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.
Most 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 Christians 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.”
Meredith’s Carlyle Campbell Library has both print and electronic copies of Fountain's book, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870, available for check out.
About Dan Fountain
Dan 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 recent years he has served as chair of North Carolina’s State Historical Marker Program Committee, chair and director of the Historic Oak View County Park Advisory Board, as well as a member of the executive board of both the Carolina Charter Corporation and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. 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.
About the Faculty Distinguished Lecture
The Faculty Distinguished Lecture is given once per academic year. The series represents a significant achievement of research by a faculty member. The first lecture was presented in 1964 by Professor of English Norma Rose. Fountain was chosen from names submitted by the Faculty Development and Instructional Technology Committee, and was selected by Meredith’s senior academic administrator. This event is sponsored by Meredith’s convocation committee.