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[Detail] Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Gouge, La. 1888.

Black Americans and the Church in Colonial America

The history of black Americans and the church begins in the colonial period. Carter G. Woodson, the noted African American historian and founder of the Journal of Negro History, traced the influence of the church in the black community from those early years through the beginning of the twentieth century in his classic study, The History of the Negro Church.

Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, by Charles Jones, a Georgia slave owner and Presbyterian minister provides another perspective. Jones wrote the book as an appeal to white ministers and slave owners to provide for religious instruction for slaves and free blacks.  The book includes a historical summary of slavery in British colonial America, beginning with the arrival of Africans in 1620.   

Read the introductory material and Chapter I in each of these two books and consider the following questions:

  • What reasons do the two authors give for why African Americans were not a major target for missionaries and/or religious instruction in the colonial era? On what points do the two authors agree? What disagreements do you note?
  • What was the relationship between religion and education for African Americans in colonial America? Why was this relationship significant?
  • How are the two books different in tone? What factors (e.g., race of the author, when the book was written, author’s professional training and purpose) might account for the differences in tone and argumentation? How does the tone affect your reading of the text?
  • What difficulties in writing their books do the two authors note? What insights into the limitations of historical narratives do these comments provide?

In 1890, Edward Johnson, a prominent African American politician and business leader, was keenly aware of certain limitations in available histories.  Johnson set forth his purpose in writing A School History of the Negro Race in America, 1619 to 1890, in the Preface:

. . . I have often observed the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro. . . . The Negro is hardly given a passing notice in many of the histories taught in the schools; he is credited with no heritage of valor; he is mentioned only as a slave, while true historical records prove him to have been among the most patriotic of patriots, among the bravest of soldiers, and constantly a God-fearing, faithful producer of the nation's wealth.

From A School History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1890, pages 3-4

Read Johnson’s account of African Americans in colonial America. How did his perspective shape the narrative he wrote?  Do you think the book would have achieved the purpose of inspiring in African American students of the late nineteenth century “a new self-respect and confidence”?  Do you think this is a legitimate reason for students to learn about history? Why or why not?