At the beginning of the
transatlantic slave trade
, African religious beliefs and
practices were numerous and varied
. In addition to a wide variety of polytheistic
religions, a significant portion of the continent had for centuries
fallen under Islamic
. Despite this diversity, there were some common threads across cultural
groups. For instance, West African societies, the largest source for American slaves,
shared a belief in
a Supreme Creator, a chief deity among lesser gods, to whom they
prayed and made sacrifices
. Through laws and customs honoring the gods, the
ancestors of one's people, and the elderly, West Africans sought a harmonious balance
between the natural and spiritual worlds. Further, they made music and dance vital
components of their worship practices.
Enslaved men and women kept the rites, rituals,
and cosmologies of Africa alive in America through stories, healing arts, song, and other
forms of cultural expression, creating a spiritual space apart from the white European
Africans and African descendents working in the early modern Atlantic
commercial system were exposed to the world of European Christianity as early as the
fifteenth century, when Portuguese missionaries came to the coasts of Africa. Some
slaves, therefore, brought Christian beliefs with them when they were thrust into slavery.
Others converted in America. During the seventeenth century blacks in the Dutch New
Netherlands and Spanish Florida baptized their children and were married by the church.
In part, this participation in the dominant European religion reflected (and helped to bring
about) a colonial society in which blacks were more fully integrated and enjoyed greater
rights than later generations of slaves would.
However, slaves also
saw conversion to Christianity as a road to freedom
. In the
early years of settlement, for instance, fugitive slaves from South Carolina, headed for
Florida, where the Spanish Crown promised them freedom as a reward for conversion.
Slaveholders in the British North American colonies became increasingly fearful that
Christianization of slaves would lead to demands for emancipation.
In 1667 Virginia
passed a law declaring that conversion did not change the status of a person from slave to
Other colonies passed similar laws during the seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries. During the early eighteenth century Anglican missionaries attempting to bring