Black Christians were the subject a talk by David Killingray (School of Advanced Study, University of London) at the Annual Conference of the British Society for 18th Studies in Oxford 3-4 January, as part of the two panels I organised on Black ‘Georgians’.
David’s paper provides a wider picture of the lives of black people who were active Christians in an Atlantic world dominated by the violence of the slave trade and slavery during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. Current scholarly emphasis has been on a small number of well-known black figures who were literate and wrote books, or had contemporary books written about them. Largely ignored are the many other black men and women, often also literate, who left a record of their lives, who were committed Christians active in teaching, preaching, and evangelising in churches, chapels, and in the open air, throughout Britain and more broadly serving with missionary societies in the three continents of the Atlantic world.
Being literate and articulate men and women, well known some of the black Christians are well known, for example, Philip Quaque, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, the Quaker Paul Cuffe, and Samuel Barber.
There are a good number of lesser known black figures in Britain who were believers who can be retrieved from the condescension of obscurity, and also many more possibly beyond retrieval , for example the many who are in parish records as being baptised, and individuals such as William Luboys, Frances Coker, Sophia Campbell, Mary Allay, Nestor, John Ishmael Augustus James, James Filly, John Sharp. There were many who were priests such as Bryan Mackay, John Jea, David Margrett, George Liele and Rev. George Cousens.
Others visited Britain such as Nathaniel Paul and Richard Preston.
David argues that Christianity was transformative, it had revolutionary implications for peoples’ lives and ideas, something of which slave owners in the West Indies and the USA were all too aware, thus the ban on slaves being taught to read and write, and the hostility towards the presence and activities of Christian clergy/missionaries who sought to evangelise black people including slaves.
Central to this throughout a large part of black Atlantic diasporic Christian thinking was providentialism: the responsibility of people in the diaspora to share the Christian gospel with fellow Africans.
Generally researchers on black British history have ignored the Christian constituency, although this is less the case for the late 18th and early 19th centuries where black Christians are so prominent, and their voices so clear, that their ideas and beliefs cannot lightly be marginalised. Understanding such beliefs and aspirations requires a different prism of enquiry which engages with theology, historical theology at that, and I am not sure that this has always appealed to or informed the considerable scholarship that has been produced by literary critics and historians. So, we need to encourage a more balanced research agenda in the period that we are now discussing, which in turn may help to promote a similar and better directed interest in the very many black Christians in the Black Atlantic world post 1840.
Note: David is working up his paper into an article for publication.
The other papers and talks in the two panels were Kathy Chater on the poor law treatment of black people, Arthur Torrington on the musician and composer Joseph Emidy, and me on the geographic spread of black people across Britain. I will working this up into an extended piece for publication.