“The Considerations that would move you, To Teach your Negroes the Truths of the Glorious Gospel, as far as you can, and bring them, if it may be, to Live according to those Truths, a Sober, and a Righteous, and a Godly Life . . . “
“The Negro Christianized” was an essay written by prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather for distribution among his congregation at the Second Church in Boston. In this pamphlet, Mather calls upon his congregation—particularly those who hold slaves in their households and places of business—to share their knowledge of Christian values and traditions with these slaves. He also advises the white parishioners to be kind and just to their slaves. In addition to the benefit of salvation, Mather suggests that proselytizing to slaves would create an economic benefit as well: Spiritually enriched slaves are, in his opinion, more likely to be happy, hardworking, and dedicated.
During the early to mid-seventeenth century, as English colonists arrived on the shores of the New World, so too did their institutions of indentured servitude and slavery. Initially, the majority of unfree people in the English colonies of North America were white indentured servants. Africans, brought to the English colonies as early as 1619, soon constituted a significant subset of the unfree labor force, and by midcentury, race-based slavery was codified into law. While some of the black slaves brought to the American colonies came directly from Africa, the largest percentage of them arrived from the West Indies and other European settlements.
Slaves were used for a number of purposes. In the Virginia and Maryland colonies, for example, slaves were purchased for agriculture and other manual labor capacities. In New England, slaves worked on farms but also in the homes of wealthy merchants and other successful residents, performing household duties.
In 1620, the first wave of English settlers arrived in New England, when the Pilgrims landed and established Plymouth Colony. A decade later, hundreds more arrived and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony towns of Boston and Salem. The Puritans of Massachusetts became active participants in the slave trade. Among these slaveholders was the minister of the Second Church in Boston, Cotton Mather. Mather was well known as a major figure in the 1692–93 Salem witch trials, which were launched in part due to accusations of witchcraft practiced by a West Indian slave named Tituba.
Despite his firm belief in witchcraft and adherence to conservative Puritan tradition, Mather, in 1706, offered a progressive notion to his parishioners. As the congregation arrived at the church, they found an unsigned pamphlet titled “The Negro Christianized,” whose authorship was nonetheless readily apparent to all. In the pamphlet, Mather calls upon slave owners in the congregation to educate their slaves on the Christian faith. Additionally, Mather suggests that masters treat their slaves fairly and with kindness, essentially as spiritual brethren. Mather’s reasoning is twofold. First, Mather says, every Christian has a responsibility to work for the salvation of souls at risk of corruption. Second, Mather argues, a slave who has been Christianized is more likely to be productive and agreeable, providing a profitable return on investment for the slave owner.
Cotton Mather was born on February 12, 1663, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Increase Mather, was considered one of the leading religious minds of his age; his grandfathers, John Cotton and Richaard Mather, were prominent figures, dubbed Massachusetts Bay Colony’s spiritual founders. Cotton Mather followed in their footsteps, entering Harvard College at about the age of twelve. There, he studied Hebrew, Latin, Greek, philosophy, divinity, and science, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1678. He then went on to receive his master of arts degree in 1681.
Mather had a reputation as an intellectual as well as a careful student of the Bible. He was committed to the Christian faith, and although he was often critical of other congregations and denominations early in his career, Mather ultimately developed a sense of acceptance of such institutions. In 1685, he became an ordained minister at his father’s church, the Second Church (also known as the Old North Church) in Boston.
Mather was married three times during his life, fathering fifteen children. He outlived his first two wives, while there is speculation that his third wife might have gone insane. Meanwhile, he continued to serve as assistant minister for the Second Church until 1723, when his father died. Thereafter, he assumed the title of minister of that congregation. For all his abilities as a minister, Mather was not adept with money and experienced numerous financial difficulties in the latter part of his life.
Cotton Mather authored some four hundred written works during his lifetime, including letters, sermons, and books. One of his best-known works was Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which was a comprehensive history of New England from a Puritan perspective. Mather also retained his longstanding interest in science and medicine—he and his father openly supported the inoculation of colonists against smallpox, despite widespread opposition from community members throughout Boston. In 1710, Mather received an honorary doctorate in divinity from the University of Glasgow.
