The Early Black Atlantic Conversion Narrative
The Early Black Atlantic Conversion Narrative
- Vincent CarrettaVincent CarrettaUniversity of Maryland
Prior to the last decade of the 20th century, literary critics generally, like Thomas Jefferson before them, dismissed the role religion played in the writings by and about the first generation of English-speaking authors of African descent. Christ’s injunction to his followers to bear witness to their faith, however, gave that first generation the sanction, means, motive, and opportunity to speak truth to power during the 18th-century period of the transatlantic Protestant Great Awakening and Evangelical Revival. The early Black evangelical authors, such as Phillis Wheatley in poetry and Olaudah Equiano in prose, used narratives of their religious conversions as both testaments to their own faith as well as models of spiritual belief and secular behavior for their primarily white readers to follow. The writings of Wheatley and Equiano also exemplify how early Black authors who adopted Christianity could appropriate its tenets to challenge the institution of slavery.
- African Literatures
- North American Literatures
- British and Irish Literatures
- Non-Fiction and Life Writing
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me . . unto the uttermost part of the earth” Acts 1:8
“Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787)
The power and the mission that Christ assigned his original apostles in Acts 1:8 gave a few members of the first generation of English-speaking people of African descent the sanction, means, motive, and opportunity to author the stories of their conversions to Christianity. The term author here subsumes both the subject and primary source of the published account. The conversion narrative’s author may or may not have also been its writer. When the subject and writer were discrete, the writer, or transcriber, was a white amanuensis, who edited the author’s oral account and published it as an as-told-to tale. Distinguishing between the Black and white voices in the conversion narratives is consequently often difficult, if not impossible. During the 18th-century period of the transatlantic Protestant Great Awakening and Evangelical Revival, these Black latter-day apostles embraced Christ’s command to bear witness unto Him. Like contemporaneous white evangelical writers, the early Black evangelical authors in poetry and prose used narratives of their religious conversions as both testaments to their own faith as well as models for their readers to follow. Black evangelicals represented multiple denominations: Baptist (David George, George Liele); Congregationalist (Phillis Wheatley); as well as Wesleyan (Boston King, John Jea) and Huntingdonian Methodists (Olaudah Equiano, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant).1 And, as the lives and writings of Wheatley, Equiano, and Jea exemplify, a religious evangelical vocation at times justified a secular emancipationist calling.
St. Augustine established many of the conventions of the genre of the Christian spiritual autobiography, or conversion narrative, in his late-4th-century Confessions. Subsequent conversion accounts elaborate the narrator’s evolution from a state of nominal spiritual belief to one of grace via spiritual rebirth. The narrative’s plot was not linear but rather a sine curve with repeated cyclical episodes of sin followed by repentance, of feelings of certainty followed by doubts about the salvation of one’s soul. With its stress on the role of the individual in their own spiritual development, the Protestant Reformation led to the proliferation of conversion narratives, such as John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), from the 17th century on, especially in England and its colonies. Virtually all the early publications in prose by people of African descent take the form of spiritual autobiographies, or conversion narratives, which trace the religious trajectory that led to the spiritual rebirth of the authors into the Christianity shared with their British and American readers.
Black conversion narrators, however, usually differ significantly from their white contemporaries: Rather than beginning as nominal Christians, Black narrators are often initially unaware of Christianity; although their reason alone enables them to deduce that an uncreated creator designed the world, only exposure to Christianity identifies that Creator. Their enslavement is physical as well as spiritual; their physical enslavement paradoxically leads to their spiritual freedom; and their freedom from, and renunciation of, the spiritual slavery of sin has implications for the validity of chattel slavery. In each case, men and women escape from some type of physical captivity, whether it be from the slavery David George recounts in his “Account of the Life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa” (1793), or from the Indian captivity that the free Black man John Marrant suffers in A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785). The works of the early Black authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, as much or more than they do the complexion and social conditions that separated the Black speaker and their overwhelmingly white audience.
The authenticity and agency of the Black authorial voices must be assessed carefully due to the constraints that their subjects faced in the production, distribution, and reception of their works. Some of their white contemporaries, especially in slave-owning societies, were concerned that any celebration of the converts’ emancipation from spiritual slavery would imply the desirability, if not necessity, of their emancipation from physical enslavement as well. Currently enslaved narrators at the time of publication in particular had to avoid offending their enslavers. Nor could narrators afford to offend patrons who subsidized or promoted their works. Free or not, narrators could reach their audiences only through white-owned publishing and marketing networks, which could exert editorial influence on their writings. Editorial intervention was virtually unavoidable when the conversion narrative was an as-told-to-tale dictated by its Black subject to a white amanuensis on its way into print. White paratextual commentaries often sought to direct readers’ response to the narratives. Black spiritual autobiographers bore at least as much witness to the evangelical Christianity of the White people who enabled them to get into print as they did to their own conversions. The subjects of the very few published early Black conversion narratives, however, were only a minuscule proportion of the contemporaneous unrecoverable Black voices.
