Spirited Crossings: Religions of the Early Atlantic South

Jon Sensbach

Jon Sensbach is Professor of History at University of Florida.

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Jon Sensbach, "Spirited Crossings: Religions of the Early Atlantic South," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/sensbach.

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Worlds in motion, ideas in flux; lives uprooted, identities remade—such are the motifs that have animated several generations’ worth of writing on Atlantic history. Historians regularly apply them to the movement of early modern religious ideas between Europe, Africa and the Americas, and just as often to the study of the early American South. What does it mean to ask how these two inquiries intersect—that is, how did religions cross the Atlantic from Europe and Africa and take root in the South? How did religion transform the geographic region we call the South while connecting it to distant points around the Atlantic littoral? Christopher Jones, Thomas J. Little, and Alexis Wells offer three answers from inside the seams of this juncture, suggesting that early southern religious cultures look different when we reimagine the region as one diverse zone within a vast Atlantic space.

A central theme of early American religious historiography is—to paraphrase Alfred F. Young—the transforming hand of the Atlantic. If, as is commonly asserted, the ocean was as much a connector between the hemispheres as it was a barrier, it also changed the voyagers who moved across it, as several examples from the recent literature illustrate. In his innovative study of shipboard life, Stephen Berry shows that migrants to America, both free and enslaved, were altered long before arrival by their confrontation with the ocean itself. The rigors and terrors of Atlantic crossing produced a whipsaw of despair and revelation in even the sturdiest of spiritual constitutions. The ship, Berry writes, “compressed people’s life experiences and squeezed religion to the foreground of human activity” in cramped and narrow spaces he likens to frontiers or borders freed of ecclesiastical control. In this way “the ship served as the spiritual womb that brought forth colonial America.” Their spiritual beliefs sharpened, reoriented or overturned by the voyage, a host of European religious adventurers made their way to America in search of new beginnings. “Upon arriving in Boston, Salvador da Bahia, Quito, Jamestown, or Mexico City,” write Stephanie Kirk and Sarah Rivett, “spiritual seekers formed convents, colleges, congregations, Praying Towns, missions, and reducciones in order to implement their religious ideas.” Whereas the ship inaugurated spiritual change, the New World consolidated it. “The collision of European traditions with American environmental and cultural realities, the reinstitution of religious hierarchy in colonial settings, and the challenge of indigenous cultures and new population configurations engendered religious reinvention.”1

The task, according to J. H. Elliott, is to chart these changes and measure them against continuities. “How, and with what aspirations,” he asks, “did religious creeds and practices make the transatlantic crossing, and how were they modified as they adapted to their new American environment?” If we seek to overcome the modern artificial divide between sacred and secular aspects of the early modern Atlantic world, he further wonders, what was the role of religion in shaping emerging colonial societies? For Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster, the answer is unequivocal: “[R]eligion and empire were the constitutive forces of nation building, economic expansion, and identity formation in the early modern era.” The relationship between religion and empire was complex, often symbiotic: religion was an “ideological spur and recruiting ground for imperial aspirations.”  Religious and imperial ambitions helped define, and even came to resemble, each other, but they also worked against and undermined each other. “From their ad-hoc and often chaotic beginnings,” they write, “Atlantic empires took on the structures, ideologies, and moral imperatives of organized religion, functioning as a kind of parallel universe to the confessional apparatus of missions, pilgrimages, conversion narratives and martyr tales erected in post-Reformation Europe.” One example of these competing structures, ideologies and imperatives mapped onto imperial terrain, according to Elliott, is the state-directed, centralized nature of the Catholic Church in Spanish America as opposed to the relative weakness and dispersed structure of the Anglican Church during at least the first century of Anglo-American colonization.2

When we try to apply these generalizations to the early American South, we quickly realize that no consensus exists on what that phrase even means. “In 1776 there was no South; there never had been a South,” historian Carl Bridenbaugh observed years ago. “It was not even a geographical expression.” And yet, as the editors of a 2007 issue of the Journal of Southern History on colonial southern history point out, until quite recently historians considered the region anachronistically as “the land of plantations and slavery in the region of the Chesapeake and Lowcountry . . . project[ing] this convenient geographic and social definition back in time, resulting in a colonial South that emphasizes the English-settled eastern seaboard almost exclusively and in which one seeks the origins of features dominant in 1830 or 1860.” Accordingly, “the South,” in this intellectual project, has usually referred to the Anglophonic southern states that incubated the particular kinds of Protestant evangelicalism so closely associated with “southern religion” as to be synonymous, but which were rooted securely in the region only after the early nineteenth century. In this framework, the indigenous religions of the pre- and post-Columbian South, the Catholic orientation of the Gulf colonies, or the steady and heterogeneous stream of Protestant immigrants from the British Isles and continental Europe into the colonial region have traditionally been marginalized.3

More recent scholarship has challenged many of these assumptions, yielding several starting points for new southern religious histories:

  • the idea of southern religious distinctiveness or exceptionalism rooted in Protestant evangelicalism, whatever its merits, is a nineteenth-century ideological construct that has little relevance for the study of previous centuries
  • there was no single “South,” and the definition of “southern” is fluid, eluding easy categorization by geography, chronology, confession or culture
  • southern religious history begins not with the arrival of Europeans but with indigenous spiritualities
  • the early South was characterized by robust religious diversity rather than by narrow denominationalism
  • religiosity is distinguished not by stasis but by the movement of beliefs and protagonists through time, across spatial boundaries, and athwart sacred borders.4

Any number of recent works fit some or most of these descriptions, but one example will do here. James Van Horn Melton’s Religion, Community, and Slavery on the Colonial Southern Frontier (2015) revisits the story of the Salzburgers, German-speaking immigrants best-known for their celebrated—and ultimately doomed—defense of Georgia’s singular antislavery ban in the colony’s early years. Melton excavates their complicated origins as a Protestant minority in a mountainous Catholic territory near Salzburg, many of them silver miners by trade, who had learned to disguise their confessional allegiance to survive in hostile territory. Persecuted by a new archbishop determined to root out heresy, many emigrated to Protestant German lands to the north and east, while a smaller number set off for the new colony of Georgia. Drawing on a rich source of interrogation and parish records in Austria and Germany, Melton layers rich human textures around a narrative of religious conflict that resonated throughout the Holy Roman Empire into the eighteenth century. The outcome of that struggle held powerful repercussions for colonial America as the Salzburgers’ alpine origins contrasted sharply with their new subtropical home in coastal Georgia.

Religion and international politics in the deep South influenced the Salzburger odyssey as well. Frontier jousting between Britain and Spain led to the creation of Georgia as a buffer colony between Florida and the plantation wealth of South Carolina. But as Melton emphasizes, the anti-Catholic dimensions of that policy resonated especially strongly with James Oglethorpe and the other founding Trustees of the colony and with the Salzburgers themselves, whose memory of persecution by the Catholics shaped a powerful narrative of singular providential purpose in America. It also framed their opposition to slavery as well as their dislike of Africans, whom they associated with popish disorder and rebellion. If religion and empire were mutually entwined force for “nation building, economic expansion, and identity formation,” as Gregorson and Juster contend, the Salzburgers’ story illustrates how ordinary people lived in the intersection of those forces. Their experience proves an ideal model of Atlantic religious history. It also encapsulates larger themes about race, sovereignty, and empire that provide an epitaph for their own idealism. “We dare not drive white [laborers] harshly for fear of losing them,” a Salzburger minister lamented in 1754, acknowledging the need for enslaved laborers. “We have tried everything in our power to make do with white people. Had we succeeded, we would have been able to dispense with Negroes in our town; but this will not be possible until this country is full of people.” The end of the Salzburgers’ antislavery hopes marks the turning point in their transition from the Alps to the South.5

The essays by Little, Jones and Wells explore other Atlantic connections, all within the Anglo South, and all demonstrating in their way that, as with the Salzburgers, in any discussions about religion in the early South, larger issues of colonialism, race and slavery are never far from the surface. Well aware of the heavy evangelical imprint on southern religious history, Little seeks to broaden our definition of evangelicalism. Whereas most historians date the arrival of evangelical outreach in the lower South to the late 1730s with the lowcountry visitations of John Wesley and George Whitefield, Little pushes the origin story back nearly forty years to the early eighteenth century and a cluster of revival movement both within the Church of England and among the dissenting groups drawn to Carolina because of its policy of toleration. From this perspective, the American South cannot be understood other than through its overseas connections. The region was not simply an isolated outpost on the peripheral fringes of the metropole but an integral part of an expansive imperial system whose identity was deeply entwined with an established, Protestant order.6

