Slavery in the Quaker World – Katharine Gerbner

Slavery in the Quaker World – Katharine Gerbner

These documents reveal some misunderstood aspects of colonial slavery. English slave owners thought of Christianity⁠—and especially Protestantism⁠—as a religion for free people, and they worried that a baptized slave would demand freedom and possibly rebel. As a result, they excluded most enslaved people from Protestant churches.

I felt that this was an extremely important aspect of early colonial slavery and that it had not been fully recognized. So in my book, I gave it a name: Protestant supremacy. Protestant supremacy, I came to understand, was the forerunner of White supremacy. White supremacy uses racial designation to create inequality. But in the seventeenth century, the concept of race, as we know it, did not exist. And most significantly, the concept of “Whiteness” had not yet been created. So slave owners created the ideology of Protestant supremacy, which used religion to justify slavery.

I turned to the legal archives to understand this better. I read through all of the laws passed on the island of Barbados in the seventeenth and early‐eighteenth centuries. In the earliest slave laws, I found, colonists didn’t call themselves “White”; they called themselves “Christians.” Protestant slave owners constructed a caste system based on Christian status, in which “heathen” slaves were afforded no rights or privileges while Catholics, Jews, and nonconforming Protestants were viewed with suspicion and distrust but granted more protections.

This is why it was so controversial for Quakers and other missionaries to introduce enslaved people to Christianity: because it threatened to undermine Protestant supremacy. So the next question is, how did this change? How did Protestant supremacy become White supremacy?

via friendsjournal Slavery in the Quaker World – Katharine Gerbner

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