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Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830

by Sylvia R. Frey, Betty Wood

Buy the book: Sylvia R. Frey. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830

Release Date: March, 1998

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Sylvia R. Frey. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830

Good Work on Religious Appropiation

It is almost impossible for the reader to miss the central theme of Come Shouting to Zion. The authors made sure that its composite but unifying motif recurs constantly within its pages. Divided into its three thematic parts, the book argues that African-American conversion to Protestantism did not happen in a vacuum; that African religious traditions influenced the new form of Protestantism created among the slaves; and that the role of women, as in African traditions, was vital in the process of conversion and transformation of their form of Protestantism. In a more basic way, the authors convincingly contend that African-Americans, in the South and British Caribbean, were propelled by their own experiences and cultural backgrounds to actively participate in the process of their Christianization.

This book starts with the 16th century Italian Cappuccinos in Africa and ends around the 1830s Antebellum. The purpose of starting in Africa was to draw parallelisms between African religious traditions and African-American religious experiences. The authors also dealt with a plethora of primary sources, beginning with missionary records in African, and ending with American churches' official documents. Probably most importantly is that the authors also considered a large number of recent (and not so recent) scholarly works in related areas. Indeed, we might say that this book is better understood if we consider the scholarly context in which it was conceived. This book, for example, consistently referred to Jon Butler's "Awash in a Sea of Faith." This is so because the authors were concerned with disproving one of Butler's more daring thesis: that the African-American conversion to Protestantism starting with the Great Revival happened because the African slaves experienced a spiritual holocaust. This holocaust, Butler argued, was the annihilation of the African religious cosmology right in the midst of the time when they needed it the most: in their slavery. Consequently, when Methodists and Baptists enthusiastically came to share their religion to the slaves, the spiritually deprived slaves were eager and open to the new message. Frey and Wood asserted that Butler's thesis is without foundation and that African religious traditions resisted and survived despite coercion and the advances of the SPG. The authors show plenty of evidence that African religions were alive and well after the slaves arrival to America. Among their examples are the fearful "Obeah," and the proliferation of women mediums. Following the chronology of the events, the authors move into explaining why the Anglican Church failed to produce inroads among the slaves: "because their version of Christianity found no confirmation in the reality of daily life in the quarters." (80) For example, Anglicanism provided no convincing answer to the question of their suffering. On the other hand, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and many Baptists were able not only to identify themselves with the slaves, but to impart a message of assurance with its emphasis on social justice and hope (i.e., the promise of the millennium, spiritual regeneration and attacks on slavery). Furthermore, the structural flexibility of these dissident religions, the availability for African-American leadership, the attraction of the written word, and the "fact that they revolved around a constant cultural core [that] provided continuity with the African past, [made] the transition to evangelical Protestant Christianity possible." (101)

It is nothing new that Evangelicalism provided a platform for the new American identity being formed among the African slaves at the turn of the 19th century. But Frey and Wood made this point pivotal in their quest to prove the Africanization of Protestantism. Among the characteristics that gave African-American Protestantism a tone of its own was their type of worship, and more specifically the shouting for conversion. Furthermore, another of the traits that made African-American Protestantism unique was the important role of women in evangelism and church management. These and other characteristics plus the development of a form of Christianity supportive of slave-owners' ideology, however, served to separate gradually whites from blacks by the Second Great Awakening. Despite its multiple origin, lively worship and shouting became associated with undisciplined and unintelligent African behavior. Already by 1790 and more so by 1830s, African-American Protestantism had developed its own religious identity, which was "both similar to and different from their African past and from evolving white religious culture." (181) This new form of Protestantism contrasted with the individualistic and egocentric message favored by white leaders. Their exuberant and participatory worship also differed from the white Protestant community. In sum, the development of African-American Protestantism came into being upon a "continual negotiation" between black and white church members.

Overall, this book is a marvelous scholarly work. It draws from previous works as Mechal Sobel, John Thornton, and many others, and put in place a picture that was intrinsically previewed by many, namely, that African-Americans were not passive, but active in the formation of their form of Christianity. Its extended perspective, in time and space, was much needed to provide a convincing periodization. However, it is here that the book is more open to criticism.

The intend of providing a comparative approach between the British Caribbean and the North American South, was to trace similarities among closely related patterns. Yet, the way that the book is organized, it does not lend itself to an easy-to-follow comparison. The moving from Antigua, for example, to Georgia, is often made without warning and without enough circumstantial support. The reader might easily think that some of the British islands are brought only to prove a forced parallelism, while their collective experience is being ignored. Furthermore, it is difficult to follow how the chronological patterns are similar in the majority of cases presented.

These, and others, are weak-links common to works that aim to cover such a broad subject without using case studies as anchor examples. Nevertheless, the main achievements of the book are not darkened by these shortcomings. It is very probable that many of the future works in African-American religious history will be motivated by the thesis and arguments that Frey & Wood present in this book.

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