RECAP: “Anglican Evangelism and the Maintenance of Slavery in the 18th-Century Atlantic World,” Colloquium w/ MU’s Daive Dunkley

Drawn from a larger project examining the Anglican Church’s involvement in British slave trafficking in the Americas, MU Associate Professor of Black Studies Daive Dunkley’s November 20th talk for the Fall 2020 Kinder Institute Zoom Colloquium Series focused on a number of evangelical actors who history often—and problematically—miscasts as having some abolitionist leanings.

Specifically, Prof. Dunkley argued that, in figures like Morgan Godwyn (in the late-17th century) and Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Bray (in the 18th), we see very clearly the ways in which the Church of England used catechism, and especially baptism, to suppress the resistance of enslaved people in the Atlantic World and, in turn, to guarantee the perpetuation of the hierarchies of the slaveholding empire. In “The Negro’s and Indian’s Advocate,” for example, Godwyn leaves no uncertainty regarding baptism’s benefit to the planter class. The promise of heaven was, he explains, predicated on the fact that enslaved people would “thereby be continued in their present State of Servitude notwithstanding their being afterward baptized.” Similarly, a law proposed in a 1681 supplement to the work that would ensure planters’ just interest in enslaved people came with the promise of continued servitude. The goal, then, was to use baptism not simply to dissuade those who might otherwise be inclined to flight or to purchasing their freedom from doing so but also to use scripture to discourage enslaved people from considering themselves equals. While the secondary literature on Godwyn and Clarkson—including commentary from Frederick Douglass—often treats their criticism of the conduct of slavery as forerunning later abolition movements, Prof. Dunkley emphasized that this widely ignores how their underlying ambition was to keep people enslaved.

A similar argument could be made about Thomas Bray, founder of the Society for the Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), who, along with close friend and founder of Colonial Georgia James Oglethorpe, publicly supported colonization without slaveholding. This was not, to be sure, undertaken out of opposition to slavery per se. Rather, Bray saw enslaved people as unable to raise themselves above “the lowness of brutes” without religious education and, in this, a threat to colonial societies and markets. This potential threat, he reasoned, could better be defused via indoctrination than by adding new slave colonies to the empire, and so he set in on a project of Christianization to preserve the economic well-being of enslavers. Baptism thus became a means of redeeming enslaved people from those racial incivilities and African traditions that he believed had adversely affected their development as a people and, far more importantly for Bray, that he saw as conducive to disrupting the plantation system. As was the case with Godwyn, Bray made clear that heavenly redemption did not imply earthly freedom but rather required a pledge of fidelity to plantation owners. And as rumors circulated among enslaved populations in South Carolina, Virginia, and Jamaica that the opposite was true—that baptism would deliver them from bondage—the SPG would double-down on its efforts to appease planters, even more forcefully shaping their rhetoric around the idea that baptism would in no way alter enslaved people’s earthly condition and that the “liberation of Christianity [was] only spiritual.”

In closing, Prof. Dunkley pointed to a final example that placed in stark relief the degree to which we must understand the ambitions of the SPG in terms of reconciling Christianity and slavery. Following his death, Barbados enslaver Christopher Codrington bequeathed his two plantations and the three hundred enslaved people thereon to the SPG “for the foundation of a college in Barbados.” His will stipulated, though, that the enslaved people must remain in the status of human chattel, making it apparent that he perceived the SPG as an organization that was not only well-suited to ensuring his wishes were carried out but also, more broadly, one that was uniquely capable of showing that neither the laws of god nor man prevented the institution of slavery.

A full video recording of the event can be found here.