Review: Embracing Protestantism

Bradford J. Wood

Bradford J. Wood is Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University.


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Bradford J. Wood, "Review: Embracing Protestantism," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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John W. Catron, Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2016. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-6163-4.

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An earlier generation of students of southern religious history considered the Christianization of African American slaves a nineteenth-century story. Most readers of this journal probably now recognize the limits of this perspective, but reading John Catron’s new book Embracing Protestantism provides a powerful reminder of just how much Africans and African Americans in the English-speaking world engaged with Christianity before the nineteenth century. Catron is the beneficiary of increasingly sophisticated bodies of scholarship related to slave culture, the Atlantic World, and the history of religion, and he weaves strands from these topics into an engaging and provocative book that should interest many scholars. Of course, Catron deals with such large topics that he must be selective, so his book is primarily an account of the relationship between evangelical Protestantism and peoples of African descent in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic World.

Catron challenges histories of conversion on colonial plantations by emphasizing the influence of African contexts for Christianity in the Americas, in what many may consider his most interesting chapter. He goes beyond positing compatibility between Christianity and traditional African religions and, in fact, he is careful to avoid over-generalizations about African and African American religious beliefs. West Central Africans who converted to Catholicism at an early point provide his most obvious evidence, but Catron contends that Christianity had an important presence through much of West Africa. He cannot and does not try to argue that Christians were especially numerous in the African regions of the slave trade, but he does make a plausible case that many Africans in the slave trade were at least familiar with a basic version of Christianity before they left Africa.

The Africans and African Americans in Embracing Protestantism make their own choices and have their own beliefs. Catron disagrees sharply with other scholars who have seen Christianization as evidence that slaves adopted white culture in an effort to mitigate their oppression. Instead, he describes Christianity as an opportunity for some to find inspiration, resist their oppression, and help to forge new identities that were in part African, Christian, and transatlantic. As Catron shows, the world beyond West Africa involved unspeakable horrors for many but also introduced other Africans to forces that could be more positive, including the British abolitionist movement, a cadre of energized and determined evangelical missionaries, and, ultimately, a wide and supportive network of Afro-Protestant churches and fellow believers.

Embracing Protestantism also describes a surprisingly connected world, in keeping with recent decades of scholarship that have emphasized linkages between Atlantic World peoples and places. Catron’s chapters focus on varied but interrelated places. After discussing Africa, he shifts to Antigua, which he characterizes as “the birthplace of Afro-Protestantism in the British Caribbean” (56). Christianity took root among the slave populations of Antigua partly because of Moravian missionaries, and Catron can document the emigration of over 300 Afro-Moravians who might well have spread their beliefs beyond Antigua, through much of the British Caribbean, and to more distant Atlantic World locales (93). Successive chapters chart similar and interrelated developments among other slaves and other missionaries in the Middle Colonies, the Carolina Lowcountry, and Sierra Leone. Often the connections among religious activities in such disparate places is impossible to prove and necessarily speculative, so, while Catron suggests some fascinating possibilities, some readers may see more similarity and less interrelation. Many readers will also recognize a familiar cast of unusually cosmopolitan and literate Afro-Protestants, such as David George, Olaudah Equiano, and Denmark Vesey. As Catron acknowledges, the people who get the most attention in Embracing Protestantism are not necessarily typical of the bulk of slaves working in more brutal and grueling conditions on plantations. Instead, they are suggestive of a range of possibilities for a shared Atlantic African Protestant identity. Or, in Catron’s words, they “represent in broad outline the strategies used by many eighteenth-century black Christians in their attempt to forge new and freer lives for themselves in the British Atlantic world.” (4).