African Americans and the Problems of Faith in the Age of Revolutions

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By James Sidbury

The play on words embedded in the title of this series—“Faith in Revolution”—is apt for all of the peoples touched by the so-called Age of Revolutions, but it holds specific meanings and ironies for Africans and people of African descent. Did they have faith in the revolutions that occurred in different Atlantic societies? Some did, but many did not. Should they have had faith in these revolutions? Historians argue the point, but if so, only in the remote effects of Atlantic revolutions. But what about the role of faith in Revolutions? Did African people’s faith affect the stances they took during revolutionary upheavals? Almost certainly. Were those effects uniform or predictable? Almost certainly not. Figuring out the place of faith in African peoples’ responses to the threats and opportunities that arose during the Age of Revolutions is, in short, almost as daunting a task for historians working today as was discerning the path mandated by faith for African and African-descended people who lived through those revolutions.

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“Am I not a man and a brother?”, 1837.

The revolutionary movements that swept through the Americas between the 1770s and 1830s inspired both faith and disillusion among Americans of African descent. Lofty rhetoric promised polities based on the equality of all men. The Declaration of Independence claimed that all men were created equal, which inspired many black Americans, but its author’s Notes of Virginia later argued that people of African descent were anything but equal, which left many without much faith in Jefferson or the new nation. To be sure, some governments founded by American independence movements did, indeed, emancipate enslaved Africans, and the gradual elimination of slavery in the northern United States stands as a crucial starting point on the road to the Civil War. But that road proved to be long and rocky, and even many black Americans living in the “free” North grew disillusioned with what they came to see as the false promises of the Declaration of Independence. The retreat of slavery in the North was, after all, more than offset by its expansion into the cotton South, and southern politicians with their pro-slavery northern allies dominated the federal government during the Antebellum Era. African Americans’ faith in the American Revolution was sorely tested by the course of American history.

Of course there were other revolutions that people of African descent found it easier to believe in. The Haitian Revolution was won by African and African-descended people who threw off the chains of slavery in order to fight their former masters. The slaves of St. Domingue had enough faith in the Revolution to rally to its banner repeatedly for more than a decade (1791-1804). But even the Haitian Revolution stretched many former slaves’ faith to the breaking point. Black generals led armies of freed people into battle, but they also used the army to force cultivateurs to continue working on the plantations that had defined their lives under slavery. Cultivateurs responded with uprisings against the re-imposition of plantation-style labor regimes. Their willingness to rise in violent defense of just working conditions can be seen as an expression of their faith in revolution, but it was equally an expression of disillusion with the Revolution.

If any answer to a question about black people’s faith in revolution during the Age of Revolution hinges on contingencies—which black people? when? where?—questions about the role of faith in black people’s responses to the Age of Revolution are even less susceptible to generalization. The late eighteenth century was famously the time when evangelical Christian movements first sought black converts in English-speaking North America. Baptist and Methodist churches engaged in the most successful outreach to the enslaved. Many black Christians were drawn to Old Testament stories of a vengeful God’s complicated relationships with his enslaved Chosen People; their faith held that God would deliver his newly Chosen from bondage just as he had delivered Israelites from Pharaoh. This could and did inspire both a revolutionary commitment to bring God’s justice to Earth, and a quietist conviction that the enslaved must wait for divine deliverance. When black Virginians debated a planned uprising in 1800, both cases were made. One conspirator argued for delaying the insurrection until “God had blessed them with an Angel” like the one he sent when “the Israelites . . . were carried away [from Egypt] by Moses.” He was answered with a passage drawn from Leviticus in which God promised that “five of you shall conquer an hundred and a hundred, a thousand . . . enemies.”[1] The potential conspirators’ faith was integral to the way they thought about revolution, but faith did not create lines separating those who rebelled from those who did not. Instead, it offered narrative tools the enslaved could use to think about the daunting problems that revolution posed.

Faith created communities of people who could trust one another enough to risk the collective resistance necessary for revolution. An unusually clear illustration of this dynamic can be seen in a little-known 1800 uprising in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown was a British colony that had been organized by the Sierra Leone Company and settled by black Loyalists about a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. Most of the settlers had been slaves in North America. Whether in Nova Scotia, where they were first taken after the War, or in Freetown, they organized themselves into tight-knit religious communities. Some were Baptists, others Wesleyan Methodists, and still others Huntingtonian Methodists. All chose to migrate to Africa within congregations, and all lived and organized themselves in Africa as congregational communities. From their arrival in 1793 until the uprising in 1800 they grew increasingly unhappy about the political and religious authority claimed by the white Governors sent by the Company. The settlers had seen their passage to Africa in explicitly religious terms, celebrating their arrival by hailing the “Year of Jubilee” when “ransomed sinners” returned “home.” Soon after their arrival, they petitioned the Company in the name of “Preachers of the Gospel” and the “Setlers in this Place.” In later complaints, they compared themselves to the “Children of Esaral” seeking “the promise land.” These black settlers living in Africa conceived of their mission in explicitly spiritual terms, and their understanding of their churches as gathered communities allowed them to organize an uprising to fight the Company for the right to live as autonomous black communities. When they rose to that fight, they concluded the document in which they asserted their right to live under their own laws by declaring that document, and by extension their community, to be “just before God and Man.”[2]

The settlers did not enjoy the kind of luck they might have expected from a just god. A naval ship with a company of Royal Marines sailed into Freetown’s harbor on the day of the uprising. Faced with well-armed professional soldiers rather than a hapless and outnumbered group of Company bureaucrats, the rebellion faltered. Company rule was restored. The failure of their uprising offers a depressingly apt coda to a discussion of black people’s faith in revolution during the Age of Revolution. People of African descent throughout the Atlantic sometimes showed remarkable faith that their God or gods would bring justice to the world. That faith sometimes inspired hopeful participation in revolutionary movements. But the Age of Revolution rarely repaid the faith of black believers. African Americans struggled to force the republics created during the Age of Revolution to respect the equality of all people, but grand pronouncements about natural rights increasingly elicited more cynicism than faith.


James Sidbury teaches in the Department of History at Rice University. Among his publications on the history of race and slavery during the Age of Revolution  is Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic.

Title image: Leonard Parkinson, Maroon Leader, Jamaica, 1796.

Further Readings:

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 2004.
Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. London and New York, 2018.
Sidbury, James. Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic New York, 1997.
Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810. Cambridge, Eng., 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810 (Cambridge, Eng., 1997), 75-78. See p. 77, n. 45 for a discussion of the inaccuracy in the conspirator’s quotation of Leviticus 26: 8.

[2] James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (New York, 2007), 106 (“Preachers of the Gospel”), 98, (“Year of Jubilee”), 112 (“Esaral”), 126 (“just before God and Man”)

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