U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Slavery and African American Freethought

The following is the first in a series of guest posts from Christopher Cameron.

The study of African American freethought has been a seriously neglected topic in black religious and intellectual history. According to William R. Jones, African American humanism’s place within the study of black religion “parallels the predicament of the hero in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, who though flesh and blood, living and breathing, is treated as if he did not exist.” (1) The same holds true for other components of black freethought, including agnosticism and atheism. What little scholarship does exist has come from theologians, such as Jones and Anthony B. Pinn, and those involved in the freethought movement, such as Sikivu Hutchinson and Norm Allen Jr.

The reasoning behind this neglect is easy to see. There has been a wealth of scholarship discussing the historical role of the church in black cultural and political life dating back to the 16th century. Historians such as Albert Raboteau, Michael Gomez, Sylvia Frey, Betty Wood, C. Eric Lincoln, and Milton Sernett, to name just a few, have demonstrated the significance of religion in shaping slave and free black’s agency and cultural production in the New World. The scholarship on this topic is so vast that it has been difficult for scholars to even imagine an ethical orientation for blacks not premised on belief in a transcendent reality.

If we look closely, however, we can see the beginnings of the black freethought movement during the era of slavery and the years immediately following the Civil War. In his recent book Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation, Daniel Fountain argues that during the antebellum period, most slaves were not converted to Christianity. (2) The obstacles to their conversion included mixed religious messages from masters and ministers alike, along with infrequent access to religious services. Most slaves likely adhered to an amalgam of African religious traditions, he notes, and it would not be until the Reconstruction era that Christianity took hold among blacks.

The testimony of Daniel Payne, bishop of the AME Church from 1852 until 1893, seemingly confirms Fountain’s argument. Paine was initially ordained in the Lutheran Church, and upon this occasion in 1839 he gave a speech entitled “Slavery Brutalizes Man.” Here Paine noted that many slaves “hear their masters professing Christianity; they see these masters preaching the gospel; they hear these masters praying in their families, and they know that oppression and slavery are inconsistent with the Christian religion; therefore they scoff at religion itself—mock their masters, and distrust both the goodness and justice of God. Yes, I have known them even to question his existence.” (3)  While Fountain’s book posits only that many slaves adhered to African traditions, Paine argues that some had already become atheists. Later on in the speech he recounts a conversation he recently had with a runaway slave. “A few nights ago…a runaway slave came to the house where I live for safety and succor,” he notes. “I asked him if he was a Christian; ‘no sir,’ said he, ‘white men treat us so bad in Mississippi that we can’t be Christians’” (4)

The support of slavery and a lukewarm abolition preached by religious figures also turned some blacks toward religious liberalism and freethinking. Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most notable of these. Even though he had been a licensed preacher in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the early 1840s, by the 1850s he was critiquing ministers such as Henry Ward Beecher because many told slaves to rely on God alone for their freedom. Douglass was influenced by the Transcendentalist philosopher Theodore Parker, and after a post-Civil War encounter with the foremost agnostic speaker of the era, Robert Ingersoll, Douglass claimed that being an infidel is not indicative of one’s moral character.

These few examples are suggestive of the origins of black freethought during the era of slavery. Later writers would employ very similar frameworks in their critiques of Christianity, noting that white racism and black otherworldliness pushed them toward secular humanism, agnosticism, and atheism. While the study of black freethought does not reduce the importance of religion to the black experience, it does add a new and exciting dimension to African American religious and intellectual history.

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Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book on black abolitionists in Massachusetts is forthcoming from Kent State University Press, and he is currently working on two book projects—one exploring liberal theology in America before the Civil War, and another on black freethinkers from the mid-19th century to the present. He blogs regularly at professorcameron.com.

(1) William R. Jones, “Religious Humanism: Its Problems and Prospects in Black Religion and Culture” in Anthony B. Pinn, ed. By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 27.

(2) Daniel L. Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

(3) Daniel Payne, “Slavery Brutalizes Man” Lutheran Herald and Journal of the Fort Plain, N.Y., Franckean Synod 1:15 (August 1, 1839), 113.

(4) Ibid, 114.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One only needs to ponder the first statement of your essay to realize that you, sir, have a wonderful talent for understatement. Another example of how what historians think “they know” has distorted the historical record. I cannot wait for your future posts.

    Your essay fired off some brain cells reminding me of the connection of a similar topic which was how religion helped to define and separate “white” from “red” and “black’ in the early days of New World colonization. Perhaps this blog could provide us early Americanists by reaching out to Rebecca Goetz who published an excellent book on this subject last fall.

    btw the daily juxtaposition of topics here compares to listening to the Beatles White Album for the first time. Everything is excellent and different. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

  2. I am trying to figure out a tag to come up with that will link this wonderful post with Ray’s post from yesterday and other earlier posts around this theme of belief/unbelief and the (in)attentiveness of historians to how we develop our own pieties about the significance of others’ faith (or lack thereof, or redefinition of), etc. But taking this post on its own, it seems to me to be a very important call. How would you situate African-American freethinking in relation to similar contemporary forms, and where do you see its lasting influence within (or without?) familiar — and perhaps for that reason under-interpreted — institutional pillars of Black cultural life in the years following the Civil War?

    • Black freethinkers definitely occupied an ambivalent place in black culture and politics after the Civil War. In 1870 Douglass came out against use of the Bible in schools and the notion that blacks should thank God alone for their freedom. He was roundly criticized by AME ministers, who held a special meeting to discuss his viewpoints. They resolved that nobody who held the positions that Douglass did would be considered a black leader, but of course he would remain an important political leader until his death.

      The same holds true for W.E.B Du Bois, who grew up in a liberal Congregational church and became a freethinker while attending school in Germany. Du Bois was of course at the center of many struggles for civil rights during the first half of the 20th century, but he almost had a job as a department head at Atlanta University withdrawn because he refused to lead the students in prayer.

      Aside from Douglass, who was in his 60s when he moved closer to freethinking (I’m not sure the label quite applies, but he was definitely a theological liberal), there seems to have been something of a generational war between young intellectuals such as Du Bois, Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, and a little known socialist freethinker named Hubert Harrison, among others, and older, more established members of the Black church, especially AMEs.

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