Black Europe, Christian Africa – A Black History Month Lecture from Dr. David D. Daniels III

Dr. David D. Daniels presented his Black History Month lecture on the origins of African American Christianity prior to the rise of modern racism.

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The King’s College welcomed Dr. David D. Daniels III, the Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, to give the Black History Month lecture on February 10 in the City Room. Dr. Daniels spoke on the topic of “Black Europe, Christian Africa: Excavating the Origins of African American Christianity prior to the Rise of Modern Racism, 1500-1700.”

Dr. Daniels opened his lecture by telling the audience that this wouldn’t be your standard discussion on African American Christianity. He was going to push back against common beliefs in regards to African American Christianity, seeking to excavate the layers of history in order to challenge several widespread assumptions in modern-day society.

WATCH: Dr. Daniels speaks on the origins of African American Christianity

One of the main misconceptions that Dr. Daniels critiqued during his lecture was the idea that the story of African American Christianity started when Africans were first introduced to Christianity on the slave plantations of North America. Dr. Daniels shared that many people mistakenly believe that African American Christianity started in North America and only came into existence as a response to slavery and racism in the 13 original colonies.

But the roots of African Christianity do not begin in North America, but rather in Europe and Africa. Daniels showed that in 1619, the year when enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia, there were already documented African clergy, African Christian practices, and an educated African Christian elite in both Africa and Europe. African American Christianity emerged from developed Black Christian societies throughout the Kongo, Ethiopia, and Portugal, as well as smaller Black Christian communities in places like England.

When African Christians came to North America, some already followed the Christian traditions of church attendance, the baptism of their children, and the practice of Christian marriage. Dr. Daniels said that according to the scholarship, “African Christians came already baptized, already having gone through some kind of catechism, already practicing the Christian faith, and are accepted within the Christian churches, either New Amsterdam, which becomes New York, or Jamestown within the Church of England.” The Christian faith wasn’t something that these African Christians learned in North America, but rather was a continuation of their existing Christian beliefs that they had developed in Europe and Africa.

Some men, women, and families were already Christians when they came to the Thirteen Colonies. Scholars have demonstrated that during this period of history, there were Black Christians in parts of Africa and Europe. Records show that at this time there were 150,000 Christians in Kongo, 700,000 Christians in Egypt, 2.1 million Christians in Ethiopia, and 50,000 African Christians in Spain and Portugal. City records also show that in Lisbon, Portugal, 10 percent of Lisbon’s 100,000 population was African, creating a well-developed African Christian community that had their own chapels and brotherhoods.

But this was not unique to Lisbon. Historians have shown that there were Catholic parishes and communities in parts of Africa in the 1500s, in places like the Kongo, Loango, Angola, and Cape Verde. Dr. Daniels shared specifically about the history of Christianity in the Kongo, which embraced Catholicism in the 1490s, leading to a Catholic monarchy, a network of priests and one bishop, a cathedral, and a Catholic school system educating 1,000 students. There was also a strong network of Christians in Ethiopia with a Bible that was printed and widely distributed throughout Europe.

Support for the argument that African American Christianity didn’t begin in North America can also be seen in the writings of many European theologians and writers, such as Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Martin Bucer, who were mentioning African Christians and engaging with African Christianity in the 1500s. Of particular note were Martin Luther’s interactions with an Ethiopian Christian leader. Luther wanted to know how they existed outside of the rule of the pope and wanted to learn more from their experiences with having a married clergy, communion with both bread and wine, no belief in purgatory, and having the Bible in the vernacular, all concepts that were instrumental in the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Christians in Europe were able to collaborate and interact with Christians in Africa because modern notions of racism had not infiltrated European and North American culture. Dr. Daniels shared that the Royal Society in London, one of the first scientific societies in the world, spoke against a racist understanding of the differences between African and European cultures in the late 1600s. He said, “One of the things they (the Royal Society) had as their consensus was that there was only one genesis, one beginning; that humanity comes out of one people. They argued that the differences (between skin colors) had no link to mental, moral, or spiritual capacities. The differences had to do with suntanning or maybe something that happens on the skin. The differences were only skin-level.” The modern-day attitudes of racism came later to Europe and North America, as the Enlightenment, capitalism, and slavery impacted how white people saw people of African descent.

Throughout his lecture, Dr. Daniels displayed a convincing breadth of scholarship showing that by 1619, there were already African clergy, Christian practices, Christian art, Christian lay societies, and an educated Christian elite in Black Europe and Christian Africa. The story of African American Christianity did not begin on the slave plantations of North America but rather was a continuation of a Christian culture and belief system that was well-established in Black Europe and Christian Africa.

The lecture was well-received by the King’s community and generated much discussion among the student body and faculty. Bethany Johnson (JCS ’23) said, “I enjoyed his lecture and hope the school will continue to broaden its history program to encompass all countries and cultures, not just the West.”

Dr. David Tubbs, associate professor of politics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Christianity and the Black Experience, commented that the Black History Month lecture is an important way to ensure that the conversation around race continues to happen. When asked about the importance of Black History Month at King’s he said, “Engaging with Black History Month helps us to gain clarity about the gaps between certain ideals and realities in American history and acquiring a deeper knowledge of the African American experience can provide insight into certain problems that face us as a nation.”

In addition to his Black History Month lecture, Dr. Daniels will be joining The King’s College this summer to teach a hybrid course entitled: The Church in Africa Since 1500: Reformations of the Sixteenth Century and the Twenty-First Century. In this class, Dr. Daniels will explore current-day African Christianity by focusing on the history of African Christianity in countries such as Ethiopia and the Kongo from 1500-1700. The course will start on May 12 and is being offered in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies, while also being cross-listed as a History course. The course will be hybrid, meaning that the first part will take place in person, the middle part will be on Zoom, and the last part will be back in person.

The King’s College is thankful to be able to partner with Dr. Daniels to help the King’s community better understand the depth and impact of Black Europe and Christian Africa on African American Christianity.

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