Home: Our Story: Faith: African Culture in Loyalist Society
When we read Clarkson's descriptions of black prayer meetings, we can recognize many of the distinctive characteristics of modern day Black Christianity. Similarities include powerful singing of psalms and emotional exhortations. However, most of these people were recent converts, only having become Christians within the last fifteen years of their lives. It seems inconceivable that a fully formed set of unique practices and beliefs could spring forth spontaneously, only to remain virtually unchanged for two hundred years. Unless, of course, these peculiarities were not new at all but instead were socially acceptable expressions of much older cultures.
It is now impossible to determine how many of the customs of Africa survived the brutalities of slavery and war. Records were brief; most historians and men of letters considered the day to day affairs of blacks beneath notice. While many of the Black Loyalists were born in Africa, they had other powerful influences working on them as well. Most deeply desired was the acceptance and sense of equality from white society. Outward signs of paganism and other African customs would jeopardize what little respect they had found, and were actively suppressed as evidence of immorality.
However, there are some hints that certain West African cultural practices and religious beliefs may have survived these trials. They may have been incorporated into Black Loyalist culture and religion.
Methodism and Baptism, the two most prominent Black Christian faiths, both emphasize a personal connection with God. The preaching was (and still is) commonly filled with calls to 'let the Holy Spirit flow into you' and 'feel the Light inside you'. Music is also very important, frequently incorporating call and response chants. All of these elements are strongly indicative of certain African religions and the well established Christian/African beliefs such as Santeria and Voodoo. Bodily possession by spirits is a strong unifying element in these faiths, along with rhythmic music, dancing, and call and response chants that summon the spirit into the priest's body.
Baptism, which has proven to be one of the most enduring of the black churches, has additional connections to African religion. There are many West African river cults that have ceremonies involving total immersion of the body. This similarity of beliefs may have convinced African born slaves to embrace this emerging faith into their own culture. Black baptism in Nova Scotia evolved almost completely independently of outside religious authority, and developed many unique and suggestive elements.
Relaxed attitudes towards marriage were frequently commented on by contemporary observers. Common law relationships and even polygamy seem to have been freely accepted. Part of this may be a legacy of slavery; in a situation where formal marriages were forbidden and a spouse may be sold off at any moment, permanent weddings were nearly impossible. These attitudes were by no means universal, as Boston King's devotion to his wife clearly displays. Although this disregard for conventional morality, especially in people with such strong faith and desire to be accepted into conventional society, suggests that there may be other, deeper, cultural explanations. Polygamy was an accepted fact in many West African societies, and 'marriage' codes similar to those described are also commonplace.
Another custom noticed by white observers was the tendency of black families to adopt children and completely absorb them into to their family. Some suggest this was a consequence of living with slavery, where a mother might be separated from her children at any time. Others suggest that this custom was in fact an African tradition brought to America with them.
A final and notably local clue to the survival of African beliefs can be found in Birchtown. In the original farm lots behind the town there are a number of stone mounds. These mounds have been the center of speculation by archaeologists ever since they were first discovered. One theory was that they were burial mounds, but excavation uncovered no trace of human remains.
However, the Dogon people of West Africa, a major slave ethnic group, used stone mounds as the symbolic center of religious ceremonies. Although it is difficult to determine the ethnic origin of specific Black Loyalists, it seems likely that Dogons were represented among Birchtown's early settlers.