And that order was built on power. Britain’s Protestant design rested in part on tolerating, but controlling, nonconformists. The duel between dissenters and established church that played out across the long seventeenth century enfolded England’s southern colonies as well. During the Interregnum, Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Levellers, and Catholics thrived in Maryland’s climate of religious toleration and in eastern Virginia despite legislative opposition to “Phanaticisme” from the colony’s rulers. The Quakers were particular targets of hostility. Gov. William Berkeley branded them a “pestilent sect,” and an anti-toleration act of Assembly described them as an “unreasonable and turbulent sort of people . . .teaching and publishing, lies, miracles, false visions, prophesies and doctrines . . .attempting thereby to destroy religion, lawes, communities and all bonds of civil societie.”7 After the Restoration and clampdown on dissenters in 1660, the remote Albemarle region of the new Carolina colony proved an increasingly attractive refuge for religious antinomianism and social nonconformity. Importing the egalitarian spirit of the Civil War to England’s southern colonies, Friends and others sought to create a society with a “church that believed that tithes were wrong, that women might teach the Gospel as ably as men, and that social deference to others had no place in the eyes of God.” On his American tour of 1671-72 the Quaker founder George Fox made a point of visiting flourishing Quaker communities not only in Barbados and Jamaica but also in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey, confirming the Society’s growing sense of itself as an unbordered, transatlantic fellowship with important nodes throughout the colonies, including the South. The inner light, as they saw it, shone outwardly as well.8

But after the "Glorious Revolution," and even with greater tolerance for dissenters, expanding Anglican hegemony in the South increasingly circumscribed the moral and social power of that network. As Little makes clear, establishment in Carolina in 1704 was intended to blunt the power of the nonconformists. With the established church came tithes, parishes, ministers, vestries, and wealthy men to Albemarle. An egalitarian economy of smallholders gave way to plantations worked by enslaved Africans, and Quakers were driven from public political life by the requirement of Anglican adherence. In the lowcountry further south, establishment cemented the power of the slaveholding elite. Protestant dissenters continued to practice liberty of conscience, and toleration fostered a robust religious diversity of churches and sects, some of which, like the Huguenots, bound the colony to wider Atlantic networks of exchange and religious revivalism. But revivalism coincided precisely with the expansion of the plantation economy, and without political teeth, the dissenters had no way, and increasingly little incentive, to challenge it. Some folded themselves into the Anglican establishment and joined the slaveholders. Missions to enslaved Africans by the church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, part of the Anglican revitalization movement, were designed to protect and strengthen slavery. So while Little is right to emphasize an earlier and deeper degree of religious pluralism and fervor linking the deep South with Atlantic revival movements than has been widely recognized, that religiosity was deeply embedded in broader debates about worldly authority that stamped the region forever.9

Christopher Jones shifts our attention to the age of revolution, when the distinct idea of  “the South” emerged as a predominantly Anglo-American geopolitical configuration committed to slavery within the U.S. Still, the South remained bound by religious connections to the Caribbean, Britain and Africa even as the regional identity took shape. Indeed, those links radiated in multiple directions, whether emanating outward from the South or stretching toward it from various Atlantic origination points. The postwar flight of black Loyalists from the former colonies north and south to the Caribbean, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone has by now become a well-known chapter in the revolutionary-era black Atlantic quest for autonomy and self-determination. David George, George Liele, John Marrant and Boston King are fixtures in recent literature on loyalism and African-Ameican engagement with the British empire. Jones recasts the story as an exodus of southern religious culture, as those seekers and others such as Moses Baker departed the region to impart their teaching and influence throughout the Atlantic world. Their quest is a powerful reminder that the rise of African-American evangelical Protestantism, grounded in the prophetic and experiential conviction of spiritual equality and personal freedom, proved an insistent voice of righteousness against proslavery Christianity. Not only was the South a fundamental locus of that debate, it was part of several wider circum-Caribbean circuits of religious knowledge. John Catron’s revealing study of the importance of Antigua as a dissemination and translocation point for preachers and teachers, white and black, to connect to North America provides a new understanding of the international nature of post-revolutionary evangelicalism. As Jones and Catron both show, a fundamental element of those connections turned on the relationship between slavery and religion. Thomas Coke’s abandonment of his earlier commitment to antislavery, like the Salzburgers before him, represents another chapter in radical Protestantism’s capitulation before the slaveholders. It also foreshadowed southern planters’ use of religion as an ideological weapon to prevent the demise of slavery as had befallen their West Indian counterparts.10

Like Little and Jones, Alexis Wells emphasizes the necessity of viewing the South not as an isolated region sealed off by imperial or national boundaries but as a porous, permeable geo-spiritual space open to multiple Atlantic influences. Whereas most of the protagonists in the essays by Little and Jones are men, however, Wells locates African  and African-descended women’s bodies and minds as specific sites of spiritual retention and transmission to the Americas. Wells correctly notes that women have not often figured in discussions of African-derived religions in the South and in the Atlantic world broadly; the omission grows even more pronounced in the evangelical Protestant context, for example, given the rising prominence in the literature of King, George, Liele and other male leaders and missionaries whose written narratives provide ready access to their worldly and spiritual experiences. Since few women left comparable autobiographies before those of Jarena Lee, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Maria Stewart and a few others somewhat later in the nineteenth century, studies of African-American religion in the colonial and post-revolutionary South have largely skewed toward men, even though participation in religious fellowship and congregational life skewed heavily female. That scholarly imbalance has gained some redress of late.11

