Grand Illuminations series ends first half with Nov. 3 lecture

Academics Campus & Community

October 21, 2021

By Samantha Clayman ‘25

A historian will give the third lecture of the six-part Grand Illuminations: Speaking from the Heart series, which aims to enlighten individuals about how the humanities impact their lives.

Katharine Gerbner will deliver “Christian Slavery: Faith, Hypocrisy and History” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, in the Sacred Heart Chapel Gathering Place, located behind the chapel at the College of Saint Benedict. This event is free and open to public, and refreshments will be served.

“Her (Gerbner’s) lecture will reflect on her own journey as a historian, including her Quaker education and background, with a focus on her deep desire to understand things that seem like paradoxes, such as ‘Christian Slavery’ and Quaker slaveholding,” said Tony Cunningham, professor of philosophy at CSB and Saint John’s University and the director of the series. Quakerism is a 17th-century Protestant movement devoted to peaceful principles.

Gerbner is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses on Atlantic History, History of Religions. Magic and Medicine and the Early Modern Archive. Her research primarily focuses on the relationship between religion and race in the early American world, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. She grew up in Pennsylvania and attended a Quaker school, where her historical research led to the intriguing discovery that Quakers played a significant role in the course of slavery.

Gerbner’s book, “Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), explores how debates between slave owners, Black Christians and missionaries transformed the practice of Protestantism and the language of race.

“‘Christian Slavery’ refers to the belief that slavery could be reformed and made to be more Christian,” Gerbner stated in an interview with Kirsten Boles, assistant editor for Reading Religion. “Protestant missionaries often used this argument when they encountered resistance from slave owners who did not want their slaves to become Christian. It was an attempt to reconcile Christianity and slavery.”

As Gerbner traces in her article “The Ultimate Sin: Christianising Slaves on 17th Century Barbados,” an attempted slave rebellion in 1675 was widely blamed on the efforts of Quakers to convert slaves to Christianity.

“They (the slave owners) thought of Christianity as a religion for free people, and they worried that a baptized slave would demand freedom,” Gerbner said in her interview with Boles. “In one of the first letters I found about this subject, Protestant slave owners wrote that Christian slaves would ‘rebel and cut our throats.’”

Throughout her book, Gerbner pursues the link between “Protestant supremacy” and racial inequality. “Protestant supremacy” is a term she coined to describe the hierarchy of colonial slavery within the context of religion.

“In the earliest slave laws in the English colonies, colonists didn’t call themselves ‘white.’ Instead, they call themselves ‘Christians,’ ” Gerbner explained in her interview with Boles. “Over time, however, slave-owning legislators introduced the language of ‘whiteness’ into law books. They did so just as a critical mass of enslaved and free blacks had gained access to baptism. These men and women were claiming new rights as Christians. It was in this context that ‘white supremacy’ grew out of ‘Protestant supremacy.’”

With Gerbner’s lecture, individuals will gain an understanding of the history of religion, its impact on the concept of race and how the effects of this linger in society today.

The Grand Illuminations lecture series initiates conversations about weighty things for human lives. The lectures are public occasions where people come together and turn their minds honestly to things that matter, speaking plainly and sharing their thoughts and ideas, along with their doubts and questions. The lecturers come from various disciplines: philosophy, history, English literature, classics. They all share a common cause, to speak from the heart about things that matter in a human life.

The series is entirely funded by a generous donation from SJU graduates Bill Pelfrey ’88 and Steve Halverson ’76.

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Katharine Gerbner

Katharine Gerbner