Trope of the Talking Book: James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, John Jea
Protestant emphasis on the Bible as the only infallible guide to faith and practice (sola scriptura) motivated Christians to become literate to enable them to experience spiritual self-reflection and practice self-assessment, which could lead to spiritual rebirth through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The significance of access to the Bible is reflected in the common use in Black conversion narratives of what has been labeled the trope of the talking book when the subject of the spiritual autobiography is still illiterate.2 For example, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw recalls in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As Related by Himself (1772):
when first I saw [my master] read, I was never so surprized in my life, as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it, and move his lips. -- I wished it would do so to me. As soon as my master had done reading, I followed him to the place where he took the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me, I opened it and put my ears down close upon it, in great hopes that it would say something to me; but was very sorry, and greatly disappointed when I found it would not speak, this thought immediately presented itself to me, that every body and every thing despised me because I was black. (16–17)
Yet another version of the trope appears in John Jea’s The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself (1815?):
My master's sons also endeavoured to convince me, by their reading in the behalf of their father; but I could not comprehend their dark sayings, for it surprised me much, how they could take that blessed book into their hands, and to be so superstitious as to want to make me believe that the book did talk with them; so that every opportunity when they were out of the way, I took the book, and held it up to my ears, to try whether the book would talk with me or not, but it proved to be all in vain, for I could not hear it speak one word . . (391–392)
Unlike other Black converts, Jea is soon miraculously able to “hear” the book: In response to his prayers, “the Lord . . learnt me to read last night” (393), when “the Lord was pleased in his infinite mercy, to send an angel, in a vision . . with a large Bible in his hands . . with the large book open . . ” (392). The saliency of the trope of the talking book in early Black conversion narratives is reflected in its appearance in Marrant’s Narrative, when it is associated with someone ignorant of the Bible other than Marrant himself, who had been born free. The daughter of the king of the Indians who has captured Marrant is mystified by Marrant’s Bible:
His daughter took the book out of my hand a second time; she opened it, and kissed it again; her father bid her give it to me, which she did; but said, with much sorrow, the book would not speak to her. (27)
The limited literacy of Black converts required their as-told-to narratives to be delivered to readers through the mediation of white amanuenses, who often acknowledged at least some influence on the texts, and who frequently suggested how the texts should be received. Gronniosaw’s Narrative is written “As related by HIMSELF” and “committed to Paper” by an unidentified “young LADY.” A preface by Reverend Walter Shirley, the countess of Huntingdon’s cousin, assures readers that “this little History contains Matter well worthy the Notice and Attention of every Christian Reader” (32). Marrant’s amanuensis, Reverend William Aldridge, claims that although “I always preserved Mr. Marrant’s ideas, tho’ I could not his language; no more alterations, however, have been made, than were thought necessary” (111). Even when the conversion narrative is ostensibly written by its subject, often, its narrator begins with a confession of his limitations. For example, Boston King’s “Memoirs” opens,
IT is by no means an agreeable task to write an account of my Life, yet my gratitude to Almighty God, who considered my affliction, and looked upon me in my low estate, who delivered me from the hand of the oppressor, and established my goings, impels me to acknowledge his goodness: And the importunity of many respectable friends, whom I highly esteem, have induced me to set down, as they occurred to my memory, a few of the most striking incidents I have met with in my pilgrimage. I am well aware of my inability for such an undertaking, having only a slight acquaintance with the language in which I write . . (351).
The most bewildering relationship between a Black author and his amanuensis is found in Jea’s conversion narrative, one of the few Black spiritual autobiographies that explicitly sees slavery as incompatible with Christianity. Although the title page of Jea’s Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings records that it is “Compiled and Written by HIMSELF” (366), the narrative’s penultimate paragraph says, “My dear reader, I would now inform you, that I have stated this in the best manner I am able, for I cannot write, therefore it is not so correct as if I [had] been able to have written it myself . . nor would I allow alterations to be made by the person whom I employed to print this narrative” (438).
George Whitefield and the Huntingdonian Connexion
Most 18th-century Black evangelical authors embraced the theological doctrine of John Calvin (1509–1564), which they encountered through the sermons Methodist George Whitefield (1714–1770) delivered during his seven missionary tours throughout British North America. During the first decades of Methodism, Whitefield was more influential than his fellow Methodist Reverend John Wesley (1703–1791), primarily because Whitefield was considered a more powerful orator. Whitefield was the chaplain of the countess of Huntingdon, who established the network of Calvinist Methodist chapels throughout Britain known as the Huntingdonian Connexion. Calvinism holds that very few Christians are among the elect (i.e., those who are predestined, or elected, by the grace of God to be saved). Everyone else is a reprobate, doomed to eternal damnation, despite their faith or acts of charity. Grace can only be freely given by God; it cannot be earned by the good works of professed believers. Wesley embraced a more liberal, or relatively Arminian, Methodist interpretation of the requirements for salvation. Named after Jacobus Arminius (Jakob Hermandszoon, 1560–1609), one of Calvin’s earliest theological opponents, Arminianism holds that all who believe and repent of their sins can be saved. Being omniscient, God of course knows who will be saved, but has not arbitrarily predetermined and restricted their number. Arminians and Calvinists agree that personal salvation requires acknowledgment that one is a sinner undeserving of redemption.
