The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

The Author’s Corner with Lincoln Mullen

51E0Jh31O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lincoln Mullen is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Early in graduate school I had the good fortune to do a reading course in American religious history with Jonathan Sarna, who became my PhD director. After that course I wanted to tell as broad a story about American religion as I could muster. The theme of conversion offers the chance to both compare religious groups and observe their interactions, so it became my way to write that kind of history.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Over the course of the nineteenth-century, pressures to convert, actual conversions between religious groups, and the possibility of having no religious affiliation at all changed the basis of religious identity from inheritance to choice. But that process played out very differently for different groups, so the chapters on black and white Protestants, Cherokee converts, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics see how the spread of that idea refracted through different religious traditions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Different audiences will likely come to the book for different reasons.

I’d like for scholars in the field of American religious history to read it as a synthesis of nineteenth-century religious history on the basis of primary research on the topic of conversion. This book is hardly the first or only to attempt to put the field together in this way, but it isn’t a common approach either. Few books that aren’t textbooks try to bring so many religious groups together; most books are narrowly focused. So what other kinds of primary synthesis might scholars write?

Other readers might be interested in the book because of their own religious commitments, or even because they are converts. Those readers will find the book’s story both strange and familiar. Familiar, I hope, because they will recognize themselves in some of the book’s many stories of converts. But I hope they also find the book strange because people like to talk about their religious choices as being free, but the book shows the ways those choices are obligated and constrained. It’s their story, but not the way they would tell it.

And if you come to the book because someone assigned it for class, at least you get to cover a pretty wide swathe of nineteenth-century religious history in one book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LM: In high school I thought I would go into mathematics or the like. But there were more history books than math books around the house.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I am working on two projects at the moment. I’m turning a digital history project called America’s Public Bible into a digital monograph that will be published by Stanford University Press. And with a team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I am working on a project called Mapping Early American Elections.

JF: Thanks, Lincoln!

St. Augustine and the Conversion of a Progressive Journalist

st-augustine-3

Elizabeth Bruenig converted to Catholicism in 2014.  Her decision to unite with the church of Rome came through her reading of St. Augustine.  She describes her spiritual journey in a recent piece at America magazine.

Here is a taste:

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed,in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”

Property entered the equation with sin. Since people could no longer be trusted to honor the original purpose and use of creation, governing authorities were able to maintain order by dividing it up. But the church remained sensitive to the pre-property purpose of creation, and with its own authority (throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, ecclesiastical courts heard many cases regarding property and contracts) and power to persuade states and subjects, it urged vigilance against the tendency of the wealthy to amass more than their due, to the detriment of the poor. Individual actors departed from the counsel of the church, of course, but never succeeded in altering its doctrine to advance their own purposes.

But that changed after the Protestant Reformation. 

Read the rest here, including Bruenig’s comparison of her conversion to those of conservative intellectuals R.R. Reno and Ross Douthat.

 

 

Jonathan Edwards on the Marks of the Christian Convert

Jonathan_Edwards

Last week James Dobson claimed  that Donald Trump had recently had an evangelical or “born-again” conversion experience.”  Since Dobson is a well-known leader within evangelicalism there are many Christians who believe his claim.  Others are skeptical.

I have no idea if Donald Trump had a legitimate conversion experience.  I am certainly skeptical, especially since this supposed conversion happened in the midst of a presidential campaign and, more specifically, at a time when some evangelical leaders are trying to make Trump palatable to their followers.  But as a Christian who still describes himself as an “evangelical” I would rejoice to learn that Donald Trump has committed his life to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a minister  or what the great student of the Puritans J.I. Packer called a “physician of the soul,” but I am a historian who can provide some context.

Back in the 1740s, during the height of the evangelical revival known as the “First Great Awakening,” large numbers of people in the English-speaking world claimed to have had encounters with God that led to a conversion experience–the embrace of what itinerant preacher George Whitefield described as “the New Birth.”

Many Christian ministers–the intellectuals of the age–were skeptical about all of these conversions.  These revivals were often associated with strange behavioral manifestations and excessive emotionalism.  The revival bred divisiveness in congregations as those who claimed to be truly “saved” questioned the Christian commitments of those who did not have a conversion experience.  It got ugly.

Northampton, Massachusetts clergymen Jonathan Edwards, who defended the Great Awakening as a true work of God, was concerned about these disorders. He understood the views of the revival’s critics and agreed with some of them.  In 1741, he put his pen to paper and wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has Lately Appeared on the Minds of the People of New England With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with which this Work is AttendedEdwards’s long title speaks for itself.  He wrote to distinguish a true born-again conversion experience from a false one.  I reread Distinguishing Marks this morning in light of this whole Trump-conversion controversy.  I encourage you to do the same.

Edwards introduces Distringuishing Marks with a quote from 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

He then writes:

In the apostolic age, there was the greatest outpouring of the Spirit of God that ever was; both as to his extraordinary influences and gifts, and his ordinary operations, in convincing, converting, enlightening, and sanctifying the souls of men. But as the influences of the true Spirit abounded, so counterfeits did also abound: the devil was abundant in mimicking, both the ordinary and extraordinary influences of the Spirit of God, as is manifest by innumerable passages of the apostles’ writings. This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the true from the false without danger of being imposed upon….

Here are the so-called “Distinguishing Marks”:

  1. A conversion experience will “raise their esteem of that Jesus” among the converted. True converts will believe that Jesus Christ “came in the flesh–and that he is the Son of God, and was sent of God to save sinners; that he is the only Saviour, and that they stand in great need of him.  They will have “higher and more honourable thoughts of him than they used to have” and will “incline their affections more to him…”
  2. True converts will work against the “interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherish[ing] men’s worldly lusts.” A true conversion experience will “lessen men’s esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honours of the world, and to take off their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things.”
  3. A true convert will have a “greater regard to the Holy Scriptures.”
  4. A true convert will have a new appreciation of spiritual truth.
  5. A true convert will reflect “a spirit of love to God and man.”  Edwards writes: “Love and humility are two things the most contrary to the spirit of the devil, of any thing in the world, for the character of that evil spirit, above all things, consists in pride and malice.”