Saturday, February 23, 2013

Racism and Slavery in Puritan New England (Part 3)

Our previous articles, 'Racism and Slavery in Puritan New England (Part 1)' and 'Racism and Slavery in Puritan New England (Part 2)' looked at the problem of racism and slavery in Puritan New England. We saw that New England Puritans gave themselves the power to force married slave couples to live separately, and that they also gave themselves the power to remove children from parents at will. We also saw that the institution of slavery in Puritan New England was underpinned by racist attitudes towards non-whites.

This article and the following article will continue the discussion by looking at the role of the Great Awakening on the question of race and slavery in New England.

Richard Bailey’s seminal book Race and Redemption in Puritan New England is invaluable in showing that where non-whites were concerned, redemption was almost entirely conceived in spiritual and invisible terms. Bailey has shown that the concern shared by Puritan leaders of the colonial period for the souls of Africans and Native Americans was matched by an equally great acquiescence concerning their material condition. When it came to the theology of equality, Puritan religious leaders scrupulously guarded the public sphere against truths that were affirmed on Sunday morning, thus driving a wedge between the spiritual and the material.

Cotton Mather
The architects of the Great Awakening followed the New England Puritans in showing enormous concern to bring salvation to the men, women and children who had been enslaved. Yet the great concern they had for the spiritual redemption of Africans was matched by an almost equally great ambivalence as to the physical redemption of those who had been the unwilling victims of the trade in human flesh. Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and countless others could all confidently call for the evangelization of the slaves while turning a blind eye to—and sometimes offering an outright defence of—the institutions that made chattel slavery possible in the first place.

It is interesting to learn that at first the New England Puritans had been reluctant to share the gospel with enslaved men, women and children for fear that they would then be obligated to grant them freedom. This was because of a natural intuition that it would be wrong for one Christian to enslave another Christian. This problem was taken care of in 1667 when the Virginia General Assembly clarified that “the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome [sic].”
This and similar statutes in the New England colonies did not completely remove the barriers to sharing the gospel with people of colour. As late as 1706 Cotton Mather had to refute the pervasive idea that the colour of his skin rendered the Negro an unfit object of evangelism. However, as the institution of slavery increasingly came under attack, the evangelism of slaves became one of the two key pillars in colonial defences of the institution and even the slave trade. After all, wasn’t it because of race-based slavery that Negroes had a chance to learn the gospel? Some Puritans even went so far as to suggest that the experience of the New Birth allowed Native Americans and blacks to overcome the inferior natures they allegedly possessed.

The New England Puritans treated Africans as
commodities, to be bought and sold at will.
In discussing a dialogue on the topic of slavery between two justices of the Massachusetts provincial court at the opening of the eighteenth century, Larry Tise notes that “proslavery writers would...claim endlessly that slavery was a boon to the Negro as an acculturating mechanism in European and Christian values...” “Many saw slavery as a part of God's historic scheme for bringing all men to salvation…”

Besides evangelism, the other main doctrine that the Puritans appealed to when defending slavery was the sovereignty of God. In a world in which all events were seen as the working of Providence, the fact of slavery was itself sufficient proof that God had ordained it. Race-based slavery was thus accepted as part of the way God had ordered the world, even by those like Jonathan Edwards who believed that the slave trade itself was unethical.

Once a Negro was evangelized, he or she could enjoy in the churches a qualified equality that remained remote in other spheres of New England life. Though New England Puritans bought and sold blacks as property, and in many respects treated them as mere commodities, within the walls of the church they were treated as the image of God. Bailey has demonstrated from an analysis of church records that people of colour achieved an equality within the Puritan churches that was inaccessible to them in the general society that sustained those churches. The baptism, salvation and church discipline of blacks remained identical to whites, while blacks were allowed to testify in church discipline proceedings.

By the 1740s, some slaves were even attaining a measure of authority in the church by being able to preach. Within the walls of the church, little or no difference existed based on race and Minkema is right that “Theoretically, full membership accorded equal status to blacks and whites as fellow Christians.”  Bailey notes the irony that “Whites, including Edwards, had more trouble redeeming Native Americans and Africans socially…”

The attempt to sustain spiritual redemption and equality for blacks in a world where social equality was denied them resulted in what Bailey has termed a “double consciousness.” Black and Native American men, women and children simultaneously functioned as humans and sub-human, as the image of God and simply a commodity, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and “others” who could be kidnapped and then bought and sold at will. These juxtapositions tended to fall along the fault line of divisions between the sacred/spiritual and the secular/material, so that within the church the former achieved realization, while the outside secular realm continued to be dominated by legislation that assumed blacks possessed inferior natures to the natures of whites.

Our discussion of slavery and  the Great Awakening will continue in the next post, which looks specifically at the views of Jonathan Edwards regarding slavery.

Further Reading

Some of this material will be appearing in the monthly newsletter of Christian Voice, a ministry whose website is It is printed here with permission of Christian Voice.


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