Both Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals saw all levels of society, including slaves, as potentially sharing in salvation. When physical liberation from enslavement in the present seemed impossible, spiritual freedom and equality in the afterlife could offer some solace. And a faith that depends on predestination for salvation, rather than on spiritual rewards for good works, may have been especially attractive to those whose ability to perform good works was severely limited by their social and economic conditions. Poor white and Black people, whether enslaved or free, often lacked the means and opportunities to make charitable contributions, or to attend church. Evangelical Christianity offered the poor a way to try to make sense of their present misery. Evangelical preachers, whether in person or print, were often accused of being levelers, who threatened political stability and religious orthodoxy by preaching against desiring the riches of this world, and because their sermons were offered to all, regardless of social status or economic class. More conservative and less evangelical ministers often ignored the poor and the enslaved. Opponents of Methodism were especially dismayed by the emotional appeal of Methodist sermons, bothered by how suddenly conversions took place, and concerned by Methodist lay ministers. The threat that evangelicalism supposedly posed to the social, economic, and religious status quo in general was exacerbated when people of African descent, particularly the enslaved, were either the evangelized or the evangelizers. Conservative evangelicals wanted their proselytes to seek spiritual redemption, not political and social revolution.
Neither Whitefield nor the countess of Huntingdon was opposed to slavery. Whitefield’s most expansive comments on the subject are found in his widely distributed Three Letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield . . Letter III. To the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South-Carolina, published by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) in Philadelphia in 1740 following Whitefield’s preaching tour of the American South. Whitefield appeals to slave owners to ameliorate the conditions of their slaves and to expose them to Christianity, which he contends will render them better workers. When Whitefield decided during the 1740s to own slaves in Georgia, he considered the choice an economic necessity, rather than a moral issue. He found biblical precedent for his defense of slavery:
As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house. And I cannot help thinking, that some of those servants mentioned by the Apostles in their epistles, were or had been slaves. It is plain, that the Gibeonites were doomed to perpetual slavery, and though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never [k]new the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome . . . What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of them been permitted years ago?3
Whitefield expressed no qualms about using enslaved labor to produce the rice that supported his Orphan House in Bethesda, Georgia. The countess, too, became a slave owner when she inherited Whitefield’s four thousand acres and fifty slaves in Georgia in 1770. Like most evangelicals during the period, neither Whitefield not Huntingdon saw slavery and Christianity as incompatible. Nowhere in the New Testament is slavery explicitly prohibited. The slave-owning Huntingdon was the patron of Gronniosaw, Wheatley, Marrant, and Equiano.
The transatlantic Huntingdonian Connexion’s use of lay ministers gave Black evangelists the opportunity and authority to serve as missionaries in person as well as in print. Other denominations were also willing to use Black evangelicals. Despite being an enslaved young woman, Phillis Wheatley was at least twice deemed worthy of being sent to Africa as a Christian missionary. On March 5, 1771, Reverend Samson Occom (1723–1792), a Native American evangelical Presbyterian minister, asked Phillis’s owner, Congregationalist Susannah Wheatley (1709–1774), “Pray Madam, what harm would it be to Send Phillis to her Native Country as a Female Preacher to her kindred, you know Quaker Women are alow’d [sic] to preach, and why not others in an Extraordinary Case.”4 And in 1774 Phillis, free since 1773, rejected John Thornton’s suggestion that she be repatriated to Africa as a missionary with two formerly enslaved native African men. Thornton (1720–1790) was a wealthy English merchant and philanthropist, an evangelical Anglican supporter of the countess of Huntingdon’s missionary activities, and a member of her circle. Rather than proselytize in person, Wheatley chose to do so in print, in her conversion narrative in verse.
