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In Brief: Come Shouting to Zion

Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830
By Sylia R. Frey and Betty Wood
Univ. of North Carolina Press
285 pp.; $16.95

The conversion of African slaves and their descendants to Protestant Christianity represents one of the most significant episodes in American social and religious history. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, nearly 40 percent of African American adults living in the South became associated with evangelical churches. Until recently, however, the process by which slaves converted to Christianity remained ambiguous even to historians of African American religion. Come Shouting to Zion is one of the first comprehensive studies to chart this momentous transformation.

Building on the work of anthropologists and historians, Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood place the process of slave conversion within the broader context of West African religious history. Rather than assuming that the story of black Christianity commenced when the slave ships set shore in the New World, the authors argue that "Africa is the starting point" for the study of African American Protestantism. Thus the book begins with an exploration of the interactions between European Christians and West Africans that took place in the mid-fifteenth century.

Throughout, Frey and Wood show "that religious change was everywhere the product of a reciprocal process rather than of conversion by confrontation." Africans and their descendants actively appropriated those elements of Christianity that they deemed "useful," while at the same time infusing European-style Protestantism with insights from their own inherited cosmologies and ritual practices. Rejecting the common perception that the slave trade shattered traditional African religious systems, the authors hold that enslaved Africans "brought with them a variety of cultural forms" that influenced the subsequent shape of evangelical Christianity. The result of this "dialectical ...

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