- Series: Galaxy Books
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (February 7, 1980)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195027051
- ISBN-13: 978-0195027051
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.9 x 5.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #469,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (Galaxy Books) 1st Edition
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"Excellent....The wealth of research Raboteau has collected makes this the summary on the subject."--M. McGlom, Avila College
"A splendid text for undergraduate students which provides insights into the nature and history of African-American religion, a subject often ignored in religion in America texts."--Bernard H. Cochran, Meredith College
"An excellent, judicious, balanced, carefully researched synthesis--raises the hard questions."--J. Careton Hayden, Univ. of the South
"With this book no American church historian can any longer neglect the black Christian story."--Church History
"Provides a convincing argument for the distinctiveness of black religion."--The Black Perspective in Music
"Sound scholarship, judicious reflection and accessible style....Raboteau provides a good synthesis of recent work on slave religion and buttresses it with his own judgments and research."--Eugene Genovese, The New Republic
"Raboteau is the first to examine in detail the religious life of the slaves....Such a book was long overdue and Raboteau's work will undoubtedly become the standard text on slave religion."--Commonweal
"Indispensable for courses in African-American religion or even in upper division undergraduate courses in American religious history. Keep it in print for manyu years to come."--Rodger Payne, University of Virginia
"It's a classic and it is still an indispensable introduction to the topic. Don't ever let it go out of print!"--Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Colby College
About the Author
Albert J. Raboteau, Princeton University.
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African American religion began out of necessity; the captured Africans needed something to sustain them during the middle passage. Once they arrived, slaves needed someone to administer rituals for special events, such as birth, marriages, illness, death, and other events that required a ceremony. Slave religion started with a heavy influence from a variety of African ethnic groups and European Christianity and has remained the same for years. Raboteau explains, "perhaps the most obvious continuity between African and Afro-American religions is the style of performance in ritual action. Drumming, singing, and dancing are essential features of African and Afro-American liturgical expression" (p. 35). "Even as the gods of Africa gave way to the God of Christianity, the African heritage of singing, dancing, spirit possession, and magic continued to influence Afro-American spirituals, ring shouts, and folk beliefs" (p. 92).
One way in which slaves adapted was to "steal away," attend secret prayer meetings apart from those of the masters' preachers who told slaves "obey your master." Of course, slaves faced severe punishment if caught. To avoid detection from Plantation owners, slaves would use wet rags and quilts to diffuse noise, hold meetings in the woods, and use an upside down pot to hear if someone was approaching. These secret meetings were very important to the slave community. Additionally, the slave preacher (whose sermons were based on the Bible) also had competition for authority with the conjurer, a proponent of the supernatural. Here, Raboteau explains, conjure and Christianity were not so much antithetical as complementary. "Conjure could, without contradiction, exist side by side with Christianity in the same individual and in the same community because, for the slaves, conjure answered purposes which Christianity did not and Christianity answered purposes which conjure did not" (p. 288). Conjurers were considered and respected as a valuable necessity in the slave community and another example of how slaves molded with Christianity to serve their own circumstances.
The conversion experience itself was another means for slaves to adapt Christianity to their situation. Even though conversion stood at the center of the evangelical Protestant tradition, slaves increasingly made the conversion experience their own. The typical conversion experience was preceded a period of anxiety over one's salvation which lasted for days or even weeks. The normal context for sinners to become seekers was the mourners' bench, or anxious seat, at prayer meetings and revivals. Conversion experiences are very personal experiences, but have some similarities. The pattern of a feeling of sinfulness, then a vision of damnation, and finally, an experience of acceptance by God and being reborn or made new was usually common.
Slave spirituals also contributed to the slaves' religious life. The singing was accompanied by an ecstasy of motion, clapping of hands, tossing of heads, and shouts. The spirituals would be shouted out in what was called a ring shout. An individual's experience would become part of the group. One person's sorrow or joy became everyone's through song. Raboteau states that it is difficult to believe that a slave sang of suffering and toil without reference to his life in slavery. In attempting to make sense out of their individual lives, the slaves found meaning in their religion. Spirituals formed the soul of communal worship in the quarters.
Slave religion allowed slaves to assert and maintain a sense of personal value. At the same time, religion became an expression of social and cultural solidarity. African folk traditions and Christianity came together and formed something new adapted to the slave condition. As Raboteau concludes, "in the midst of slavery, religion was for slaves a space of meaning, freedom, and transcendence" (p. 318).
