in various parts of the Americas, are rewriting early African American religious history as well. To me, this is one of the most exciting frontiers of research and analysis, precisely because it suggests the diversity, complexity, and multiplicity of early American history. Again, once we no longer assume Protestant evangelicals are the winners by default, then all those Catholic missionaries loom much larger than they typically have in American religious history. Michael Pasquier’s forthcoming work on French missionary priests will tell us an awful lot about early Catholic history and the relationship of Catholics with slavery, as has my former student Sue Ann Marasco's just-completed dissertation.

Finally, I want to speak to the issue raised by the story of Charles Colcock Jones, that Raboteau tells in his work. Jones was a Presbyterian planter and minister in the lowcountry of Georgia who scorned slavery when younger but eventually created the enterprise of the “mission to the slaves.” Preaching before a slave congregation in 1833, Jones delivered a message about order and obedience from the book of Philemon. “When I insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and upon the authority of Paul,” he later wrote, and “condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those that remained looked anything but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismission, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared ‘that there as no such thing an Epistle in the Bible’ others, ‘that they did not care if they ever heardme prech again!’ . . . Some objected to him as preacher “because I was a master.” (Raboteau, 294).

Charles Colcock Jones’s experience suggests one of the deep paradoxes of American religious history: the explosion of democratic evangelicalism together with the rise of a repressive form of Protestantism that at first implicitly, and later explicitly, racialized the divine.

In southern history, one sees this paradox played out in particularly powerful ways. Therefore, in writing a social history of religious freedom, there is no better place to start than the South. Such an exploration will show the ways in which freedom depended on un-freedom, and how evangelical democracy sprang up at the same time as the explosive spread of racial slavery. Religious democracy, racial slavery, and social repression grew up together. What exactly was their connection? That, to me, is a question of fundamental importance worth revisiting; and when we revisit the question, the specter of Albert Raboteau will loom over us again.


Kathryn Lofton said…
Paul, your comments equaled the poetry of their subject. It was a fantastic response in yes, a totally absurd ballroom. But great speakers surpass their context. And so you did.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Katie: excellent and poetic comments. I was wondering, in what issue of the WMQ was that 1723 letter published?
Phil said…
Thanks for sharing your words about this most important book and most important subject.
Paul Harvey said…
All: thanks. David, I'm on the road and will have to look up that reference for you when I get back.

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