The Many Faces of Calvinism in Early America

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

It’s hard for me to take the idea of predestination seriously. You know, that idea in some religious faiths that the fate of all beings is decided upon their creation, that some are saved, some are screwed and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. If that’s the case, then someone tell me, what’s the point of anything?

Predestination is a major component of Calvinism, named for one of its founders, John Calvin. I’ve always felt the same about Calvinism as I have about predestination—it just doesn’t really make sense.  I was in a play in high school called “Life During Wartime” in which this same John Calvin was written in as the narrator—he went on and on about original sin and predestination throughout the play, only to be confronted by the ghost of a dead character at the end. This ghost, after a heated debate with Calvin, asks him how exactly it is that he knows he is saved. He cannot answer.

Calvinism was predominant in early America, and apparently a popular belief of the time was that life status, success, and happiness were indicators that someone was to be saved, and misfortune, a sign that someone was doomed. Slavery was also predominant in early America, and being enslaved would be considered some pretty serious misfortune. This would imply that all slaves were doomed. How did slaves take to this idea of predestination, or Calvinism in general?


Let’s begin on a positive note, a note that perhaps surprised me most.  As it turns out, in some ways, religion in early America—regardless of its questionable content—helped to create communities for slaves, and ultimately was a big contributor to the abolition movement.

One of the sad realities of slavery is that it involves “disconnecting and disassociating [slaves] from their social, cultural, and familial pasts, thus negating what made them individuals,” (May, p.10). Religion helped give slaves both a common language and a common belief system (complete with a past-story) to connect with.  This helped them to “establish a common ground on which to speak about social and political rights,” (May, p.5) which would eventually help advance the abolition movement, but I’m sure also provided slaves with some emotional and psychological relief.

Different people interpreted Calvinism differently, and allowing slaves to participate in religion meant that slaves would begin to add in their own interpretations of Calvinism. Jupiter Hammon, the first African American to publish poetry in America, was taught religion by his master and remained a slave for all of his life. He wrote many poems about religion and salvation, but interprets Christianity differently than strict ideas of predestination would support. In one poem he exclaims “Redemption now, to everyone,” and states that sinners who repent “shall not cry in vain,” (Hammon p.46).  Here, Hammon describes a more egalitarian view of salvation than would typically be associated with Calvinism. Also, the fact that his works were published means that to some extent they met the public, and thus to some extent, his religious writings began crafting that common language and common community that Africans had been previously kept separate from in America.

But it wasn’t only slaves that interpreted religion as more egalitarian, some white, land-owners did as well. The first anti-slavery publication in North America was largely supported by biblical references and religious teachings. It was written by Samuel Sewall, a white judge and merchant in Early America.


Calvinism wasn’t always used and interpreted for good. Many slaves were denied access to Christianity altogether, as if it were something reserved for white people alone. One of the reasons for this was the obvious contradiction between Christianity and slavery: masters had to make sure their slaves weren’t Christians, because if they were, then it would be wrong to enslave them. Some people, like the Reverend Cotton Mather, chose to use fancy words and strange logic to get around this contradiction, and supported both teaching slaves religion and keeping them slaves.

Mather did this by teaching slaves a slightly different version of Calvinism than “masters” and white people were taught. In The Negro Christianized, he outlines a version of Christianity that he believes could and should be taught to slaves—much of which focuses on the holiness of subordination (figures, right?).  Interestingly, he also changes much of the “We” and “Us” language found in the Lord’s Prayer to “I” and “you” language. It’s likely that this focus on addressing the slave as a singular person was meant to prevent slaves from creating a community of worship, because as mentioned above, communities are harder to enslave than individuals.

Fortunately, Mather’s attempt at creating a way of teaching slaves religion that would not help them to create community, question their servitude, or justify rebellion was ultimately (and thankfully) unsuccessful, as in the long run, religion did work to create community for African Americans.


And yet there is another angle to look at with regard to slavery and religion; at the time they came to America, “African Americans were already fully formed and cultured individuals and groups,” (May, p.10) with their own religious beliefs, community, history, language, etc. Religion often plays a big part in determining how we view the world, our souls, what happens after death, how we are supposed to interact with each other, and many other aspects of life. As such, many Africans brought to America were not looking for a new religion, a new world view.

“Africans generally chose not to adopt Christianity for nearly the first two centuries they were in North America. In fact, the vast majority of African and African American slaves living in the British-American colonies were born and died with almost no knowledge of Christianity.” (May, p.11)

The religious and spiritual practices in Africa varied greatly around the time of America’s birth. But generally, African religions had a focus on “orality, extemporaneous address, and enthusiasm,” (May, p.17, emphasis added). These traits were not lost as slaves began to claim Christianity as their own.

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

In early America, the concept of “enthusiasm” was viewed a little differently than it I is today. It was more explicitly associated with religious experience and there was much debate over how genuine it was. However, enthusiasm was not something slaves were supposed to show, as it would imply that they had a direct connection with god and thus did not need their masters or preachers. Nevertheless, “scholars suggest that the enthusiastic worship of early black Christians constituted a retention of traditional West African worship practices that featured ecstatic dance movement and spirit possession,” (May, p.20), indicating that Traditional African religions were often used to alter, to personalize Christianity.

Phillis Wheatley, another famous African American poet from Early America, often wrote about Pagan gods and stories in her poems, but uses some Christian imagery as well. She seems to move in out of these two modes of thought seamlessly. This is perhaps most interesting when we take into account that pagan myths may have had more in common with some Traditional African religions that Christianity did—pagan myths come from a predominantly oral culture that viewed “divine madness” (or enthusiasm) as a positive thing (Plato).

So, ultimately, Calvinism in early America was not just one thing. It was not just predestination and it was not just a bunch of white people talking about original sin. It was used to provide community to slaves and to support abolition, it was used to deny abolition, it was reinterpreted to be more egalitarian, more hopeful, and it was fused with enthusiasm and Traditional African religions.  So, while John Calvin’s idea of predestination is still lost on me, it is clear that slaves reinterpreted religion in ways that helped them to change the world—something that does make sense.

America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island. Ed. Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr. Port Washington: Kennikat P, 1964. 35-41. Print. 10.

Carretta, Vincent. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, Penguin Books; New York, 2001.

Mather, Cotton and Royster, Paul, editor, “The Negro Christianized. An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity (1706)” (1706). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 28. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print. 24.

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial. Boston: Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.


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