Phillis Wheatley Peters
The first generation of Black evangelicals—the native Africans Gronniosaw, Wheatley, Jea, and Equiano—experienced a stage in their spiritual development unavailable to their white co-religionists: paganism. To anyone who believed that the afterlife was far more important than temporal existence, what mattered most spiritually was that pagan Africans be exposed to the truth of Christianity, and be humanely treated in whatever social status they found themselves. Slavery thus was seen as a theologically fortunate fall, whereby the discomfort of the present physical life of the enslaved was overcompensated by the opportunity to gain eternal spiritual salvation. The belief that good will providentially and paradoxically come out of apparent evil underlies Wheatley’s most notorious poem, written when she was about fourteen years old:
On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.'TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.Some view our sable race with scornful eye,"Their colour is a diabolic die."Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train. (56)5
Like many authors of African descent who followed her, Wheatley repeatedly appropriates the values of Christianity to judge and find wanting hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent. Theologically, Wheatley perceives her capture in Africa as leading to a fortunate fall that allows her formerly “benighted soul” to rise to embrace Christianity. The “mercy” acknowledged in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is granted not only to its speaker. Through Wheatley’s poetry, God also grants mercy to her readers. Wheatley’s position is completely consistent with belief in an omniscient and benevolent deity, but it does not necessarily imply that she either accepts or endorses slavery. Physical slavery paradoxically leads to the spiritual freedom offered to the servants, or slaves, of Christ. Wheatley may be subverting conventional equations of Blackness with evil, and whiteness with good. The imperative “Remember” may not be addressed solely to Christians. Perhaps the final couplet need not be read as “Remember, Christians, [that] Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.” It may also be read very differently as “Remember, [that] Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.” Blackness in the second reading would still be associated with sin, but it would more clearly be used metaphorically rather than physically, applying equally to White people and people of African descent.
Wheatley employs evangelical Christianity as both the means and the end for getting into print.6 She appropriates the persona of authority or power normally associated with men and her social superiors in “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” first composed when she was about fifteen years old, and subsequently revised for publication in her 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The poem is essentially a commencement address. Like a teacher to their students, or a minister to his flock, Wheatley speaks to the young men of what was to become Harvard University, many of whom were being trained there to become ministers themselves. Confident that “the muses” will “assist my pen,” she asserts her authority as one who has “left my native shore/The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom” and “those dark abodes,” and who has known “sin, that baneful evil to the soul,” and rejected it to embrace the “Father of mercy.” From a position of moral superiority gained through experience she speaks as an “Ethiop” to warn her implicitly complacent students—“Ye pupils”—to “Improve your privileges while they stay.” Audaciously, the teenaged, enslaved, self-educated, female, and formerly pagan poet of African descent assumes a voice that transcends the “privileges” of those who are reputedly her superiors in age, status, abilities, authority, race, and gender (55). Wheatley is so confident in her evangelical authority that she paraphrases the words of the King James Bible in her poem “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8” to render them her own.
In “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770,” Wheatley audaciously ventriloquizes the late evangelist’s voice to celebrate the prophesied political and spiritual elevation of her fellow Africans:
“Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;Ye thirsty, come to this life‑giving stream,Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;Take him my dear Americans, he said,Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,Impartial Saviour is his title due:Wash'd in the fountain of redeeming blood,You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.” (59)
In “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.,” one of the most carefully crafted works in her 1773 Poems, Wheatley re-appropriates the concept of slavery from its common metaphorical use in the colonial discourse of discontent, which described any perceived limitation on colonial rights and liberty as an attempt by England to “enslave” (white) Americans.7 She employs the concept of a paradoxically fortunate fall “from Afric's fancy'd happy seat” to link the desire for spiritual and political freedom gained “by seeming cruel fate (my emphasis). From the perspective of her conversion to Christianity, Wheatley now appreciates that her “happy” state in Africa and the “cruel fate” and that “snatch’d” her from it were illusory rather than true:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,Whence flow these wishes for the common good,By feeling hearts alone best understood,I, young in life, by seeming cruel fateWas snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat[.]. . . .Such, such my case. And can I then but prayOthers may never feel tyrannic sway? (81–82)
Black Preachers: David George, Boston King, George Liele, John Marrant
Black evangelicals were committed to zealously preaching and disseminating the Christian gospel, especially the first four books of the New Testament. They saw themselves as successors to the first evangelists, the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They conveyed the message that Christ tells Nicodemus in John 3:3 “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Like the apostle John, the protagonist of the Black conversion narrative “came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe” (John 1:8). The early Black authors were thus duty-bound to become evangelists in Africa, Britain, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America. The Black converts were missionaries emphasizing the authority of the Bible to preach that salvation is by faith alone. Their narratives often stressed the ecumenical appeal of their mission. For example, the Methodist Jea reports that in England he “was permitted to preach in every place of worship, in the Methodist, Baptist, Calvinist, Presbyterian, and every other place, excepting the Church of England” (409). Such itinerant missionaries, however, were often seen as threats to the status quo because access to the Bible could in effect mean access to interpretation of the Bible unrestrained by institutional doctrine.
