Enslaved Christian: Black Church members in an era of Cotton Mather

Historian Richard Boles‘ nuanced and trenchant exploration of the role of Puritan theology in New England slavery, and the way that enslaved people shaped the society around them, was the fourth in the 2023 fall Partnership of Historic Bostons lecture series, Enslavement & Resistance: New England 1620-1760. Mather’s and Edwards’s arguments for evangelization recognized that Black and Indigenous people were potential believers and could be spiritual equals. But these ministers also defended the legitimacy of slavery. Congregational ministers provided limited ways for enslaved people to affiliate with churches, and enslaved people across New England attended, joined, and sometimes influenced colonial churches. Click here for the 87-minute video of his on-line talk on November 30, 2023.

This presentation offers the unique insights of Dr. Richard Boles, a scholar who has spent more than a decade researching the religious experiences of African Americans and Native Americans in colonial New England. His groundbreaking book, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (New York University Press, 2020).

From the late 17th century through the religious revivals of the mid-18th century, minister-theologians including Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards wrote about, and sought to proselytize, enslaved Black and Indigenous people in New England. Mather, a slaveholder himself, argued that masters should teach enslaved people Christian doctrines. In 1693, he created rules for a religious society of enslaved Black people.

Ministers and English church members helped shape how the institution of slavery functioned. Some enslaved people, too, found meaningful reasons for affiliating with these churches. Examining this history helps us move past the myths that New England was relatively unaffected by slavery and not complicit in the enslavement of thousands of people.