Q&A with Katharine Gerbner, author of Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World

Today the Junto features a Q&A with Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Katherine Gerbner conducted by Kristen Beales. Gerbner teaches courses on Atlantic History, History of Religions, Magic & Medicine, and The Early Modern Archive. Her work has been featured in Atlantic Studies, New England Studies, and Early American Studies. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 2013 and received fellowships and awards from the University of Minnesota, the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, Haverford College, and the John Carter Brown Library.

Kristen Beales is a PhD Candidate at the College of William and Mary finishing a dissertation titled “Thy Will Be Done: Merchants and Religion in Early America, 1720-1815,” which explores how merchants from different Protestant backgrounds in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston navigated economic debates between 1720 and 1815. Her project is structured around four case studies: reactions to the South Sea Bubble in 1720, discussions about the relationship between religion and business practice prompted by the revivals of the so-called “Great Awakening” between 1739 and 1746, debates over nonimportation and nonconsumption between 1765 and 1776, and the controversy surrounding the Embargo Act of 1807. Kristen’s research has been supported by a number of institutions, including grants and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society, the Clements Library, the David Library of the American Revolution, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, the Huntington Library, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

JUNTO: In your Acknowledgments, you note that the project “began as a study of Quaker antislavery thought” (277). However, the project clearly evolved into something much larger. How did this project develop?

Katharine Gerbner: While I didn’t know it at the time, I started my research on Christian Slavery as an undergraduate, when I wrote my Senior Thesis on the first antislavery protest in the American colonies, written in 1688 by German and Dutch-speaking Quakers in Pennsylvania. The protest was fascinating, but I quickly became more interested in the fact that it was rejected by the English Quakers in Philadelphia. Previously, I had only known about the Quakers as abolitionists. So when I began graduate school, I started researching the Quaker population in Barbados, where the majority of Friends were slaveowners. I began to ask different questions: I wanted to know how slave-owning Quakers understood and reconciled slavery with their theological convictions.

Over time, I expanded the project to look at Anglicans and Moravians as well because they, along with the Quakers, were the only Protestant denominations that tried to develop missions to convert enslaved people during the early colonial period. Once I did that, I started to think not only about how European missionaries theorized slavery, but also about how enslaved people theorized Christianity. What did it mean to convert? What did Protestant rituals like baptism mean to people of African descent? Asking these questions together, within the same book, helped me to flesh out the very complicated relationship between Protestantism and slavery in colonial America.

JUNTO: The key terms you use in the book—“Christian Slavery” and “Protestant Supremacy”—are both so evocative. At what point in the project did you develop these terms? How did your understanding of their meanings shift as the project transitioned from a dissertation to a book?

Katharine Gerbner: I started using the phrase “Christian Slavery” very early in my research. The first title for the project, back in 2008, was “Christian Slavery: A Protestant Dilemma.” At that point, my focus was still on how Protestants integrated slave-holding into their theological worldview.

As I did more research on this topic, however, I realized that most Protestant slave owners were terrified of slave conversion – they worried that conversion to Christianity would make enslaved people more rebellious and weaken their property rights. I initially called this pattern “anti-conversion sentiment,” but the more I looked at the records – especially the legal archives and early Slave Codes – the more I became convinced that there was something bigger going on. So I started to use the term “Protestant Supremacy” to describe it. I actually used the phrase for the first time during my dissertation defense, of all places. I was trying to explain to my committee that the big debate about slavery during the seventeenth century was not about whether one should be “pro” or “anti-slavery”; it was about whether enslaved people should be integrated into the Protestant community (ie Christian Slavery) or whether their enslavement was premised on not being Christian (ie Protestant Supremacy). I have a recording of the defense, and I have actually gone back and listened to myself working out the details of the terminology.

“Protestant Supremacy,” aside from being an evocative term, also helped me make an important argument about the emergence of White Supremacy. Over time, as enslaved people fought their way into Protestant churches, “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial lawbooks. When I turned from dissertation to book, this was a key argument that I wanted to emphasize. So when I started work on the book, I added two chapters: one called “Protestant Supremacy,” and the second called “From Christian to White.” These helped me flesh out the concept of “Protestant Supremacy,” and to better theorize “Christian Slavery.”

JUNTO: Christian Slavery examines three religious groups—Anglicans, Moravians, and Quakers—that left different types of records that allow you to tell different types of stories. How did you balance these sources in both your research and your writing?

Katharine Gerbner: It was difficult to tell a coherent story with such different sources. My early chapters rely most heavily on Anglican and Quaker sources – sources that do not give a particularly rich or detailed sense of why enslaved men and women participated in Protestant rituals, or even what their day-to-day lives were like. The Moravian sources – which I think are the most under-utilized sources for understanding the history of slavery – provide daily accounts of life, including detailed biographical information for hundreds of enslaved people. As a result, I was able to say more about enslaved perceptions about Christianity in the chapters that relied on the Moravian sources, while I depended more on speculation in the earlier chapters. I’m not sure if the result is particularly balanced, but it was important to me to forefront the theological, political, and social lives of enslaved Christians whenever the archives made that possible.

JUNTO: As you point out in your introduction, much of the scholarship on Afro-Protestantism focuses on the years following the so-called “Great Awakening” of the 1740s. How does examining Afro-Protestantism in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries change our narratives of black Christianity?