One of the most well-known aspects of Mather’s career was his role in the Salem witch trials. Mather was a firm believer in witchcraft and personally interceded on a number of cases involving young women allegedly afflicted with a curse by the devil. He wrote a number of books, most notably Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), analyzing witchcraft from both a scientific and religious point of view. Although he believed that Salem was indeed in the throes of a plot by the devil, he urged his peers not to admit spectral evidence—claims that a witch attacked a victim through a ghostly apparition rather than directly—as grounds for conviction of the accused. He continued to analyze the witchcraft issue long after the trials’ end, up until his death in 1728.
Mather begins “The Negro Christianized” by reminding his parishioners of the benefits of helping others. Certainly, he argues, charity toward others is a more critical element of Christian beliefs than personal power; moreover, an individual who helps convert one wayward soul to Christianity has committed an act of charity far greater than the giving of alms to the poor.
Mather’s point is a central theme of Christianity and, in particular, of Puritanism. Puritanism was dedicated to adherence to a strict interpretation of God’s word, and the Puritans had therefore eschewed the traditions and trappings of the Church of England that were not described in the Bible. In response, the Church of England had isolated the Puritans in England. When they left the country, they were determined to establish a society in which they could adhere to a more conservative lifestyle dictated by the Bible. Their focus was on redemption and, ultimately, salvation.
In this light, Mather’s comment on the benefits of bringing a person into the Christian fold is particularly poignant. The goal of any good Puritan, Mather states, is to bring more people into the Puritan way of life, thereby saving them from a terrible death and defeating the efforts of the devil, who constantly seeks to disrupt society and steal souls away from God. Mather therefore asserts that the act of raising a soul from a life of sin and ignorance into the Puritan faith is “the noblest work” that the faithful could undertake.
Slaveholders, Mather claims, have a ready opportunity for this work in their own homes, having in their midst people who are, in his opinion, blind to the notion of Christian values and therefore liable to evil influences. Black slaves, he says, can be converted from this deplorable state into “candidates of eternal blessedness.” If they are not converted, Mather warns, they will remain brutish “creatures” susceptible to the devil’s work.
Preventing the colonial slaveholders from attempting to introduce Christian ideals to their servants was a series of misconceptions white Europeans held about blacks. Mather repeatedly refers to the slave owners’ view of black slaves in particular as mere possessions rather than people. This viewpoint led to the perception that, for a variety of reasons, these slaves would be unable to learn such information and therefore could not be saved. Concurrently, many of the owners themselves were reluctant to impart Christian ideals to their servants for fear that such an action would undermine their financial investment in their slaves. Mather spends the remainder of “The Negro Christianized” critically examining each of these misconceptions and arguments.
First among these issues was the prevailing belief among European Christians that black Africans were descendants of Ham (or Cham, as Mather calls him), one of the sons of Noah. In the biblical story, each of Noah’s sons went out after the Great Flood and began to restart the human race. According to a commonly misread passage in the book of Genesis, Ham angered Noah and, as punishment, was sent to what is now Africa. Due to this supposed curse, Ham’s descendants in this region would amount to nothing more than slaves to others. Many historians believe that Europeans used this erroneous interpretation of the Bible as a foundation for the slave trade.
Mather acknowledges this story in his pamphlet, stating that he is uncertain that the so-called curse of Ham is indeed true. Even if black Africans were the descendants of Ham and thus cursed to be slaves, Mather writes, who was to say that Christ had not chosen some for salvation? He therefore urges slaveholders to try converting their slaves in the hopes that some might “come to have their Minds Healed by the more Benign Beams of the Sun of Righteousness.”
Mather claims that, through divine Providence, slaves come into the hands of the slave owners and are brought into their masters’ homes and families and that slave owners view their slaves as possessions whose work is expected to increase the owners’ material wealth. The point Mather makes here is that the slaves kept in their masters’ homes have the potential to contribute far more to their respective households. If they remained isolated from the joys of the Christian tradition, these slaves would likely perform their required tasks adequately at best. However, if brought into the Christian fold, they would be buoyed by their joy and enlightenment, taking greater pride in their work and contributing more than is expected of them. In financial terms, Mather argues that an investment in slaves’ religious convictions (which cost nothing) would generate an ample return.
While blacks might be seen as mere servants or “creatures” by the slave owners, Mather suggests that his congregation give careful consideration to these people because it is possible that God had delivered a slave to the slaveholder. God may have looked favorably upon the servant, seeing that the person only needed training on God’s teachings in order to be completely saved; for this reason, Mather suggests, slave owners may have received a black slave from God in order that they might prepare him or her for salvation.
