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Many Slaves Came to America as Christians

By Dr. H.C. Felder


My father-in-law is a black nationalist who has borrowed from various groups to form his own theology. When my wife tried to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with him, he wrote her a letter that contained this statement: “The reason you’re a Christian is that Christians kidnapped your ancestors from Africa and brought them over to America as slaves, then indoctrinated them with the religion of the conquerors. They forced your ancestors to accept Christianity because it served the interests of those in power” (emphasis mine).

I want to focus on the last sentence of that statement because it expresses a popular belief among many blacks in America. But is this belief true? While it is true that Africans came to America with other belief systems, it is also true that many came as Christians and brought their beliefs with them. In this article, we will examine how Christianity has had a strong presence in Africa for the last two thousand years and how many Africans who were taken from Africa during the Atlantic slave trade were already Christians before arriving in the Americas.



Overview of the History of Christianity in Africa

In Acts 8, we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, who became a Christian and took Christianity back to Africa. Did you know that by the year AD 400, much of Africa was Christian? This was without any influence from Rome. This early presence of Christianity in Africa is evident by both archeology and manuscript evidence.

We have archeological finds in places like Old Dongola, which was a Nubian kingdom in what is now Sudan. This kingdom was Christian from mid-sixth century to the 14th century. From that time, archeologists have discovered cathedrals with paintings of biblical figures. Archeology has also found cathedrals in Faras, which was another ancient Nubian city, that had paintings of dark-skinned Nubian kings and queens, along with biblical figures and saints, dating all the way back to the fourth century.

We also have manuscript evidence in almost one thousand New Testament manuscripts that are written in Egyptian Coptic dialects. These date back to AD 325 – 350, indicating a significant early Christian presence within the Egyptian community.

Africa was the center of Christian theology in its early years; it had some of the most prominent theologians and the first seminary, and it served as an incubator for major councils that codified Christian doctrine. Due to persecution, however, many African Christians eventually left Africa for Europe and propagated Christianity there. Africans became missionaries to Europe before Christianity was ever adopted by the Roman Empire.


Through the centuries, Christianity did wane in parts of Africa. Some groups became Muslim due to the influence of Muslim traders, while others reverted back to pre-Christian traditional religions. However, Christianity never disappeared from the continent; it was present up and down the Nile in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, and it continued there without interruption, even following the Arab conquest in AD 639. And it has always existed in pockets such as Benin, Cape Verdes, Senegambia, and Zambezi.


A new wave of Christian missionaries from Europe arrived in Africa from 1420 until 1800, with missionaries from Portugal and Spain dominating much of coastal Africa. These European missionaries came to Africa with the same Christianity that Africans had exported centuries earlier. As a result, several African nations returned to their Christian roots.



Evidence that Many Slaves Were Christian

Although Christianity has always been a part of Africa, many parts of Africa were involved in the slave trade. Contrary to popular belief and what is shown in movies such as Roots, Europeans did not go into Africa and kidnap slaves (with the brief exception of the Portuguese in the 1400s). Europeans instead bought slaves from African chiefs, who either acquired slaves through war with neighbors or kidnapped others. They even subjected their own countrymen to furnish the growing demand for slaves.


The kingdom of the Congo, in central Africa, was one such nation. King Mbemba Nzinga was baptized Afonso and ruled the Congo from 1507 – 1542. By many accounts, he was a committed Christian, and he even evangelized other tribes. However, he and his successors were also heavily invested in slavery. Like many African nations, the Congolese frequently enslaved their own, as well as those of neighboring tribes, for various offenses.


Although its people remained Christian during the entire period of the Atlantic slave trade, the Congo was a major provider of slaves. We know from historical records that many of the slaves exported from the Congo ended up in various parts of the world, including the Americas. According to Cécile Fromont, professor of history and art at Yale University, “Central African slaves first reached the Iberian Peninsula and then, from the middle of the sixteenth century on, made up a significant portion of the enslaved manpower imported into the Americas.” In a YaleNews article, Fromont went further by saying, “Many people who were already Christian in the Kongo, or at least aware of Christianity and familiar with its rituals, ended up enslaved in the Atlantic trade and took up roots in different parts of the Americas”


We also see evidence of Congolese Christians in a letter of complaint sent in 1736 by Antonio de Salas, the Spanish governor of Catagena de Indias, which was a major port in Colombia, to King Philip V of Spain, stating that “the South Sea Company was importing ‘black Christians’ into the Spanish empire, specifically from the region of the river Congo.”


Another group of interest for our examination is the Mandingo tribe, from an area that corresponds to modern-day Gambia. If this name sounds familiar, it is because it is the alleged birth-tribe of Kunta Kinte from the miniseries Roots. However, the fictionalized show is not accurate, and for several reasons. First, as stated earlier, Europeans were not kidnapping slaves during the time of Kunta Kinte; the kidnapping was done by fellow Africans. Second, it was the Mandingos who were the major middlemen in the slave trade during the 1700s. They would go into the interior of the continent, where they would kidnap and take slaves as prisoners of war, later selling them to Europeans. The Mandingos focused on non-Muslims for their raids. It is highly likely that some of their captives were Christians, especially since they got their slaves from the interior of the continent, which was Christianized based on the influence of the Congo.


Christianity has existed in Africa from the first century, and it was clearly present during the years of the Atlantic slave trade. Although we do not know the number of slaves that were Christians in Africa, we do know that, based upon the influence of the Congo, there were probably many. Christianity was not some foreign religion to Africans, and it is reasonable to assume that many who came to America as slaves, came as Christians.


 

Dr. H.C. Felder is the Founder, ​Giving an Answer. He has his D.Min. in Apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is also the author, The African American Guide to the Bible. See more here.

 

References

Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: IL, 2007), Kindle Edition, 1039.


Elizabeth Allo Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), Kindle Edition, 31.


H.C. Felder, The African American Guide to the Bible, 2nd ed, (Meadville, PA: Christian Faith Publishing, 2018), 226-229


Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa, 1069.


“The History of Christianity in Africa // Africa Study Bible,” Christian History, November 13, 2019, https://africa.thegospelcoalition.org/article/history-christianity-africa/.


Cécile Fromont, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, (Omohundro Institute of Early American History Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Kindle Edition, 10.


Cécile Fromont, “Art historian uncovers Kongo’s Christian visual culture,” YaleNews, March 5, 2019,

https://news.yale.edu/2019/03/05/art-historian-cecile-fromont-uncovers-kongos-christian-visual-culture.


Jorge Palacio Preciados, La trata de esclavor por Catagena de Indias (Tunja, 1973), 349, quoted in Thomas Hugh, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440 – 1870, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster), 464.


Thomas, 371.







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