1619 and The Arrival of African Christianity

09-03-2019 by

Rev. Dr. David Daniels, III

The 1619 Project invites Black Church Studies seemingly to join its intellectual revolution.  In reframing the origins of the African American Christianity, the arrival of African Christians in August of 1619 to Colonial Virginia and later to Colonial Maryland, New York (Dutch New Netherlands), and the Carolinas might become the new inaugural moment of the Black Church.  African Christianity rather than the “slave religion” of the plantation might serve as a founding source of the Christianity of Black people in North America.

The historians John Thornton, Linda Heywood, and others have convinced me at least that among the “20-plus” Africans who were illegally transported to the Virginia Colony included Christians.  The evidence includes a 1619 letter written by a local Roman Catholic bishop, Manuel Bautista Soares, in which he expressed his outrage that 4,000-plus African Christians from Ndongo in west-central Africa had been captured by “slave traders.”  This letter shows, then, a significant presence of African Christians in one of the regions where Africans were captured by “slave traders.”

The Africans of 1619 came to North America, according to Thornton and other scholars, from one of the most Christianized regions in Africa:  the Empire of the Kongo and its neighboring kingdoms of Loango and Ndongo located along or near the west-central African Atlantic coast.  By 1619, the Kongolese Empire possessed its own cathedral, churches, lay Christian societies, and schools for girls and boys; Africans served as Catholic priests, catechists, church musicians, school principals, school teachers, court scribes, and Christian monarchs; in the prior century, there even existed a Catholic bishop of Kongolese descent.  At the Catholic college in the nearby Portuguese colonial outpost at Luanda, Africans were enrolled as students and were among the graduates.  In comparison to the Kongo of 1619, early colonial Virginia was an undeveloped Christian society.

If Kongolese Christianity is a major factor in the development of the Black Church, then we will need to let the images of the movies Roots and Django, based on 19th-century slavery, stop serving as the historical backdrop for the Africans of 1619.  A new historical context will need to be drawn and new images will need to be generated.

Maybe Black Church Studies can find these new images among the African Christians of the 1620s and 1630s who requested Christian marriage for themselves and baptism for their children.  Maybe African Christians such as Paulo d'Angola, Elizabeth Key and others who mounted legal challenges against their enslavement between 1644 and 1656 could be a source of these new images. Maybe the small number of African Christians who served as elected officials during the 1600s such as Matthias de Sousa, a member of the legislature of Colonial Maryland from 1641 to 1642, could offer a new set of images.

Along with new images, Black Church Studies could explore the Christian theology and practices that these African Christians introduced to North America during the 1600s.  Since Kongolese theology had already deemed the enslavement of Christians as un-Christian during the 1500s, possibly this theological perspective on freedom could have framed the legal challenges to slavery mounted by the first generation of African Christians in British and Dutch North America.  We also could develop further the studies of Yolanda Covington-Ward and other scholars who collectively have shown that the future core markers of “slave religion” were already present in the Kongolese Christianity of the 1600s:  healing practices, the practice of prophecy, spirit possession, call-and-response singing, and the ring shout.

If the origins of African American Christianity might be found in Kongolese Christianity and not solely on the slave plantation, then new questions will need to be crafted:  When did the practice of Kongolese Christianity turn into African American Christianity? If the “God of the oppressed” framed the theological discourse of the post-1776 era and later, what theological motif framed Kongolese Christianity in North America during the 1600s and early 1700s?  How did the Kongolese theology of freedom critique the British philosophy of liberty?  If all African Christians were not first introduced to Christianity by “slave masters” and their preachers, how do we reconstruct the role that Kongolese Christian theology played in the development of the Black Church and American Christianity?  What role did African Christians shaped by Kongolese Christianity have in evangelizing Africans and non-Africans in North America?  Since the British often distinguished between Christians and Negroes with the Christian as white and the Negro as heathen, how did these African Christians of the 1600s construct their own religious identity as well as the image of the British?  These are the kind of questions promoted by shifting the origins of the Black Church to 1619.

If African Christians did carry African Christianity with them to North America in 1619 and subsequent decades, Black Church Studies could reasonably support The 1619 Project in reframing the narrative of the origins of the United States.

Image Credit: The Old Plantation, c. 1790. Enslaved Africans on a South Carolinan plantation. Image in the public domain, sourced from Wikipedia.