Mather next invites the slaveholders in his congregation to consider the idea of going beyond simply reading the Gospels to their slaves to teaching them how to live truthful, sober, righteous, and godly lives according to the Christian faith. In order to do so, Mather states, the owners would need to step away from the practice of brutality and dehumanization of slaves and instead treat their slaves as rational men whom God has delivered into their charge.
Mather reminds the congregation that a spiritual hierarchy exists, with God as the ultimate authority and humans as the servants of God. If an owner’s slaves did not comply with their master’s commands, the master would be expected to become furious; likewise, when humans fail, God becomes angry as well. Furthermore, Mather invokes a passage from the book of Colossians in the New Testament, which advises slave masters to treat well their servants fairly and justly. After all, the passage reads, slave owners are also servants of God, just as slaves are servants of the slave owners.
Mather further delves into the idea of showing compassion and fair treatment toward the congregation’s black slaves. Slave owners should not overwork their servants or slaves; rather, they should clothe and feed them, give them rest, and provide them with the resources to live comfortably. Furthermore, slaveholders should teach their slaves Christian values so that they may understand the concepts of salvation. In fact, slave owners who deny their responsibilities to their servants are also denying their responsibilities to their own master, God.
An important element of Mather’s argument is the famed New Testament directive: “Love thy neighbour as thy self.” Mather reminds the congregation that, despite the long-standing European view of blacks as lowly “beasts,” the slaves are nevertheless their masters’ neighbors. He further asserts that all men share the same blood, despite their heritage or race. As God made the world of men from this one blood, each person, regardless of social standing, should be considered one of the brothers of humanity, Mather concludes.
In light of the brotherhood between white slave owners and their black servants, Mather challenges the slaveholding parishioners to love their brothers. Based on such love, Mather suggests that the slave owners would not wish to see their brothers overburdened by sin and ultimately made to suffer by God. When they loved their brothers, the white slaveholders would be fearful that the blacks would suffer an eternity of misery and seek to rescue their souls from such damnation.
To aid in his point, Mather paraphrases a passage from the book of Galatians, wherein the people are instructed to do good unto others. In particular, they should care for those who dwell in their homes (referring to the slaves who lived in their owners’ homes), bettering them spiritually, so that they too would ultimately arrive in heaven when they died.
Mather next disclaims the perception among the white colonists that blacks do not have rational souls worthy of salvation. He calls such a perception brutish, saying that blacks have long shown a capacity for learning and reason, leaving little doubt that they have souls. Furthermore, blacks are not to be considered beasts; rather, they are men, just like their owners, and should be treated as such.
The difference between the slave owners and their servants, Mather argues, is one of evolution. He agrees with his congregation that blacks are “barbarous,” but argues that, at one point in history, so too were the Britons and other Europeans. Just as the Europeans were steered away from their barbarian ways through the moral and spiritual gifts of Christianity, Mather believes that if blacks were introduced to Christianity as well, they too might evolve.
Mather also takes to task the belief among Europeans that blacks could not be converted due to the color of their skin. Mather criticizes such notions, stating that God would not base divine love and blessings on a person’s complexion. He points to the fact that, in the world, white people are significantly in the minority—the largest racial group of which he is aware is the “copper-coloured” peoples. He ridicules the idea that physical differences would influence who enters or is denied entrance into heaven. God, he says, looks into a person’s heart, not at skin color. Mather cites the book of Acts, in which it is said that God accepts any person from any nation as long as that person fears God and lives a righteous life.
The challenge for slaveholders who seek to impart their knowledge of Christianity upon their black slaves is, in Mather’s words, the blacks’ “stupidity.” It is likely, he advises, that blacks may not understand many of the concepts being introduced to them. He suggests a patient approach—if slaveholders cannot teach blacks as much about Christianity as they had hoped, then they should impart as much as their slaves can learn. Even a little bit of knowledge, Mather says, would have a tremendous impact on the slaves.
He also encourages them to continue to try, even with the most difficult of students. The most challenging of undertakings, Mather says, are also the most laudable. If they succeed in imparting even a little knowledge in these difficult cases, Mather says, the slaveholders can claim an important victory.