Slaveowners and their supportive clergymen recognized the threat that Black evangelicals preaching spiritual freedom through conversion might pose to the institution of slavery. Baptist David George exhorted his fellow slaves in South Carolina “till the American war was coming on, when the Ministers were not allowed to come amongst us lest they should furnish us with too much knowledge” (335). The Wesleyan Methodist Boston King was more restive: “Sometimes I thought, if it was the will of GOD that I should be a slave, I was ready to resign myself to his will; but at other times I could not find the least desire to content myself in slavery” (355). Other Black evangelicals sought to allay slaveowners’ fears. Baptist George Liele assures his readers, “We receive none into the church [in Kingston, Jamaica] without a few lines from their owners of their good behaviour towards them and religion. The creoles of the country [i.e., people of African descent born in Jamaica], after they are converted and baptized, as God enables them, prove very faithful” (327). John Marrant, an ordained Huntingdonian Methodist minister, tells us that despite a slaveowner’s resistance to Marrant’s preaching to his slaves in South Carolina, the slaveowner “told me afterwards that I had spoiled all his Negroes, but could not help acknowledging, that they did their tasks sooner than the others who were not instructed” (124).
Threat of Emancipation
Conservative theologians and politicians, as well as slaveowners, correctly saw Black evangelicals as possible threats to the stability of their positions and investments. Emphasizing the authority of the Bible and individual conscience could easily lead to challenges to the authority of church and state. Soon after Wheatley gained her freedom in 1773, a few weeks following the distribution of her Poems in North America, she joined the developing transatlantic opposition to slavery and the slave trade by publishing in March 1774 a widely circulated part of a letter she had recently written to Samson Occom. The Connecticut Gazette; and the Universal Intelligencer was the first of many colonial newspapers that reprinted the most direct condemnation of slavery and the hypocrisy of self-styled freedom fighters we have by Wheatley. Wheatley effectively invokes the Bible as the foundation for her social and political manifesto. Emancipation allowed her to adapt the rhetoric of the American Revolution to openly equate contemporaneous slave owners—“Modern Egyptians”—with Old Testament villains, and by implication people of African descent with the Israelites, God’s chosen people. She was an African American pioneer in the development of what has come to be called liberation theology, the belief that God favors the oppressed. Her own liberation allowed her to use an ironic tone bordering on sarcasm to close her indictment of slaveowners: “How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the Exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine” (119–120). Political ideology as much as religious belief motivated Wheatley’s argument for equality in 1774. By linking “the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one without the other,” Wheatley anticipated subsequent evangelicals like Equiano who imbricate their secular and religious missionary projects. Short are the steps from reading the Bible, to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in religious poems and spiritual narratives.
Contemporary critics usually approach Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as the progenitor of the 19th-century African American slave narrative genre epitomized by Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). Equiano and his contemporaneous readers likely saw his autobiography as a paradigmatic evangelical conversion narrative. Equiano uses the genre’s conventions, particularly the metaphor of being enslaved to sin, to contrast temporal and spiritual slavery. Although he buys his freedom halfway through the book (and almost halfway through his life), he is spiritually still a slave until he surrenders himself to Christ, and thus gains true, transcendent freedom. Significantly, Equiano identifies the turning point in his life when he experienced the new birth; he offers no equivalent moment when he subsequently first condemned chattel slavery.
Equiano’s evangelical project was immediately evident to his contemporaneous readers. Equiano underscores the religious mission of his autobiography by quoting Isaiah 12:2, 4 as the Calvinistic epigraph on the title page of his Interesting Narrative. His frontispiece displays a man of African descent dressed as an English gentleman. Equiano pointedly calls the reader’s attention not to Equiano’s own book, but to the Bible, which he extends to the viewer, open to Acts 4:12 (“Neither is there salvation in any other [than Jesus Christ]: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved”). Equiano’s Bible is open to the passage he was reading when he was spiritually reborn (189). Wheatley uses personae to evangelize to her readers; Equiano does so in propria persona. He assumes the authority to appropriate the words of the Bible. As he demonstrates later in the Interesting Narrative, in his footnote to his poem on his born-again experience, he revises Acts 4:12 to read “Salvation is by Christ alone!” (197, 292). The fully acculturated African British author of the Interesting Narrative now intends to use his rhetorical magic to make the Bible, as well as his own text, speak to his readers.
