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Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
Jon F. Sensbach
Harvard University Press, 2005
320 pp., $22.95
A Preaching Woman
Forty years ago, before the creation of departments in African American studies, it was thought that the religious world of slaves in the Americas was fundamentally invisible. Jon Sensbach's Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World is a winning reminder of the grave inaccuracy of the assumption of slave religions' indiscernibility. Eminently readable, and aimed at a wider audience beyond the boundaries of academe, Rebecca's Revival recounts the story of an extraordinary mixed-race former slave, neither illiterate nor invisible (indeed, a 1751 portrait exists of her, her husband, and child while in Germany), from the West Indian island of St. Thomas, colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, later passing to Danish control, and today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Rebecca, born in 1718 and freed about fifteen years later, not only joined but became a primary mover in the Moravian Church's evangelical mission in St. Thomas during the mid 1730s. For the next six years, under the aegis of the Moravian mission, Rebecca, along with other black folk free and enslaved, established what Sensbach claims is the earliest bulwark of black Protestantism—no less than the first black church—in the Americas.
Rebecca's Revival provides that certain thrill of gaining a glimpse at a pioneer's original tracks. The 1730s is awfully early for evidence of formal Protestant worship in the slave islands of the Caribbean. (In the United States, the successful organized creation of Christian slave communities came much later, in all probability after the American Revolution.) Some of the book's vigor comes from Sensbach's self-conscious attempt to provide an account of an original moment, and of what amounts to a world-historical individual within that moment, which marked a transformative shift in history and culture. "St. Thomas," he writes, "suddenly became the Americas' new axis for Afro-Protestant conversion," and Rebecca "helped ignite the fires ...