Review: Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies
Nicholas M. Beasley. Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies: 1650-1780. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. 223 pp. ISBN 9780820333397.
Nicholas Beasley’s Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies provides a fascinating new account of Christian liturgy in the Colonial South and British Caribbean. Beasley contends that historians have traditionally been remiss with details of southern plantation religious culture and this work offers a corrective to this oversight. Filled with abundant details covering church hierarchy, architecture, marriages, baptisms, and communion, this book attempts to describe the cultural meaning of the worship practices in the established church during times of rapidly developing slave societies. Beasley argues that a failure to understand liturgical Christianity in this context obscures a vital process by which societal control was managed.
With the rapid growth of slave societies in southern culture, religious practices took new meaning and vitality in an effort to combat egalitarian notions. Consistent with all British colonies, southern economic and societal growth made keeping one’s “Englishness” a constant challenge. As a response to this identity crisis, Beasley argues, the colonies adopted and strictly applied English ritual in their forms of worship. In the “familiar structures, repetitions, and drama of Christian worship,” white residents helped bridge the gap between their current location and their European heritage (10). The ordering and placement of seats was a primary tool by which colonists demonstrated this Englishness. The increasing racial anxiety in these colonies further divided church space use, allowing for the wealthy elite to gain seats toward the front of the building, and forcing persons of color toward the back or out of the building entirely. Using a blend of anthropological and historical methods, Beasley argues that this movement of slaves away from the middle of the congregation gave whites “views of the pulpit and altar unimpeded by the presence of black worshippers, who were persistent reminders of how far the plantation colonies had diverged from colonists’ lily white metropolitan ideal” (35).
Likewise, marriage became an important religious symbol of European elitism. In a paradoxical religious movement outside of the church, white colonists largely used the home for marital ceremonies. While free persons took part in marriages as well, they were usually forced to perform these rites in public places. By privatizing and domesticating marriage rites, the white elites “effectively evacuated it of the spiritual egalitarianism inherent in the rite,” forcing all others to see them as outsiders (11). Baptism, too, was privatized and taken away from church control.
Unlike marriage and baptism, however, the celebration of the Eucharist remained within the church. Contrary to popular historical opinion, Beasley shows it was both administered and “necessary” to Christians in the British plantation colonies. Using vast amounts of resources, Beasley shows how the communion table became racially separated. Ideally, the sacrament was to be egalitarian, open to all who professed a faith in the crucifixion. Yet, in an effort to marginalize the slave community, and likewise elevate themselves, whites excluded persons of color from the communion table. The Eucharistic act, Beasley concludes, forced whites to be humble and unassuming—a trait they did not want their slaves witnessing. The prayer book required partakers to kneel as they received communion. This posture, Beasley contends, “was not one that prideful planters were accustomed to assuming” (105). The argument is incredibly well-documented and it supports the point that religion and race were inseparable in some of these plantation colonies. While whites looked to approach church sacraments with contrite spirits, they did so under the larger context of racial association, which subjugated them not to the church or to God, but to their own ideological limitations. Church customs and sacraments were racialized and thus limited in scope of their intended meaning.
With the beginning of the American Revolution, the sense of liturgical “Englishness” faded, and most levels of society quickly grasped onto the growing evangelical movement. The Episcopalian liturgy was tainted by its association with the former imperial government, and thereby, found itself favored only by a limited sector of the white elite. The egalitarian voice of evangelicalism further catered to the masses who had long-been forced outside of the established church.
While Beasley’s research is exemplary, the reader may find it difficult to place the account in any type of chronological or geographical context. It is not uncommon to read a paragraph depicting practices spanning across a century or more. Beasley’s understanding of these British plantation societies as a “unit of analysis” is laudable, but a tighter movement of dates and location would improve the readability exponentially.
Further, the practices of privatizing marriage and baptism may force the reader to deal with larger definitions of what it means to be “religious.” Certainly elite colonists favored ritual, but the privatizing of traditional church ordinances does not necessarily speak to their religious devotion as much as it does their sense of racial superiority and aversion to non-whites. Beasley’s contention that religious practice was used as a societal tool should encourage readers to further explore sociological methods of control in colonial religious practice. However, it may not reach so far as to convince critics of southern religiosity that it served a broader role.
This caveat aside, Beasley has produced a remarkable new illustration of southern liturgical culture and its adaptability to cultural, societal, and racial transformations. Following methodological cues from Catherine Hall, Paul Johnson, and Rhys Isaac, Beasley’s work finds itself among the growing group of redeemers of colonial southern and British Caribbean religious life and will be a text Atlantic historians will certainly need to wrestle with in the future.