Equiano’s Interesting Narrative epitomizes the Black conversion narrative genre in many ways. Equiano goes further than Gronniosaw had gone in anticipating his own eventual conversion experience. Gronniosaw was intellectually prepared in Africa for his subsequent conversion to Christianity. Despite the hostile reaction of his animist family and compatriots, his reason alone led him to believe that an uncreated creator must exist. Walter Shirley in his “Preface” to Gronniosaw’s Narrative guides readers to appreciate the significance of Gronniosaw’s monotheistic deduction: “Who can doubt but that the Suggestion so forcibly press'd upon the Mind of ALBERT (when a Boy) that there was a Being superior to the Sun, Moon, and Stars (the Objects of African Idolatry) came from the Father of Lights, and was, with Respect to him, the First-Fruit of the Display of Gospel-Glory?” (33). Gronniosaw was intellectually prepared for his conversion; Equiano was theologically ready for his. He tells us that he was raised in a monotheistic culture in which “the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things” (40). Equiano portrays the customs of his purported African homeland as analogous to those of ancient Jews. “Eboan Africans” (44) are as innocent of the truth of Christian revelation as Old Testament Hebrews were: Africans because of geographical isolation; Hebrews because of historical distance. Equiano elaborates his analogy between Africans and Old Testament Jews to make his monogenetic point, while also implying that Africans are fully prepared for Christian Revelation:
I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen, and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise. . . for we had our circumcision (a rule I believe peculiar to that people): we had also our sacrifices and burnt‑offerings, our washings and purifications, on the same occasions as they had. (43–44)
Equiano’s rhetorical intention seems clear. Equiano does not compare Africans culturally to 18th-century Jews, who were isolated and treated as aliens by their Christian neighbors because they refused to embrace Christianity and its customs. Rather, Equiano’s repeated references to the practice of circumcision in Africa rhetorically underscore his contention that the Igbo are culturally and religiously pre-Christian, comparable to “the Israelites in their primitive state” (44). Equiano carefully avoids associating the Igbo use of circumcision with that of 18th-century Jews. To do so would have implied to his contemporaneous readers that the Africans were anti-Christian.
Equiano was only a nominal Christian when he was baptized in February 1759. He sought to be a Christian in fact as well as name many years later, and only after he had been freed in 1766. His initial encounter with evangelical Christianity was prompted by curiosity rather than conviction. Equiano heard the celebrated Whitefield preach in Savannah, Georgia, on February 10, 1765, during one of Whitefield’s seven missionary tours of North America before his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770. Unlike earlier Black spiritual autobiographers, Equiano was impressed, but not converted:
When I got into the church I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as ever I did while in slavery on Montserrat beach. I was very much struck and impressed with this; I thought it strange I had never seen divines exert themselves in this manner before, and was no longer at a loss to account for the thin congregations they preached to.
John Marrant’s reaction to hearing Whitefield preach was very different. His encounter was transformative. Motivated by curiosity about the “crazy man” he had heard about, Marrant had intended to harass him. But
. . just as Mr. Whitefield was naming his text, and looking round, and, as I thought, directly upon me, and pointing with his finger, he uttered these words, ‘PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD, O ISRAEL.’ The Lord accompanied the word with such power, that I was struck to the ground, and lay both speechless and senseless near half an hour (113).
Marrant was consequently almost literally reborn:
In this distress of soul I continued for three days without any food, only a little water now and then. On the fourth day, the minister Mr. Whitefield had desired to visit me came to see me . . .And near the close of his prayer, the Lord was pleased to set my soul at perfect liberty, and being filled with joy I began to praise the Lord immediately; my sorrows were turned into peace, and joy, and love. (113–114)
Equiano did not begin his own serious quest for spiritual salvation until he faced seemingly imminent death during an exploratory Arctic voyage in 1773, which forced him to appreciate that he might be doomed to eternal damnation: “I had the fears of death hourly upon me, and shuddered at the thoughts of meeting the grim king of terrors in the natural state I then was in, and was exceedingly doubtful of a happy eternity if I should die in it” (175). He then “began seriously to reflect on the dangers I had escaped, particularly those of my last voyage.” In mistakenly thinking (and probably hoping) that salvation was earned, not given; deserved, not granted, he committed the sin of self-sufficiency. He only later recognizes that his faith in his own self-sufficiency was “the result of a mind blinded by ignorance and sin” (178).
Not knowing that actions—good works—were simply another form of merely nominal faith, Equiano spent several weeks attending services of various faiths, none of which satisfied his spiritual needs. People he asked for spiritual direction could not agree on “the way,” leaving him “much staggered” to pridefully believe that he was “more righteous” and more “inclined to devotion” than anyone else he knew. His self-righteousness led him to theological absurdity. Confusing faith with ethics, he “really thought the Turks were in a safer way of salvation than my neighbours.” His delusion that good works were sufficient for salvation became so extreme that he temporarily spoke and acted as if faith in Christ was no longer even necessary. He “determined to go to Turkey . . never more to return to England” (179). Only intercession by some of his British friends prevented him from going.
Frustrated in his plans, he again sought solace in the Bible, telling himself he was resigned to God’s will. His actions said otherwise, however, as he began to reject God and contemplated self-annihilation. A vision of the Last Judgment began to open his eyes and his understanding, at least enough to make him recognize the perilous state his soul was in: “I would then, if it had been possible, have changed my nature with the meanest worm on the earth, and was ready to say to the mountains and rocks, "fall on me," Rev[elations]. vi. 16. but all in vain” (182). Equiano had to reach the depths of despair—“the greatest agony”—before he finally abandoned his mistaken reliance on self-sufficiency, and “requested the divine Creator, that he would grant me a small space of time to repent of my follies and vile iniquities, which I felt were grievous.” He awoke from his dream vision physically exhausted and weak, but he also felt “the first spiritual mercy” he had ever experienced. No longer self-righteous, he begged God to “never again permit me to blaspheme his most holy name,” and admitted his unholiness (182).
