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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Baptizing Colonialism

In early Virginia, baptism’s connection to freedom was used as an appeal for freeing slaves (Goetz 99). Planters recognized “baptism essentially depleted their captive workforce” (99) and threatened their economic status. In order to retain their slaves, planters developed theological reasons to bar their slaves from the freedom potentially found in baptism. They argued that Africans were under the Hamitic curse and, therefore, deserved to be enslaved (107). The Hamitic curse, in addition, was said to render Africans unable to accept Christian faith (111). The legal code barred planters from treating their white Christian indentured servants in an “unhristianlike” manner (113). However, the same legal protections did not extend to African and Indian slaves (118). As heathens, they were not afforded the same Christian treatment and were required to have Christian oversight since, as heathens, they were not expected to know right from wrong (120). Yet not all accepted the associations of race and religion. Mulatto slaves identified themselves with the children of Israel in Exodus (138) and Anglican clergy continued to send missionaries to slave populations (145). Yet the powerful planters opposed attempts at conversion, fearing they would lose their slaves (148). Clergy endeavored to disconnect baptism from freedom and, eventually, planters supported the conversion and baptism of their slaves once it was no longer a risk to their financial status and, they hoped, would make their slaves more submissive (158-159). Yet while allowing them to convert, slaves were still not granted full rights as Christians in the community (165).

The planters spent their time pondering their slaves’ baptisms, but they themselves had a baptismal identity to consider. St. Paul wrote, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4 NRSV). They were not supposed to define themselves according to their economic status and power in the community. Instead, they were to be marked by the newness of life found in Christ. Their own baptismal identity called them to show their African and Indian slaves and neighbors the love of Christ which they themselves shared in.


Goetz, Rebecca Anne. The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

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