Hosted by the Partnership of Historic Bostons

Thursday, November 30, 7-8:30pm

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Christianity and slavery were linked in colonial New England. Richard Boles explores the experiences of Black and Native people

If any “Negro-servants” should “Run away from their Masters,” Cotton Mather wrote in 1693,”we will afford them no Shelter…. We will do what in us lies, that they may be discovered, and punished.” 

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, is the fourth in our lecture series, Enslavement & Resistance: New England 1620-1760.

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.

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.

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), should be of interest to anyone who joins Partnership of HIstoric Bostons events or otherwise follows early New England history.

The history of African American and Native American participation in New England’s colonial churches is important. 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 myth that New England was relatively unaffected by slavery and blameless for the enslavement of multitudes of people.

Below are links to some of the key primary and secondary sources on this topic – all fascinating reading.

Cotton Mather, A Good Master Well Served. A Brief Discourse on the Necessary Properties & Practices of a Good Servant in Every-Kind of Servitude (Boston: B. Green and J. Allen, 1696)

Cotton Mather, The Negro Christianized. An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, The Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity (Boston: B. Green, 1706)

Cotton Mather, Rules for the Society of Negroes (broadsheet, 1693)

Richard Anderson, “Jonathan Edwards Sr.,” in the Princeton & Slavery Project website. Accessed July 30, 2023.

Jonathan Edwards’s church records from Northampton, Mass., Congregational Library & Archives.

“Flora’s confession and testimony, 1749 July 23” from the Second Church of Ipswich, Mass., Congregational Library & Archives.

Richard Boles, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (New York University Press, 2020).

Dr. Richard J. Boles is associate professor of history at Oklahoma State University. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from Boston College and a Ph.D. from George Washington University. His first book, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North, examines the transition from racially diverse churches during the early 18th century to separate American Indian and African American congregations by the early 19th century in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Richard is working on a new book about religious interactions among Native Americans and African Americans in early America.

His book and articles have been supported by numerous grants, including a Huntington Library Fellowship, American Philosophical Society Franklin Grant, New England Regional Fellowship Consortium Grant, Albert J. Beveridge Grant, Gilder Lehrman Research Fellowship, and Massachusetts Historical Society fellowships. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Congregational Library & Archives.

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Image: This depiction places Indigenous people in the foreground and Boston’s early 18th century harbor, buildings, and church steeples in the background. During the colonial era, Black and Native American people attended Boston’s churches, and Puritan theology influenced the practices of slavery in the region. Credit: “Rendering of Boston and waterfront.” Print. October 1743. Digital Commonwealth, (accessed July 21, 2023).

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