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African American Religion in Early America

By Cliff Odle

African slaves were stolen from their homelands, and often had very little in common with each other. They spoke different languages, had different customs and prayed to different gods. Many tribes and peoples acknowledged a powerful, distant god along with lesser gods. Worshippers used many of these lesser gods as messengers to the one great god. These spirits could take the form of objects of nature like rocks, trees, or the wind. They could also take the form of tribal ancestors. They asked of these spirits all types of blessing and favors, from good harvests and plentiful hunting to victory in tribal warfare.

The first slaves struggled to keep these old beliefs while facing new terrors. As their numbers grew, slave rebellions became an increasing concern for slave owners. In order to control the slave populations, African languages and religions were replaced with those of their masters. Puritan colonists, fearing these "heathen" people, began to baptize their slaves by the1660's. The colonists, however, were concerned that the baptism of slaves into their Puritan religion meant that the slaves would have to be freed. Puritans believed that no Christian could ever be considered a slave. By 1667, the Virginia colonial legislature put the issue to rest, declaring that, "conferring the baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome."

The rituals that the slaves brought over did not completely disappear. Most slaves accepted Christianity, but with aspects of their own distinct cultures, and found that their old religions were quite adaptable to the one forced upon them. They may have lost their drums, but they still could use their hands and feet to beat out rhythms. They may have lost their old songs and stories, but they still retained the call and response style of singing, and applied it to the hymns and songs that they were forced to learn. As African-Americans began to preach to their own more and more, an individual expression of spirit rapture called "shouting." It involves rhythmic dancing that harks back to the spirit possessions that would occur during rituals performed in their homelands.

In the South, an educated runaway slave named David George received permission from the British colonial authorities to establish the African Baptist Church in Silver Bluff, South Carolina. He and fellow founder and ex-slave George Leile returned this favor by remaining loyal to the King George III during the revolutionary war. They were instrumental in encouraging the slaves of the rebel patriots to escape once Lord Dunmore had issued his famous proclamation. After the war, George went on to establish the first Baptist church in Sierra Leone, and a slave named Andrew Byran carried on their legacy in the states. He and his congregation endured violent beatings, imprisonment and threats in order to establish the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.

In the North, an incident in Philadelphia's St. George Episcopal Church led to the founding of the first African Methodist Episcopal church. In the fall of 1792, fellow African American congregation member Absalom Jones was grabbed by church trustees and physically removed from where he was kneeling during church prayers. Jones and fellow church member and minister Richard Allen walked out in protest. Allen and Jones knew that the time to establish a church for the black worshippers had finally come. They purchased a lot on Sixth Street in Philadelphia, which remains the oldest black-owned property in the country. Their Free African Society later became the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which also operated as a local charity for the poor blacks of Philadelphia. They also provided education and marriage counseling, and worked to combat rampant alcoholism and fight Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Inspired by Benjamin Franklin, Allen and Jones campaigned against pro-slavery policies like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and provided one of the earliest stops on the Underground Railroad.

Amongst the tribal worshipers who had been caught up in the slave trade were several members of the Islamic faith. Their actual numbers are unknown. Some historians estimate anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand. Most came from inland African nations such as Sudan or Mali. Because the Islamic religion is a one-god or monotheistic religion like Christianity, Muslims could not adapt the way worshippers of tribal gods could.

One of the noted Muslim slaves included Ben-Ali, later called Job Ben Solomon. Ben-Ali was a former student from Western Sudan who became a slave in Georgia. He earned his freedom by impressing his captors with his knowledge of the Koran and his mastery of Arabic script.

Richard Allen, Ben-Ali, and David George are testament to the idea that faith and good work can be born out of the most oppressive of situations. These men and others found in their faith a certain strength that carried them through troubled times, and allowed them to contribute meaningfully to the American story.

Sources and Further Reading:
Austin, Allan D., African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. NY, Routledge. 1997

Kaplan, Sidney and Kaplan, Emma N., The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press. 1989.

Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in the Making of America. New York, Simon and Shuster. 1964.

Edited by Marisa Calleja

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