African religious beliefs and practices – historical context

Variety and fusion of beliefs

The majority of Africans today are Muslim or Christian, although traditional religious rituals and beliefs still exist. Religious and spiritual belief underpins all aspects of African daily life and has done for many centuries, through prayers of thanks in times of plenty and prayers for help in times of need. There are many different religious practices that could be said to share some common features: 

  • A belief in one God above a host of lesser gods or semi-divine figures
  • A belief in ancestral spirits
  • The idea of sacrifice, often involving the death of a living thing, to ensure divine protection and generosity
  • Rites of passage from childhood to adulthood or from life to death.

The slave trade

African-American beliefs and practices

Enslaved Africans, transported to the New World from the beginning of the fifteenth century, took with them religious beliefs and practices that reflected the many cultures and language groups from their places of birth.

In West Africa (the largest source for the American slave trade) there was widespread belief in a Supreme Creator and a pantheon of lesser gods who maintained a balance between the natural and the spiritual world. Music, singing, chanting and dancing were vital elements of worship.

European missionaries had been active in converting Africans to Christianity from the beginning of the fourteenth century and some slaves, therefore, brought Christian beliefs with them when they were transported into slavery. Other slaves converted to Christianity when they reached America.

Preserving religious traditions in the New World

In America, enslaved men and women tried to create an individual spiritual space by keeping African ceremonies, rituals and beliefs alive through stories, song, the healing arts and other forms of religious and cultural practice.

Slaves lived under harsh conditions with high death rates and forcible separation of families and tribal groups. In addition, the efforts of white owners to wipe out what they considered to be heathen customs made it difficult for slaves to preserve their African heritage.

Some songs, rhythms, movements and beliefs in the existence of a spirit world did survive and were gradually combined with the various forms of Christianity to which white Europeans and Americans introduced African slaves.

Fusions of African spirituality and Christianity also led to distinct new ways of practising religion among slave populations, including voodoo or vodun in the South, where the density of the black population was greater.

Fusion of some Voodoo and Christian beliefs and symbols

  • A belief in one God and many spirits
  • A belief in the spirits of good and evil
  • Honour for God and respect for life
  • Belief in blood sacrifice
  • Shared use of symbols such as charms, holy water and the Cross
  • Images of Christian saints used to represent voodoo deities and spirits
  • Healing rituals
  • A belief in life after death
  • A belief in the existence of the soul.

Many white missionaries and church leaders working to convert slaves to Christianity in the South disapproved of what they considered to be idolatrous dancing and the African practice of polygamy. Meanwhile, many slaveholders feared that conversion would lead to unrest and demands from the slave population for emancipation.

Revivals and camp meetings

By 1810 the slave trade between Africa and the United States had come to an end and native born African-Americans greatly increased the slave population in the Americas.

The early nineteenth century also saw a period of intense religious revivalism known as ‘awakenings’. In the southern states large numbers of slaves were converted to the Methodist and Baptist expressions of Christianity.

More on revivalism and awakenings?

Slave response to the awakenings

Increasing numbers of slaves did convert to evangelical Christianity such as Methodism and the Baptist church. In these churches some, but not all, ministers taught the idea that all Christians were equal in the sight of God. Worship that included enthusiastic singing, clapping, dancing and even recognition of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit were also recognisably African.

Other clergy and many white slave owners feared that, if slaves were allowed to worship independently, they would become rebellious, so they insisted on slave attendance at white-controlled churches. These churches, in which white ministers preached obedience to the white slave master as the highest religious ideal, were seen by many black worshippers as a mockery of the true Christian message of equality and liberation, so slaves devised alternative ways of worshipping independently, free from white control.

The invisible institutions and hush harbours

In the slave quarters African-Americans organized their own religious ceremonies which were known as ‘invisible institutions’. Through signals, passwords and coded messages believers were called to ‘hush harbours’ - secret outdoor meeting places on the edges of plantations where slaves would meet together at night to worship. Worshipping in secret hush harbours gave enslaved blacks the opportunity to meet and worship together and also to speak freely to one another about their hopes for a better future.

Spiritual songs, with double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed from these meetings and black preachers, who believed that they had been called by God to speak, gave ‘chanted sermons’.

The north-south divide

Not all African-Americans were slaves during the nineteenth century and the realities of life for blacks in the North and South were quite different.

In the North, educated black people were often able to integrate successfully into white culture. Black and white churches followed similar evangelical worship patterns, although social work always carried a strong anti-slavery message in African-American congregations. A strong abolitionist movement existed in many parts of the northern states, which gave opportunities for black and white activists to work together, to bring about emancipation for all people of colour.

In the South, slaves remained much more isolated from whites and the white church often seemed to be insincere in its attitude towards African-Americans. However, the invisible institutions ensured that African practices and beliefs were preserved within the framework of white-dominated Christian worship.

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