Mather next discusses another perception among colonists regarding proselytizing to blacks: if the slaves were Christianized, they would need to be baptized. Some slave owners were concerned that baptism would set their slaves free from servitude. Mather first dismisses the notion, saying that the owners’ money would not be wasted even if their slaves went free. He then adds that a worried owner could make arrangements prior to the slave’s baptism to continue the service through indenture and notes that the owner’s money is insignificant (and, ultimately, useless when he dies) as compared to having brought the knowledge of Christianity to a slave.
Mather also dismisses the idea that baptism gives a slave legal title for freedom. Even if there were a legal precedent connecting baptism and freedom, Mather says, it would be the responsibility of the slave owner to protect his interests before allowing the baptism to proceed. However, Mather states, there is no legal connection between baptism and liberation. Christianity, he explains, only “mollifies and moderates” the impact of the life of a slave. Christianity does not liberate slaves, Mather further assures his congregation—it only gives the slave redemption before God. Even if he or she is free in the eyes of God, Mather says, the person would remain a slave.
Christian law was not the only precedent that was inapplicable on this issue. Mather states that canon law (the body of laws established by religious leaders) does not preclude Christians from having slaves. Local civil law allowed slavery, and English law permitted the practice as well. The choice of whether to set free or retain a slave, under any of these legal or religious authorities, remained in the hands of the slave owner.
Furthermore, neither the colonial nor the English government had any concern over the liberation of slaves through baptism. Mather points out that English law does not specifically prohibit the taking and/or purchase of slaves—rather, the law allowed slaves to be kept for life or even inherited as part of an estate. Mather also points to the fact that the laws of England were written by Christians about Christians and that those laws had never been repealed.
Just as there was no legal concern over the liberation of slaves through baptism, there was also no legal or religious concern over whether slaves could actually receive baptism. No person should stand in the way of a black slave seeking to be baptized—according to Mather, baptism is available to any person, as part of humanity, despite differences in appearance, mannerisms, and culture. This point is important for two reasons. First, it underscores the significance of baptism to Christians, who believe any individual who is baptized enters into God’s good graces, escaping eternal punishment. Second, it reiterates the notion that all people, whether Europeans or Africans, are descendants of Adam.
Finally, Mather’s commentary reminds the members of his congregation to be true to their Christian beliefs. By taking advantage of the God-given opportunity to convert their black slaves, he argues, the Puritan slaveholders would be bettering themselves before God. Mather concludes by suggesting that, if the owner denied himself that opportunity, then even his slaves might not serve him as enthusiastically as they would if they were saved.
“The Negro Christianized” was designed to cause a major shift in Cotton Mather’s congregation concerning the treatment of slaves. Mather was known as an eloquent and detail-oriented writer. However, this piece was written in a much simpler and more succinct fashion, which allowed more members of Mather’s congregation to read it and take its message to heart.
“The Negro Christianized” asks Mather’s parishioners to reconsider their perceptions of slaves, at least within a Christian context. In this pamphlet, Mather appeals to his parishioners’ dedication to one of the central elements of Puritanism: conversion. Before slave owners, he says, is an opportunity to facilitate the salvation of others—namely, the servants and slaves who live in their own households.
According to Mather, there were three significant benefits of sharing Christianity with slaves. The first of these was self-serving—fulfilling their Christian duty of enabling the salvation of non-Christians. By converting people to Christianity, these slaveholders would better themselves and their own chances for eternal blessings in the afterlife.
The second benefit was saving a fellow human being from what Mather deemed a “brutish” way of life. As suggested earlier, introducing Christianity to blacks (who, in light of their apparent lack of religious conviction, were supposedly susceptible to the influence of the devil) was seen as strengthening the community and helping safeguard it from evil.
Third, the pamphlet suggests that Christianization of slaves would generate a return on investment for slave owners. Mather argues that by sharing the wisdom and blessings of Christian values with the slaves, those workers would repay their owners by performing their tasks with greater enthusiasm and good nature.
In order to perform this noble task, Mather argues, the congregation must reconsider many of their mistaken notions regarding blacks, slavery, and freedom. Many of the prevailing views of the intelligence, heritage, and even basic humanity and spirituality that existed among whites, Mather argues, are either false or unproven. Furthermore, he asserts, white Christians need to take stock of their own responsibilities as servants of God; despite the many differences between white slave owners and black slaves, Mather argues, both races (and every other race in the world) are all brethren and subject to God’s ultimate authority.
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