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Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
Jon F. Sensbach
Harvard University Press, 2005
320 pp., 22.95

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Jonathon Kahn

A Preaching Woman

The remarkable story of a former slave sheds light on the origins of African American Christianity.

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 of a new kind of religion that in subsequent centuries has given spiritual sustenance to millions."

Later in her life, after she moved from St. Thomas to Germany, Rebecca, along with another woman from the West Indies, was ordained as a deaconess in the Moravian church. Sensbach very rightly points out the historical momentousness of this: "a former slave now administered Communion and practiced other claims to spiritual authority over white women, including European aristocrats." Rebecca and the West Indian woman "may well have been the first black women to be ordained in western Christianity." These and other details of Rebecca's life are truly exceptional; on these terms, the best chapter of Rebecca's Revival is Sensbach's account of the persecutory trial of Rebecca's marriage in 1738 to a white Moravian missionary. The courage that she showed during her imprisonment, and the eloquence of her testimony and post-trial writings, are awe-inspiring.

And yet Sensbach travels the distance between Rebecca's status as unexampled and original, and her status as exemplary and precedent-setting, much too quickly. Repeatedly he insists that Rebecca's experience was paradigmatic. As a result, Rebecca's life becomes broadly representative of multiple staggeringly large historical dynamics. For example, Rebecca functions as a "mirror on a larger narrative—the origins of the black church itself," as well as one of the "earliest harbingers of what would become an international evangelicalism spanning the Atlantic in multiple directions." In sum, "her life illustrates the interconnectedness of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and North America."

Sensbach should have been more circumspect and precise in his reachings. Time and again, the actual detailed account that Sensbach provides of Rebecca's wondrous, courageous, multilingual, interracial life undercuts the case for her paradigmatic stature. Rebecca was extraordinarily unusual, and this distinctiveness—even as it gives her story compelling interest—renders her role as emblem debatable, or at least more complex than Sensbach allows for. The biggest example of this, ironically enough, concerns the St. Thomas church which she founded.

As Sensbach acknowledges, the most critical dynamic in the development of African American religion in all parts of the Americas was the range of ways in which slaves transformed the Christianity they were exposed to by incorporating myriad remnants of different African religions. Scholars such as Albert Raboteau, Mechal Sobel, and Robert Farris Thompson have taught us that the manner in which African religions survived—from whole systems of thought to discrete religious practices—varied greatly from place to place. In Protestant North America, for reasons (among others) having to do both with the lack of saints in Protestantism as well as the decidedly smaller size of plantations, African survivals were less systematic and coherent than in places such as Brazil or Haiti. But even the many scholars who characterize the devastation done to slaves' traditional African beliefs as a type of spiritual holocaust also acknowledge the presence of many African retentions—such as the ethos of congregational solidarity, music, dance, spiritual possession, and specific practices (in the marriage ceremony, for example).

Sensbach makes clear that Rebecca's church on St. Thomas fell within this basic dynamic: "black women and men began to blend Christianity with the religions they had brought with them from Africa, creating a faith to fortify themselves against slavery." Yet, Rebecca, as Sensbach shows at numerous turns, "probably identified more with European practices than with African ones," fundamentally disavowing and even "suppress[ing] lingering African religious practices." Sensbach points out that one of the reasons the Moravians were so accepting of Rebecca is that "it appeared as though her cultural blackness had disappeared."

Indeed, Rebecca's seemingly ready identification with Europeanisms is a constant theme in her life. Rebecca's first marriage in 1738 was to a white Moravian missionary, and while this does not stand as evidence of her racial identification, it should remind us that Moravians, despite believing that all people could be saved, thought that slavery was divinely sanctioned; it was a theology Rebecca would have necessarily accepted. Rebecca's second marriage (after her first husband died) was to an African Moravian of mixed-race descent, and here, too, these same tensions persist. Sensbach tells us that while her husband, Christian Protten, "struggled constantly to reconcile his African and European identities, Rebecca showed no such doubts." When the couple moved from Europe to the African slave city of Christianborg to educate and missionize the city's mixed-race children, Rebecca taught girls "the skills they would need in European- style patriarchal households," along with "a steady diet of biblical passages, prayers, and a catechism." Meanwhile, we are told that many "mulatto" children resisted her work as they continued to worship African gods.

Certainly, the slaves from St. Thomas also resisted Rebecca and others' efforts to strip them of their surviving Africanisms. Ultimately the church in St. Thomas, like black churches throughout the Americas, developed and evolved in ways that were distinctively African. Sensbach, in fact, applauds the refusal by members of the church in St. Thomas to give up their African-derived dance and song. He speaks of St. Thomas' slaves in the 1840s celebrating holidays with "reinvigorated African customs." Yet this leaves Rebecca at significant odds with the later flourishing of the church she helped to establish. At one point, Sensbach is moved to apologize for Rebecca's appearing "complicit in a campaign of cultural eradication."

Apologies are not needed. Explanations and analysis are. How are we to think about Rebecca as both crucial and alien to religion's flourishing on St. Thomas? Sensbach does not say, but he must if Rebecca is going to serve as a window on larger themes in the development of African American religion. His refusal to broach this topic is poignantly captured by the image which Sensbach asks us to remember Rebecca by: "In the end, the image that remains—the one that matters—is that of a preacher, a solitary figure walking the roads, taking the word to workers in the sugar cane fields of America." Sensbach's intent, it would seem, is to emphasize the continuity between Rebecca and the workers in the fields. Yet, the powerful vision of Rebecca alone and single-minded cannot help but underscore the very distinct differences between her and those same field workers.

Sensbach's rather ahistorical account of religion's development on St. Thomas serves as a reminder of the continuing importance of historian Jon Butler's claim, in one of the most crucial observations on the development of African American Protestantism, that too few historians provide accounts of slave religion as changing and developing over time. Attending more closely to their historical development, Butler argues that the first black Protestant churches, because of the strict control missionaries exerted, were "more fully European in character than would ever subsequently be true, as slave and free black Christianity became increasingly Afro-American after rather than before 1800."1 This idea—that the Africanization of black religion in the Americas increased over time—is a radical one. The implication is that in Protestant black America, suppressed Africanisms returned only after black Americans were allowed or able to express themselves within the formal structure of Christianity. It is an insight that is well-suited to thinking about Rebecca, with her strong commitment to European Christian practices, and the ensuing Africanization of the St. Thomas church.

Rebecca's Revival does not do this exciting work. But by providing in riveting detail the sorts of religious and racial ambiguities that characterized the beginnings of Rebecca's church, it lays the groundwork for such analysis, while recovering from utter obscurity a remarkable woman whose story cried out to be told.

Jonathon Kahn has a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities.

1. Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 153.

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