Katharine Gerbner: This is a critical point for me. Traditionally, the history of Afro-Protestantism begins with the evangelical revivals of the 1740s. Scholars have often argued that evangelical Christianity appealed to the enslaved because it was more “emotive,” and it didn’t emphasize literacy to the same extent as other forms of Protestantism. While the evangelical revivals are certainly part of the story of black Christianity, I think that using them as the “origins story” of Afro-Protestantism is problematic for two reasons. First, my research indicates that enslaved and free people of color were often interested in conversion because they wanted to learn how to read. With the rise of anti-literacy legislation (beginning in the 1740s), white Christians began to de-emphasize literacy education for converts, but black Christians who could read continued to pass these skills on to other people of color. This became a hidden history, as enslaved and free people of color had to obscure their education.

Second, previous histories of Afro-Protestantism have suggested that enslaved people rejected Christianity in the early colonial period partly because they didn’t want to convert. I think this argument was intended to emphasize black agency, but it fails to acknowledge that slave conversion was seen as an inherent threat to the slavery, and that most slave owners punished enslaved people who tried to become Christian. Understanding this context – the context of “Protestant Supremacy” – reframes the meaning of conversion, and suggests that those who did convert were often risking a great deal.

JUNTO: Rather than describing Quakers as the pioneers of the abolitionist movement, you situate them as pioneers of Christian Slavery. How does this intervention shape the way we talk about Quakers, abolition, or both?

Katharine Gerbner: I hope that this will complicate the way we talk about the so-called “good guys” in history. People are complicated, and Quakers are no different. In my book, I show how Quakers like George Fox were radical in the 17th century because they believed that blacks could be the spiritual equals to whites. Previous historians have seen this radicalism and suggested that it was “proto-abolitionism,” but I think this is a mistake. We need to understand the 17th century Quaker debate about slavery for what it was at the time – a disagreement about whether slaves could truly be part of the “godly family” or not. Some of the first “antislavery” Quakers, like Morgan Godwyn, actually based their arguments on racist claims, and encouraged Friends to exclude Africans from their households completely. Conversely, slave-owning Quakers sometimes went farther than others in arguing for spiritual equality – but they did so in order to defend slavery. Recognizing the complexities of early Quaker debates on slavery helps to explain why it took a century for Friends to disown slave-owners in their meetings. It also shows that the “bad guys” were not the only ones responsible for the development of proslavery ideology. Quakers like George Fox were part of a discourse about Christian Slavery that propagated defenses of slavery. While this was not equivalent to nineteenth-century proslavery Christianity, it’s important to acknowledge that the 17th century Quakers have a more complex legacy than we have previously recognized.

JUNTO: Your powerful Epilogue describes George Whitefield’s “Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina” as a “transitional document between the ideology of Christian slavery espoused by Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries, and the formation of a new proslavery ideology” (190). Can you elaborate on the relationship between Christian slavery and proslavery ideology?

Katharine Gerbner: Proponents of Christian slavery were trying to reform the institution of slavery in order to make it more Christian. Proslavery ideology, in my mind, developed after the codification of race and the rise of White Supremacy. Over the course of the eighteenth-century, the Protestant debate about slavery shifted. While seventeenth-century Protestants debated whether enslaved people could or should become Christians, by the mid-eighteenth-century, they were debating whether slavery itself was defensible or not. Within this context, the arguments developed by the proponents of Christian Slavery – which were intended to convince slave holders that conversion would not threaten their property rights – were repurposed by slave owners, in order to argue that slavery was a Christian institution. It was an ironic shift in many ways, since slave owners rejected the concept of “Christian Slavery” in the 17th century. By the 19th century, however, most were using the same arguments to say that slavery was necessary.

JUNTO: How do you hope scholars will use your book in the classroom? What do you hope it changes about how we teach the beginning of the U.S. history survey?

Katharine Gerbner: At the undergraduate level, I hope that my book will help to integrate the broader Atlantic World, especially the Caribbean, into “colonial US” survey courses. I would be thrilled if instructors used my chapter on the legal construction of “whiteness” in Barbados, for example, to talk more generally about the construction of race in early America, and the ideology of White Supremacy. I also hope that my book will help to center the importance of religion, and Christianity in particular, in both justifying and resisting slavery.

At the graduate level, I hope that the book will provide an important historical foundation for courses in Religion and Race in America, and for courses on Black Christianity and Christianity & Slavery. I would also be delighted to see it included in more general courses on the Atlantic World, and placed next to research on Latin American slavery & Catholicism, which I think would make for a really interesting seminar discussion.

JUNTO: What are you working on now?

Katharine Gerbner: I’m currently working on a project called “Constructing Religion, Defining Crime.” I am interested in how a number of non-European religions – particularly those that were practiced under slavery – have been excluded from the history of religion and the history of Christianity because those practices were not recognized as “religions” by European and Euro-American authorities. Black religious practices, in particular, were often regarded as dangerous, rather than religious, and black religious leaders were frequently blamed for slave rebellions and criminalized. My new research looks at how the category of “religion” was constructed in relation to the conception of “crime,” especially in the wake of slave rebellions.

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