Review: Katharine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

On the heels of its recent release in paperback, today The Junto features a review of Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with the author, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Katharine Gerbner.

Scholarship on the Anglo-Caribbean has tended to minimize the role of the Anglican Church in Caribbean society through an emphasis on the greed and irreligiosity of the English colonists who profited from the exploitation of enslaved labor. This tendency is especially striking when compared to the historical work on Catholic institutions in neighboring French and Spanish territories. In the Anglo-Atlantic, missionary work among free and enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbean people tends to be equated with antislavery thought and activism. Katharine Gerbner’s new book, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, challenges these historiographic tendencies and presents a welcome reinterpretation of the relationship between race, religion, and slavery in the Protestant Atlantic.

The core of the book traces two transitions in the legal and social understandings of the relationship between slavery and religion in the Protestant Atlantic. Gerbner provides two terms to explain these processes: Protestant Supremacy and Christian Slavery. The first transition traces the efforts by Protestant planters to make “Christianity a sign of mastery and power” through Protestant Supremacy, and the response of missionaries who “reconciled Protestantism with bondage,” creating what Gerbner calls Christian Slavery (11, 3). The second transition occurred in response to the first, as Protestant planters moved from using the word “Christian” as a designation of freedom to using the word “white.” As Gerbner argues, “the baptism of enslaved and free Africans implicitly challenged the religious justifications for slavery in the seventeenth-century Protestant Atlantic world” (12). Enslavers reacted to the presence of baptized people of African descent in their societies by changing their laws to incorporate race “and exclude Africans and their descendants from enfranchisement,” a process that Gerbner calls the “religious heritage” of White Supremacy (12).

Gerbner opens the book by arguing for the centrality of the Anglican Church and connecting the church to the maintenance of planter authority. The physical structure of the church itself functioned as the location of island elections in places like Barbados and served as “a community bulletin board where white inhabitants could post news about stolen goods or runaway slaves” (1). The church tethered religion to the daily operation of governance and the maintenance of slavery in ways often overlooked by historians of the Anglo-Caribbean who emphasize the seeming depravity of island life.

But Christian Slavery is not just a book about the Anglo-Atlantic and Gerbner’s attention to the interdenominational history of Protestantism and slavery is both refreshing and smart. As Gerbner argues, “interdenominational rivalry and communication networks” shaped conversations surrounding Protestantism and slavery. To make these arguments, Gerbner employs a wide source base, including underutilized Moravian records of black Christian practice written in Sütterlin, an archaic German script. Nor does Christian Slavery treat Protestant conversations as if they happened in a vacuum. Attuned to the geography of slavery in the Atlantic world, Gerbner also traces the ways in which Catholicism influenced Protestant ideas, especially in places like St. Christopher where Protestants and Catholics lived in close proximity. According to Gerbner, “imperial and confessional borderlands show that Protestant ideas about slavery often emerged in relation to Catholic practice” as well as through interdenominational exchange (5).

Christian Slavery also intervenes in a long-standing historiographic debate surrounding black spiritual practices in the Atlantic world, which tends to depict African conversion to Christianity through an older “accommodation” lens or a more recent “resistance” narrative. Gerbner, by contrast, explores “the significant role that enslaved and free blacks played in transforming the culture of Atlantic Protestantism for both blacks and whites” (10). Drawing on her extensive source base, Gerbner shows how through their conversion, interpretations of scripture, and adoption of literacy, people of African descent “implicitly undermined the ideology of mastery” that was at the heart of Protestant Supremacy and forced “whites to reconsider the relationship between religion, freedom, and slavery” (10-1). This argument also engages directly with the question of conversion and Gerbner uses the individual experiences of people of African descent to show how black “conversion” to Christianity was not the exchange “of one set of ideas for another” but “a process in which Protestantism itself evolved as a lived practice” (192).

Christian Slavery is a well-written, engaging book. As someone who teaches comparative slavery, it’s also a book that will find a welcome home in my own syllabi, especially for the ways in which Gerbner skillfully engages with the wider historiography on race, slavery, and religion beyond the Protestant Atlantic.

One response

  1. I work on Catholicism in South Carolina and I read this book as soon as it appeared. In 1670 planters of Barbados and their slaves settled South Carolina. British planters also brought their culture and religion to the new colony. Catholic missionaries had been in SC in the 16th and early 17th century, but warfare with the British forced out French and Spanish settlers and missionaries. In contract to the initial Catholics in the Atlantic colony Catholic immigrants who arrived in the 18th century made a permanent impact in Carolina in spite of their minority status. Gerbner ‘s work is valuable for understanding the culture into which Irish, French, and other Catholics sought to assimilate in the pre-Revolutionary world. In the post Revolutionary world, of course, numerous missionary orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans, had a lively presence. Catholic leaders still had two goals: to assimilate into the Protestant slave-owning culture AND to evangelize enslaved and free people of African descent. How that worked out in practice over time is the substance of my work. “Christian Slavery” is essential to understanding the origin of religion and slavery in South Carolina. Bravo. Well done.

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