Through his encounters with Methodists, Equiano began to appreciate that a higher level of spiritual consciousness was unknown to him. He knew that he was a believer who “kept eight commandments out of ten,” but he did not have the conviction of his own salvation. He was advised that no one could keep all ten commandments on his own, and that if he “did not experience the new birth, and the pardon of [his] sins, thro’ the blood of Christ, before he died, [he] could not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Equiano only later learned that this “mysterious” doctrine was the experience of justification, a believer’s sudden awareness that God, because of Christ’s righteousness, has pardoned his or her past sins (186).
Equiano was now so fearful of dying in his present spiritual state that his incessant fretting, mourning, and praying annoyed everyone around him. When he returned from sea to London he told his “religious friends” that he had decided to beg for survival on shore rather than ever go to sea again among the ungodly. His friends admonished him that the sea was his “lawful calling,” and that “God was not confined to place.” Taking their advice, he signed up for a “delightful voyage” to Cadiz, Spain (189), bringing with him a pocket Bible, and Joseph Alleine’s An Alarme to Unconverted Sinners (London, 1673), which was frequently republished in the 18th century. Equiano divided his time in Cadiz between admiring the wealth and beauty of the town, and, like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with God through prayers and reading the Bible.
When Equiano awoke the morning of October 6, 1774, he felt “a secret impulse” that he was about to “see or hear something supernatural,” which “drove [him] . . to a throne of grace.” God answered his prayers later that day:
as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of the Acts, twelfth verse, under the solemn apprehensions of eternity, and reflecting on my past actions, I began to think I had lived a moral life, and that I had a proper ground to believe I had an interest in the divine favour; but still meditating on the subject, not knowing whether salvation was to be had partly for our own good deeds, or solely as the sovereign gift of God:—in this deep consternation the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place, Isa[iah]. xxv. 7. I saw clearly, with the eye of faith, the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross on Mount Calvary: the Scriptures became an unsealed book, I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law, which came with its full force to my conscience, and when "the commandment came sin revived, and I died" [Romans 7:9]. I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame. I then clearly perceived, that by the deed of the law no flesh living could be justified. I was then convinced, that by the first Adam sin came, and by the second Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) all that are saved must be made alive. It was given me at that time to know what it was to be born again, John iii. 5. (189–190)
Equiano understood that even slavery, from the perspective of Providence, was a fortunate fall: “Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ” (190). He recognized that everything he had experienced was part of a providential plan: “Now every leading providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then, in my view, as if it had but just then occurred. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me, when in truth I knew it not.” Justified at last, he appreciated that “Self was obnoxious, and good works he had none.” Through “joy in the Holy Ghost” he “felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror; indeed I thought death would now be the best earthly friend I ever had” (190–191). “Enlightened with the ‘light of the living,’” through “free grace” he understood that he “had a part and lot in the first resurrection,” the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (191–192): “Now my whole wish was to be dissolved, and to be with Christ—but, alas! I must wait my appointed time” (193).
Born again, Equiano began his evangelical career as a lay Methodist missionary. But he failed in his attempts to proselytize a Roman Catholic priest in Spain in 1775, as well as a Miskito Indian later that year. And in 1779 the Bishop of London rejected Equiano’s petition to be sent to Africa as a Christian missionary. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, however, enabled him to address a far larger congregation than he would have found in Africa. His image in the frontispiece anticipates and acknowledges the spiritual authority he asserts in his autobiography: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” (61). Rejected in his attempts to be sent by Europeans to Africa as a missionary or diplomat, through his Interesting Narrative, Equiano made himself into an African missionary and diplomat to a European audience. In the recreation of his own life, he forged a compelling narrative of spiritual and moral conversion to serve as a model for his readers.
Equiano’s frontispiece embodies the opportunities for agency, authority, and self-representation that early Protestant evangelicalism offered to people of African descent during the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson was only half right in his assessment of the role religious conversion played in the life and authorship of an enslaved person. Evangelical Christianity enabled an adolescent girl like Phillis Wheatley to exhort her social superiors to accept her ministrations. Jefferson’s comment notwithstanding, religion gave Wheatley, as well as her contemporaneous Black male Christian converts, the motive, means, opportunity, and duty to make their way into print. Once she was free, Wheatley, like Equiano and Jea after her, took an explicitly antislavery stance. Rather than merely assimilating the tenets of Christianity, they appropriated its principles to empower themselves. The conversion narrative genre gave the first generation of Black latter-day apostles the opportunity to assume a clerical voice to minister to their readers. Although the spiritual autobiographies of Gronniosaw, Marrant, George, Liele, and King are not overtly emancipationist, whether orally or print, evangelicalism also gave them the authority and platform to speak truth to power through their conversion narratives.
- Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. 2 vols. London, 1789.
- George, David. “An Account of the Life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa; Given by Himself in a Conversation with Brother Rippon of London, and Brother [Samuel] Pearce of Birmingham.” In The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793. London, 1793.
- Gronniosaw, James Albert Ukawsaw. A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Lifeof James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself. Bath, 1772.
- Jea, John. The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself. Portsea, England, 1815?
- King, Boston. “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher. Written by Himself, during his Residence at Kingswood-School.” In The Methodist Magazine for March, 1798. London, 1798.
- Liele, George. “An Account of Several Baptist Churches, Consisting Chiefly of Negro Slaves: Particularly of One at Kingston, in Jamaica; and Another at Savannah in Georgia.” In The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793. London.
- Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant. A Black. London, 4th ed. 1785.
- Peters, Phillis Wheatley. The Writings of Phillis Wheatley Peters. Rev. ed. 2022. Edited by Vincent Carretta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Brooks, Joanna. American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Bynum, Tara A. Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2023.
- Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Rev. ed. 2022. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
- Carretta, Vincent. Genius in Bondage: Biography of Phillis Wheatley Peters. Rev. ed. 2023. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
- Elrod, Eileen Razzari. Piety and Dissent: Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Gentry, Victoria Ramirez. “‘Th’angelic train’: Evangelicals, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Anti-racist Christianity of Phillis Wheatley and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano.” Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment 2, no. 2 (2021): 5–10.
- Hanley, Ryan. Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing c.1770–1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- Haynes, Carolyn A. “‘From Conquering to Conquer’: Olaudah Equiano, George Whitefield, and a New Christian Masculinity.” In Divine Destiny: Gender and Race in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism. Edited by Carolyn A. Haynes, 1–27. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
- Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. The Age of Phillis. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2020.
- May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760–1835. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
- Potkay, Adam. “Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27, no. 4 (Summer 1994): 677–692.
- Rezek, Joseph. “Author.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16, no. 4 (Fall 2018): 599–606.
- Waldstreicher, David. The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journey through American Slavery and Independence. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.
- Wilson, Ivy G. “The Writing on the Wall: Interiority and Revolutionary Aesthetics.” In American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions. Edited by Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby, 56–72. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
- Zafar, Rafia. We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760–1870. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
1. The following conversion narratives are cited parenthetically in the text by page number from Vincent Carretta, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997; rev. ed. 2004); James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c.1710–1775), A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (Bath, 1772); John Marrant (1755–1791), A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant. A Black (London, 4th ed. 1785); David George (c.1743–c.1810), “An Account of the Life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa; Given by Himself in a Conversation with Brother Rippon of London, and Brother [Samuel] Pearce of Birmingham,” in The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, and The Baptist Annual Register, for1794, 1795, 1796-1797, ed. John Rippon (London: Dilly, Button, and Thomas, 1798), 473–484, 94–96, 215–216, 409–410; George Liele (c.1751–1825), “An Account of Several Baptist Churches, Consisting Chiefly of Negro Slaves: Particularly of One at Kingston, in Jamaica; and Another at Savannah in GEORGIA,” in The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, ed. John Rippon (London: Dilly, Button, and Thomas, 1793); and Boston King (c.1760–1802), “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher. Written by Himself, during His Residence at Kingswood-School,” in The Methodist Magazine For March, 1798 (London: G. Whitfield, 1798), 105–110, 157–161, 209–213, 261–265. The conversion narrative of John Jea (1773–c. 1816), The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself (Portsea, England: Author, 1815), is cited parenthetically by page number from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and William L. Andrews, eds. Pioneers of the Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment 1772–1815 (Washington, DC: Civitas, 1998). All quotations from the works of Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) are cited parenthetically by line numbers from Phillis Wheatley Peters, The Writings of Phillis Wheatley Peters, ed. Vincent Carretta (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019; rev. ed. 2022). All quotations from the writings of Olaudah Equiano (1745?–1797) are cited parenthetically by page number from Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin, 1995; rev. ed. 2020).
2. Paul Edwards first identified the trope in his edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. 2 vols. London, 1789 (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., develops the significance of the image in “The Trope of the Talking Book,” in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 127–169. See also Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005; rev. ed. 2022).
3. George Whitefield, The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield. 2 vols. (London, 1771–1772), 2:404.
4. Samson Occom, The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America, ed. Joanna Brooks (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 97.
5. See also Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley Peters: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011; rev. ed. 2023). The most recent consideration of Wheatley’s evangelicalism is Michael Monescalchi, “Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Hopkins, and the Rise of Disinterested Benevolence,” Early American Literature 54, no. 2 (2019): 413–444.
6. Eileen Razzari Elrod, Piety and Dissent: Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Cedrick May, Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760–1835 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008); Joanna Brooks, American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Rafia Zafar, We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760–1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); and Ryan Hanley, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing c.1770–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
7. On the pervasive use of metaphorical slavery in colonial American discourse, see Peter A. Dorsey, Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010).