This article examines the relationship between Africans in the South Carolina low country and the clergy of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), the Church of England's missionary arm, between 1701 and 1750. Drawing on recent findings in African history as well as extensive reading in the SPG archive, it challenges several assumptions about enslaved people's attitudes toward Christianity in early South Carolina, which are generally assumed to have been hostile. Past studies of this relationship have usually concluded that enslaved people rejected Christianity in favor of retaining indigenous beliefs.
Many slaves were from areas of Central Africa where Catholic Christianity was already accepted into an inclusive popular religious culture, and thus they may well have found Anglicanism attractive. Moreover, the SPG evidence about African religious beliefs and practices in South Carolina is too slim and ambiguous to support the conclusion that Africans rejected Anglican Christianity. Third, to rely on missionaries' conversion statistics is to accept that the clergy had the prerogative to determine what constituted conversion. Missionaries did not enumerate those who attended church without formally converting, or who selectively incorporated elements of Anglican Christianity into their spiritual beliefs and practices. Finally, while the objections of slave owners to African Christianization have been acknowledged, the role that missionaries themselves played in limiting Africans' access to Anglican worship has been underestimated. Missionaries' increasing anxiety about the growing slave population and their own struggles toward gentility made them reluctant to associate with enslaved people.
Although it is possible that the presence of institutional Anglicanism may have helped maintain continuity between African and African American Christianity, the conclusions of this article are necessarily tentative, since part of the argument is that existing evidence from South Carolina is an insufficient basis upon which to draw conclusions about enslaved people's religious beliefs during this period. The subject of African attitudes toward Christianity in early eighteenth-century America needs to be revisited in the context of popular religious culture throughout the Atlantic world.
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