Albert J. Raboteau, Princeton University. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980, softbound, 400 pages.
“Not too long ago, white Americans believed that black culture in America was largely a sorry effort to imitate white culture. Some scholars and teachers, who should have known better, even argued that enslaved Africans in America had no religion until Europeans provided one for them. Such nonsense no longer holds, thankfully, as recent studies of black history have shown Afro-Americans to be anything but passive recipients of white, European culture and religion. Lawrence Levine, Eugene Genovese, Donald Mathews, John Blassingame, and now Albert Raboteau, among others have studied black folklore, material culture, and religious practices to discover a slave/black culture of enormous richness and power existing beyond the reach of white masters. The enslaved Africans in the New World apparently sifted through the cultural and psychological wreckage of enslavement to recover common West African religious properties and folk beliefs, and they mixed them with their New World slave experience to forge a separate Afro-American culture. In the slave families, in the slave quarters, in the secret religious meetings the slaves resisted degradation and developed a sense of special destiny and purpose. This vision of blacks creating their own world to the exclusion of whites has become the consensus of the 1970s. Albert Raboteau’s book reflects this agreement, but he corrects new misconceptions about a wholly independent African religious culture surviving in North America.
Slave religion in the New World was something borrowed and something new. The slaves borrowed their African concepts of the sacred and the profane, of ritual, of religious time, and of worship. African beliefs in spirit possession and supernatural intervention into mundane human affairs were among the more visible remnants of the Old World which survived in the New. The slaves also borrowed Christian concepts of apocalypse, Exodus themes, and the equality of all men and women in God’s eyes. What was new about Afro-American religion was the syncretism of Christian and African religions.
Raboteau adopts a comparative hemispheric perspective to contrast the different processes and products of syncretism among the slaves. In Latin American societies a congenial Catholicism with its feast days, devotion of saints, and blessed objects provided a cover for the slaves’ retention of African religious practices and beliefs. The slave religion of Brazil and the Caribbean remained fundamentally African in content and meaning. But in North America the religious syncretism took a very different course.
In North America the slave population was largely native-born by the nineteenth century and so removed from direct, regular African cultural infusions. In the Old South the slaves were scattered among the white population, further inhibiting a restoration of African society. And in North America the white masters, despite some misgivings, made sporadic attempts to bring the gospel and Christian order to the slaves. But even as the gods of Africa yielded to the God of Christianity, African religious values continued to inform Afro-American religion. As Raboteau reveals in convincing detail, Christianity in America was filtered through black lenses. Black preachers and exhorters from the Great Awakening to the planters’ mission to the slaves in the 1830s recast white, evangelical Protestant themes into Afro-American terms. Blacks found comfort in evangelical Protestantism because of its Christian egalitarianism, its assurance of divine judgment and deliverance in this world, and its possibilities for adapting. African singing, dancing, spirit possession, and magical traditions to Protestant spirituals, ring shout, and folk beliefs. The Baptists won the greatest number of black converts because Baptist congregational autonomy and lay preaching offered blacks the greatest opportunities for self-expression and participation.
At its core, Afro-American religion was evangelical and Protestant, but it was shaped and reshaped by African traditions and Afro-Americans’ needs. As such, religion became the adhesive bond for the slave community and represented the fullest expression of the slaves’ changing aspirations and self-perceptions. Raboteau is especially good at placing slave religion in the social context of the Old South. He understands that the slave preachers and exhorters did not promise to topple the slave regime in their time, although they did assure the slaves that temporal freedom would someday arrive. What they did do was to offer the slaves a confidence in their special destiny as a chosen people of God and, through folk beliefs and magic, to give slaves some control over their personal environment.
None of this is very new, but nowhere is slave religion described and explained so comprehensively and sensibly as in Raboteau’s book. Raboteau’s recognition of the different responses of different groups of slaves to bondage is an important corrective to the recent tendency to lump all black experience together, and his comparative approach, extended to include evangelical and non-evangelical Christian denominations in the South, is fresh and instructive. Raboteau might have pushed his comparisons further by including poor whites in his model to determine how unique slave religion in the South really was, and he might have added a chapter on the post-emancipation experience of black churches to examine those aspects of traditional Protestant organization and practice blacks chose to retain in their own churches. But these suggestions should not detract from Raboteau’s significant achievement. He has mastered an immense and complex literature on religion and slavery, he has provided a clear and full description of the evolution of slave religion(s) in America, he has unraveled some of the mysteries of Christian and African syncretism, and he has understood the ambiguities that attract and sometimes dismay those confronted with the power of Christianity among oppressed peoples Raboteau’s book should be required reading for anybody interested in understanding our religious, social, and intellectual heritage.” –Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania