Why understanding the relationship between Christianity and slavery is ‘hard, soul-shaking work’
Faith leaders are often presented as heroes in stories about slavery. But some fought to keep the slave trade alive.
SALT LAKE CITY — One common myth about the relationship between religion and slavery is that faith leaders spoke early and often about the evils of enslavement.
Another is that churches have something to lose by setting the record straight.
As the country marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the slave trade on U.S. soil, religious leaders are working to correct both assumptions. They’re speaking openly about how their institutions benefitted from the buying and selling of human beings and how some churches fail people of color to this day.
“I think we’re just beginning the process of understanding,” said the Rev. Ray Kemp, a Catholic priest who serves as special assistant to the president of Georgetown University.
It’s a difficult process, said the Rev. Nicholas Knisely, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. As his denomination and diocese have confronted the horrors of slavery and racism, he’s had to correct his old, comforting ideas about the past.
“It’s hard, soul-shaking work,” he said. “You begin to learn that the things you thought you knew about your own story as a white, northern person aren’t nearly true.”
“This country would be better off if we all engaged in this discussion, in a constant search for what’s really true.”
It’s also inspiring and important work, the Rev. Kemp said, noting that efforts to grapple with Georgetown and other Catholic institutions’ involvement in the slave trade have set an example for other faith groups and deepened his relationship with Catholics of color.
“This country would be better off if we all engaged in this discussion, in a constant search for what’s really true,” he said.
Christians and slavery
The Rev. Kemp grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, long after slavery was outlawed. Even as a child, he saw that interracial tensions were far from resolved.
“The legacy of slavery is racism,” he said.
Being involved in a church or professing personal faith didn’t stop most of the white adults in the Rev. Kemp’s life from spreading racist ideas. The same was true in the past, wrote Katharine Gerbner, the author of “Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World,” in an email.
“Many Christians tried very hard to reconcile Christianity and slavery,” she said. “They went to the Bible to find defenses for enslavement.”
Their biblical interpretations were rarely sound, but they were pretty convincing at the time.
“The curse of Ham is one example,” Gerbner said. “Noah curses his son, Ham, and says that the descendants of Ham’s son, Canaan, would be damned to perpetual servitude. Some Christians argued that Ham had traveled to Africa, and that Africans were the descendants of Canaan and therefore slavery was justified.”
The Bible doesn’t actually reference Africa, she added.
Many pro-slavery Christians were motivated by worldly concerns, said Mark Noll, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame. They worried about how abolishing slavery would affect the future of their denominations.
“The use of religion to defend slavery grew when denominations were successful recruiting in the south,” he said.
Christians who felt uneasy about slavery rarely shared their concerns. Their silence enabled churches to continue accepting donations from slave traders with little remorse, Noll said.
“It’s a difficult thing for modern Americans to remember how routine that was. It was often done without thinking,” he said.
There were some white Christians who preached against slavery from the beginning. Quakers, for example, rejected the practice as evil.
However, these Christians were few and far between, said Gerbner, a history professor at the University of Minnesota. It wasn’t until slaves began converting to Christianity that public understanding of the religion’s teachings on slavery began to meaningfully change.
“When enslaved people started to convert to Christianity, many of them used scripture to argue for their freedom. They were some of the first antislavery Christians. Still, it took over a century for a major abolitionist movement to develop in the United States,” she said.
The relationship between religion and slavery is “a mixed story,” the Rev. Knisely said. It’s not as flattering as many contemporary Christians assume.
“There were some amazing voices that called for the abolition of slavery and called for equal rights and there were some depressingly prominent voices that called for the continuation of slavery in the United States,” he said.
Uncovering buried truths
For a long time, few Christians leaders were interested in telling the full story of their faith’s involvement in slavery. They avoided or helped hide the “disturbing” truth, Gerbner said.
That finally began to change in the mid-20th century, during the rise of the civil rights movement, Noll said. Religious leaders started acknowledging past wrongs and unhealed wounds, sometimes publicly repenting and sometimes working privately to uncover hidden stories.
The revelations that trickled out sparked anger and pain, but also spiritual growth, according to the Rev. Kemp, who took part in the civil rights movement as a young adult. Learning about the experiences of Catholic slaves made him want to honor those men and women through his own actions.
“There were black Catholics who stuck with the Catholic Church despite being enslaved by people who were Catholic. If it was good enough for them, then I wanted to stay with it and stay with the work,” the Rev. Kemp said.
He became a priest and fought for justice, urging others to recognize biblical calls to root out racism. In recent years, he’s been part of Georgetown University’s efforts to expose its historic ties to slavery and make amends.
The Rev. Knisely has led similar work in the Episcopal Church, which, in 2006, voted to apologize for the sin of slavery and put more energy behind racial reconciliation. His diocese opened the Center for Reconciliation in an old church building and helps fund programs aimed at reducing racial inequality.
“There are more people requesting our programs than we have staff or resources to provide,” the Rev. Knisely said.
Similar initiatives are underway in religious organizations across the country. For example, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are partnering with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to heal racial divides and provide opportunities for young people of color to build financial self-reliance and access new jobs.
Derick D. Dailey, who, along with a group of faith leaders, recently took part in a pilgrimage to Hampton, Virginia, tied to the 400th anniversary of the start of the U.S. slave trade, said there is more for the Christian community to do.
“Many white Protestants have not confronted this slave history. Not all black churches have,” he said, noting that even admirable efforts to do so are often “incomplete.”
He wants more Christians to study the complicated history of slavery and help other Americans do the same. The church is meant to right moral wrongs, not help people cover them up, argued Dailey, a former board member for Bread for the World.
“Until we have the courage to deal with hard issues like this, we are just going to keep repeating the bad pattern we’re in.”
“Perhaps more than any other sector of society, it’s the Christian community who carries the responsibility of being the conscience of the country. When the Christian family rejects that responsibility, woe to the rest of the nation,” he said.
Dailey and others hope this year’s big anniversary will inspire more difficult but necessary conversations. People need to understand the complicated, horrifying history of slavery, and then make sure such sins are never committed again, the Rev. Knisely said.
“Until we have the courage to deal with hard issues like this, we are just going to keep repeating the bad pattern we’re in,” he said.