From Protestant Supremacy to Christian Slavery

Early in the morning on April 7, 1712, a group of approximately thirty enslaved individuals launched a dramatic revolt, killing several white New Yorkers and setting fire to a home. After the colonial militia successfully repelled the insurrection, the authorities arrested, questioned, condemned, and executed twenty-one suspected rebels. In the months that followed, New York’s legislators passed multiple acts restricting the activities of enslaved Africans.

In historian Katharine Gerbner’s excellent new book, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, the rebellion and its aftermath are markers of an important moment in the history of religion and the codification of racial slavery. Two of the enslaved New Yorkers accused in the 1712 revolt were students at a school run by Anglican missionary Elias Neau, who represented a small but increasingly influential cohort of missionaries who championed increased outreach to enslaved Africans around the Atlantic World. After arriving in New York in 1701, Neau went to work both preaching to the enslaved and lobbying for legal reforms to support slave conversion. In the wake of the rebellion, however, white planters targeted Neau, his school, and two of his pupils. The planters charged that conversion to Christianity undermined the social order that structured colonial society. The colony’s assembly passed a series of laws that undermined those earlier lobbied for by Neau and tightened restrictions on slave literacy and conversion.

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