Freedom allowed the Christian core’s belief to burn brighter than ever before, and forever changed the African-American religious landscape
When did Christianity really take hold in enslaved African-American communities? Was it prior to the Civil War, as is commonly believed, or after emancipation?
Associate Professor of History Dan Fountain’s presentation, “Slavery, Civil War, & Salvation,” used primary sources including testimony of slaves to explore this question in Meredith College’s 2014 Faculty Distinguished Lecture.
Many historians say that most slaves converted to Christianity before the Civil War years, when the message of Afro-Christianity encouraged perseverance and hope for deliverance. Fountain’s research counters this belief.
Fountain argued that far fewer slaves had converted prior to the Civil War than most scholars suggest, that the conditions of slavery were responsible for limiting the appeal of Christianity, and that most conversions happened during and after the Civil War.
“As anyone who has tried it knows, swimming against the current of accepted scholarly interpretation can be a difficult and lonely task,” Fountain said. “Nonetheless, that is what I have done …”
Fountain’s research showed that a high percentage of slaves were not allowed to attend church, and those who did often heard services that were focused on reinforcing the idea of obedience to masters.
“Problems of access, poor message, and religious example are what limited the appeal of Christianity under slavery,” Fountain said. “Based on these findings, I argue that slavery was not a Christianizing institution.”
His research showed that many more African-Americans became Christian during and after the Civil War than before the war.
“Freedom, rather than slavery, proved to be the greatest force for conversion among African-Americans in the South,” Fountain said.
After emancipation, African-Americans could preach a more appealing message, could control their own religious institutions, and increase the reach of Christianity as more effective emissaries of the faith.
“Freedom allowed the Christian core’s belief to burn brighter than ever before, and in doing so, forever changed the African-American religious landscape by drawing a majority of the community into their faith.”
Fountain’s research interests focus on the nineteenth century United States and the U.S. South with a specific interest in the history of slavery and race. He is author of Slavery, Civil War, & Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870, published by LSU Press in 2010. He has appeared on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, helping actor Blair Underwood explore his ancestry, and on the History Channel series The States. In 2011, Fountain was inducted into the Historical Society of North Carolina, an organization dedicated to the study and promotion of North Carolina History. Membership in the Society is by nomination only and is limited to 75 active members.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Meredith Magazine.