Review: Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation
Daniel L. Fountain. Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. 159 pp. ISBN 9780807136997.
This small book raises large questions for students of slavery, the American South, and religion. Daniel L. Fountain successfully challenges assumptions regarding the ubiquity of Christianity amongst American slaves and suggests that the Christianization of most African Americans occurred after emancipation. The book does not dispute the presence of a “strong Christian core within the slave population,” but denies that it translated into “anything approaching universal acceptance” of Christian belief and practice prior to the Civil War (28). In making his case, Fountain also accomplishes two interrelated achievements. First, he adds to scholarly discourse regarding African American religion by giving a quantitative analysis of the qualitative data provided in the WPA slave narratives. Second, he provides an easily digestible introduction to the discussion of slave religions that can serve as a useful teaching resource.
Fountain proposes the slave church, which was surprisingly small, has eclipsed the study of slave religion and culture, which was overwhelmingly non-Christian. To demonstrate this, the author surveys the WPA slave narratives for signs of conversion to Christianity before and after the Civil War. In a sample of 381 individuals, less than forty percent evidenced Christian conversion prior to the Civil War. Work roles and geography were negligible factors, though urban slaves were more likely to convert than those in rural areas. Enslaved women were slightly more prone to convert. Youth was positively correlated to conversion before the war, representing eighty-six percent of the sample. Equally intriguing, Fountain believes his own findings to be inflated by the problematic nature of the WPA narratives themselves. He suggests that other studies’ projections of one-quarter to one-third of the overall slave population might be more accurate.
After a chapter relating this statistical analysis, the book helpfully surveys the scholarship on slave Christianity, Islam, and Voodoo, as well as archeological insights on the re-creation of Africa in slave communities. It suggests the explosion of African American Christianity and misconceptions about pre-war conversion were both post-war events. Reconstruction and Jim Crow era whites were keen to highlight their pre-war Christian benevolence. Simultaneously, black leaders stressed a broad black Christianity that countered racist arguments for black inferiority. This led to a perfect storm of misinterpreting slave religion in the antebellum period. It was in everyone’s best interest to emphasize Christianity and de-emphasize atheism, agnosticism, and African religions prior to emancipation.
For historians, this book carries powerful, though by no means conclusive, implications. In Fountain’s account the Africanization of Christianity, so well chronicled in other scholarship, was not sufficient to attract a majority of slaves into the fold. Thus, for all its cultural syncretism, the slave church was not necessarily the central location of slave agency in the early nineteenth century. Rather than the place to sing songs of freedom, it was for many a sign of power and domination. Only after emancipation could the majority of African Americans accept Christianity on their own terms. Christianity did not lead to freedom. Freedom led to Christianity.
Fountain raises readers’ awareness that a new surge of scholarship emphasizing the complexities of slave social and cultural life is full swell and continues to give insights that complicate the past. His statistical voice adds to the growing cohort of historians unconvinced that the protean nature of the “invisible institution” with its mix of African, Caribbean, and Western religions held sway for most slaves.
Fountain speaks to an ongoing shift in the study of black Christianity. As the work of Albert J. Raboteau, John Blassingame, and Eugene Genovese overturned the Ulrich B. Philips model of the history of slavery, the black church became a powerful tool for proving black agency. A younger cohort, including Allan D. Austin, Michael A. Gomez, William J. Sweet, and Fountain, have now de-Christianized a large segment of black agency leaving historians with a far more complex picture. But Fountain has also raised important questions about the limits of agency. For instance, the availability of teaching and the attitudes of masters played a powerful role in slave conversions. Of those who converted, only five percent of their masters actively opposed or forbade the Christianizing of their slaves. Amongst the unconverted, that number rose dramatically to over thirty percent. These findings imply that the actions of masters in limiting the gospel affected the ability of slaves to become Christians. Equally suggestive are findings that turnout at brush arbor meetings may have been significantly lower than the voluminous scholarship on their existence might suggest. This was largely because whites took great pains to successfully keep such meetings dangerous and inconsistent.
The book’s shortcomings are largely the product of its brevity. Readers should exercise caution against taking evangelical theology too much at its own word; not all who rejected or avoided evangelical conversion avoided Christian society. Black churches were still vital centers of slave life, and one need not get religion to appreciate the social value of them. Fountain himself suggests a decoupling of attendance and faith in future studies. This tendency to collapse the discussion of Christianity into one of evangelical Protestantism is evident throughout, though Fountain makes clear this is the product of taking the slaves’ religious narratives on their own terms. Black Catholicism, which constituted a rich tradition in many parts of the antebellum South, is disappointingly subsumed in this process.
Fountain has left us to ask important questions about slave Christianity and the nature of religious belief itself. For many slaves, there was Christianity by degrees and none at all, and the book suggests new scholarship must unravel this mystery further. Those works should emulate the author’s deft blending of statistical analysis with the voices of the enslaved themselves. The careful effort to let the subjects’ voices be heard is just one of the highlights of a book that will inform many lively discussions, class lectures, and future scholarship.