As Wells notes, diasporic African women’s spiritualities might find compatibility in elements of Christian worship, but they might be expressed in many other ways as well: West African-based practices of midwifery, healing, divining, and leadership of homosocial initiation and kinship groups. Women, in other words, were open to absorbing, mingling and dispensing sacred power from any sources available to them. The art of healing, as Sharla Fett has written, derived from practitioners’ pharmacological knowledge of plants as well as a sense of their own role as holy women with access to special divinely-appointed gifts, thus “transforming the meaning of their work through claims of spiritual authority that refuted planter notions of black female subservience.” An enslaved healer in antebellum North Carolina explained her gifts simply: “Doctor Jesus tells me what to do.”12

To return, then, to J. H. Elliott’s question posed above: “How, and with what aspirations, did religious creeds and practices make the transatlantic crossing, and how were they modified as they adapted to their new American environment?” Doctor Jesus gave one answer. As Little, Jones, and Wells show, historians are in no danger of running out of answers either. Early southern religions were intimately entwined with secular life; they replenished themselves from local and external sources; and they generated new ideas that spread throughout the Atlantic world.


1 Alfred F. Young, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution,’” in Alfred F. Young and Gregory Nobles, Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 13-134; Stephen Berry, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 6-7; Stephanie Kirk and Sarah Rivett, “Introduction,” in Kirk and Rivett, eds., Religious Transformations in the Early Modern Americas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 1.

2 J. H. Elliott, “Religions on the Move,” in Kirk and Rivett, eds., Religious Transformations, 25-26, 32; Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster, eds., Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2-3.

3  Carl Bridenbaugh, Myths and Realities: Societies of the Colonial South (New York: Atheneum, 1963), vii, quoted in “Redefining and Reassessing the Colonial South,” Journal of Southern History 73 (2007), 523.

4 Rebecca Anne Goetz, “Religious Diversity and the Coming of Christianity in the Prerevolutionary South,” 14 (2012): http://jsr.fsu.edu/issues/vol14/goetz.html as well as essays in the accompanying roundtable by Mary Jane Farrelly, Travis Glasson, Tracy Neal Leavelle, Jewel L. Spangler, and Jason Young. I have explored these themes further in “Indians, Africans, and the New Synthesis of Eighteenth-Century Southern Religious History,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, eds. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 5-29; and “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire,” Journal of Southern History 73 (2007), 631-42.

5 James Van Horn Melton, Religion, Community and Slavery on the Colonial Southern Frontier (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); see also his “From Alpine Miner to Lowcountry Yeoman: Transatlantic Worlds of a Georgia Salzburger, 1693-1761,” Past and Present 201 (2008), 97-140; Diary  entry, Feb. 20, 1743, in George Fenwick Jones, ed., Detailed Reports on the Salzburger Emigrants Who Settle in America . . . Edited by Samuel Urlsperger, 17 vols., trans. Hermann J. Lacher (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1967--), XVI, 164-65.

6 Carla Gardina Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

7 James Horn, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 381-99, quote on 394.

8 Noeleen McIlvenna, A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), chap. 5; Carla Gardana Pestana, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 154-56.

9 McIlvenna, A Very Mutinous People; Charles H. Lippy, “Chastized by Scorpions: Christianity and Culture in Colonial South Carolina, 1669-1740,” Church History 79 (2010), 253-70; Thomas J. Little, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2013).

10 Alexander X. Byrd, Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage, 2012); John W. Catron, Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World (Gainesville, Fl.: University Press of Florida, 2016); Edward B. Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2008). For a counter-example of radical Protestants confronting slavery directly, see the extraordinary collection of Quaker testimonies and manumission suits, and the legislative backlash they triggered against emancipation, in revolutionary eastern North Carolina, in Michael J. Crawford, The Having of Negroes Is Become a Burden: The Quaker Struggle to Free Slaves in Revolutionary North Carolina (Gainesville, Fl.: University Press of Florida, 2010).

11 For an assessment of this literature, see Jon Sensbach, “Born on the Sea from Guinea: Women’s Spiritual Middle Passages in the Early Black Atlantic,” in Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage, eds., Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 17-34.

12 Sharla Fett, “’It’s a Spirit in Me’: Spiritual Power and the Health Work of African American Women in Slavery,” in Susan Juster and Lisa MacFarlane, eds., A Mighty Baptism: Race, Gender and the Creation of American Protestantism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996), 189-93; Clifton H. Johnson, ed., God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1993), 60. Studies of healing may be considered part of a small but growing body of literature on connections between African spirituality and the landscape in America; for another creative recent study, see Ras Michael Brown, African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (New York, 2012).