Raboteau writes in terms of recovering voices, particularly for this study, the voices of slaves preserved in narratives from the past. This idea of recovering voices is a strong theme in liberation theologies, and applies in important ways both to secular and religious history (as well as present-day practice). Not only the voices, but also the actual events need to be recovered - as Raboteau points out, before the 1820s, far more Africans made the trans-Atlantic journey to the Americas unwillingly than Europeans of all nationalities and religions. The idea of European development of the New World obscures this important fact.
But just what was slave culture? Was this something distinct and unique? Were there multiple slave cultures? Raboteau, speaking in context of the religious, could not ignore the political, and argued that there were vital and creative means of continuation of African cultural influences, often overlaid with Christian and European influences, that provided what he calls a pre-political solidarity that, while not always directly challenging the institution of slavery, provided the kind of foundation needed for questioning of authority needed to break the mindset of the institution of slavery.
Raboteau claims that his primary intention in writing this text was the passing-on of unwritten traditions, oral traditions no longer heard; this goes hand-in-hand with the desire through historical methodology to increase wisdom along with the spiritual task of reflecting upon a tradition that stands a continuing challenge to the complacency exhibited by most of Christianity (not to mention individual Christians).
With regard to the task of preserving oral traditions, Raboteau's text is very good. He incorporates hymns and songs, poems and stories, historical accounts and academic analyses of various sources for the preservation of this important history. Raboteau includes pieces from original African languages as well as adaptations by those Africans already in the Americas. He describes in good detail various practices, such as the ring shout, as well as belief structures. For example, the preservation of elements of African gods and goddesses (and attendant practices) was often stronger in Latin America/Roman Catholic countries than in the Protestant-oriented United States; Raboteau discusses the various possible reasons for this, which include the greater possibility of syncretism and cross-identification of practices, but also the fact that, after a time, the majority of the North American slave population was native-born, whereas in Caribbean and South American locations, there was a constant influx of new arrivals from Africa directly.
Raboteau also discusses the paradoxical situation of Christianity using conversion as a justification for slavery. In the modern world we find it nearly incredible to think in these terms, but one of the rationales for permitting the enslavement of whole peoples was to convert them to the Christian faith - there was also the occasional idea (Azurara, for one) that there were not only spiritual benefits to the slaves, but also the contact of the slaves with Western civilisation was by itself a better state than that in which the people had lived as free persons. There was for a time a difficulty in permitting slaves to become Christian, for as Christian they would have claim on greater expectation of fair and equal treatment; colonials had more economically-oriented goals in mind, and often objected to any religious ideas that might jeopardise their profit margins.
Raboteau's description of the public institutions and the 'invisible institution' practices is intriguing. The public churches formed often with controversy within and outside the communities. The 'invisible institution' existed often as a forbidden aspect; slaves might be members of both the independent black church groups or congregations that were racially mixed (Raboteau mentions that some such congregations might have far more slaves than masters in attendance), but also participate in worship gatherings at night in secret locations, risking severe punishment to do so.
By the time of the Civil War, the slave culture was thoroughly Christianised throughout the South, according to Raboteau. Not all slaves were Christians, and Raboteau points out that the secular/sacred clash often present in the modern-day culture was present even the slave cabins, where secular music that provided antecedents to rhythm and blues would sometimes compete with the more religious-oriented calls to worship.
Raboteau points out that one of the criticisms of his text over the years has been that it is a bit 'too Christian', that its context and overall method looks too much in that direction. Raboteau accepts this criticism, as well as the critique that the voices of women were not as prominent as they might have been, given their importance in the preservation of slave culture and religion. For a work early in the field, these are gentle criticisms that in fact point to areas where, even to this day, further research and writing needs to be done to preserve the historical record.
Raboteau's book is an important milestone in the recovery of lost tales and voices. For any who want a full understanding of American religious history, this book is a must.
I was often reduced to tears by some of the stories. Here's one of my favorites:
"Yer see I am a preacher. De Lord call me once when I was workin’. … He call me and told me, in imagination, you know, that he wanted me to preach. I told him I didn’t know enough—that I was ig’nant, and the folks would laugh at me. But he drew me on and I prayed. I prayed out in the woods, and every time I tried to get up from my knees He would draw me down again. An’ at last a great light came down sudden to me, a light as big as the moon, an’ struck me hard on the head and on each shoulder and on the bress, here and here and here… And den same time warm was in around my heart, and I felt that the Book was there. An’ my tongue was untied, and I preach ever since and is not afraid. I can’t read de Book, but I has it here, I has de text, and de meanin’, and I speaks as well as I can, and de congregation takes what the Lord gives me."