Journal of Southern Religion

Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998, pp. ix, 285.

       "The passage from traditional religions to Christianity," write Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, "was arguably the single most significant event in African-American history" (1). Yet much remains to be learned about the origins and extent of that momentous transformation during the second half of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth. Building on earlier work by Carter G. Woodson, Albert Raboteau, Mechal Sobel, Eugene Genovese, and many others, Frey and Wood combine recent scholarship in anthropology, African studies, and Caribbean history with their own prodigious archival research to venture a new synthesis that is likely to become the standard work on the subject.

"Come Shouting to Zion. . . . takes its place as the most comprehensive single-volume history of the religious transformation of Africans in the English-speaking Americas. "

       The authors situate their volume in a long-running scholarly dispute over the extent to which African religious cultures informed the emergence of black Christianity in the Americas. They vigorously challenge the view, taken by E. Franklin Frazier and, most recently, Jon Butler, that the slave trade and Middle Passage from Africa to America obliterated African beliefs and resulted, in Butler's words, in a "spiritual holocaust" of unimaginably catastrophic dimensions. Instead, as most scholars have done during the last twenty-five years, Frey and Wood emphasize the active role of captive Africans and their descendants in adapting West and Central African religions to New World circumstances by fusing their beliefs with Christianity, thereby creating dynamic new Afro-Christian faiths.

      In retracing this profound shift, Frey and Wood assume that "religious change was everywhere the product of a reciprocal process rather than of conversion by confrontation" (xii). This process involved the negotiation and contestation of religious beliefs among multiple African ethnic groups and nationalities as well as Euro-American settlers, leaving all parties changed. Grounding their study on a survey of recent literature on precolonial African cultures and religions, the authors' broad geographic and temporal scope enables them to investigate the transfer, continuity, and change of African beliefs in the Protestant plantation societies of the Americas with a larger empirical base than scholars have heretofore had available. Employing an enormous array of African-American narratives, planters' diaries, and church records, Frey and Wood explore the conversion of enslaved workers to evangelical Methodist, Baptist, and Moravian faiths and their membership in those churches. The book charts the rise of racial distinctions within evangelical churches in the early nineteenth century that led to eventual separation into "white" and "black" churches. And it demonstrates convincingly that the adoption of a Christian identity was a crucial cultural passageway for many Africans and their descendants as they became African-American or African-Caribbean.

      The general contours of this story are familiar, but there is much that is new in Come Shouting to Zion. The authors call deserved attention to the role of women in transmitting and shaping African and Afro-Christian religious cultures. They use new research from numerous archival sources to emphasize the outreach of black evangelical preachers in helping to spread Afro-Christianity in the second half of the eighteenth century. And they investigate the role of emergent evangelical and African-American churches in shaping black family life and find that religion was a source of strength for enslaved families under enormous duress from the threat of separation.

       Frey and Wood are right to emphasize the creative cultural adaption of Africans in the Americas, but their work, like that of all others who have studied the problem, still skirts the edge of a conceptual imprecision about African acculturation that is probably unavoidable given the sketchy nature of the evidence. "For more than a century and a half the vast majority of Afro-Atlantic peoples had clung tenaciously to their ancient beliefs," they write (118). Yet what does that broad statement mean? No one has yet solved the probem of which specific ancient beliefs, tenaciously maintained, were passed from African parents to their American-born children, and thence to successive generations, and what was lost, gained, and reworked in the transition. For example, the authors describe the case of David George, born in eastern Virginia to African parents, who wound up a slave in the Georgia Lowcountry, where he converted to Christianity and was a founding member of the Silver Bluff Baptist congregation in the 1770s. George's story, contend Frey and Wood, "underscores the aggressive involvement of African converts in the religious awakening and in the process of African religious transformation" (116). But was George African, or was he American? How much of his parents' culture did he inherit, and how much of it informed his post-conversion Afro-Christian sensibility and that of his new church?

      These questions are probably unanswerable. But when eleven million people are uprooted and forcibly removed to another hemisphere and largely forbidden from practicing their religions openly, something is lost. The idea of spiritual dislocation, of an appalling assault on the religious universe of the enslaved, is not easily dismissed. Creative adaptation by Africans and their descendants there undeniably was, and African cultural "survivals" transmitted from generation to generation there were in abundance. But in vast sections of the Caribbean and the American South, people of African descent inhabited, and invested with meaning, a religious cosmos different from that of the first generations of African captives. Perhaps the rise of Afro-Christianity represented not only the triumph of African-American creative agency but also the continuing dialectic between spiritual destruction and rebirth, as lived daily by the children of the African diaspora.

      Whatever the case, Come Shouting to Zion is a great achievement of research, synthesis, and interpretation. It takes its place as the most comprehensive single-volume history of the religious transformation of Africans in the English-speaking Americas.

Jon Sensbach, University of Southern Mississippi

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

contents main page masthead advertisers e-mail