Usually when we think of African-American Christian leaders who spoke and acted out against injustice, a number of Civil Rights era figures come to mind; MLK (of course), Fannie Lou Hammer and the like. Or, if we want to talk about self-help leaders in our community, Elijah Muhammad and Marcus Garvey come to mind. Yet, before these heroes were even dreamed of, there were black men and women who stood on their religious principles, planned a revolution and, when it was foiled, established a community of free people that existed outside of American society for over 100 years.
Among the enslaved Africans brought to America, many came from the Congo kingdoms of West Africa. In 1491, King Mwene Kongo Nzinga Nkuwu heard the Gospel from and was baptized by Roman Catholic priest from Portugal. Over time, Bibles and religious books were translated into the local language. Congolese rituals became “Christianized,” and some of the kingdom’s brightest minds studied the faith in Europe. Unfortunately, Portugal saw more profit in selling their African brothers and sisters as slaves rather than loving them as equals in God. The first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were from that region.
There is no record of any Congolese clergy or theologians brought to the colony. But, these African Christians knew that their enslavement was and un-Christian state of hypocrisy from the Portuguese Catholics and English Protestants. In 1705, The Virginia Law Concerning Slaves & Servants was read in every church in the colony. This led to many escape plots. But they were often betrayed by informers or discovered and stopped by patrollers and the colonial militia. Some hope came in 1730 with a rumor that the new royal governor would make a decree from the king that all Christian slaves would be free. After months of waiting for their release, the enslaved Congolese believers in Norfolk and Princess Anne Counties (Virginia Beach) held secret meetings planning how they would demand freedom.
Perhaps with the help of informants, colonial officials discovered the plot and arrested the would-be rebels. Ringleaders were executed, some lesser organizers were sent out of Virginia, all were severely punished. Many who escaped the constant slave patrols (assisted by some Native Americans) found a refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp, a huge wetland straddling Virginia and North Carolina. Inside of this inhospitable land were “islands” where they planted gardens. Wild game and lost domestic animals were killed for food and fished in Lake Drummond and little creeks. Friendly, disenfranchised Natives taught them how to use primitive tools and to make the most of the difficult surroundings. In the safety of the Great Dismal Swamp, these runaways became the Maroons.
Whites found it very difficult to recover their “lost property,” even after canals were cut through the swamp making it more accessible. Some Maroons worked alongside enslaved shingle cutters to earn supplies from overseers who turned a blind eye for the sake of profits. Some “marooned” temporarily seeking better working conditions from their “masters” or recovering from illness and injuries. In time, the Great Dismal Swamp was used as a pathway of the Underground Railroad. But, thousands of blacks established free communities and lived with minimal to no contact with whites and the enslaving wider world from the mid 1700’s to the end of the Civil War.
The Maroons didn’t accept the Christianity that was handed to them. The Congolese Christians expected the Portuguese and Virginian whites to live up to the faith and were prepared to take a stand against their hypocritical oppression. When their plans were ruined, they took their freedom in their own hands and built a community with various degrees of self-reliance. The Maroons were blessed to find ways to make a home in the wasteland and kept themselves safe being aware of their surroundings and those who sought to ensnare them into bondage. They relied on their own ministers with their own prayers in their own promised land.
Saint Anthony and the African Desert Fathers (and Mothers) saw the inconsistencies and compromises of worldly Christianity and sought something more. In the Egyptian wastelands, they kept watch over their souls living as hermits, semi-hermits, and in monasteries. At times, they went as far as Alexandria and Nicaea to declare the true faith. Some came from other lands to gain spiritual wisdom and establish refuges of holiness abroad. But, they would not let worldly wisdom and sensual passions enslave them. These men and women sought the soul freeing virtues from the King of Kings and made a kingdom for themselves in an unwanted land.
May God keep the memory of the Congolese Christians of Tidewater Virginia for eternity. May the Desert Fathers and Mothers pray for us.
Marcus Nevius, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856, U of Georgia Press 2020
Daniel Sayers, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp, U of Florida Press 2014
John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (revised), World Wisdom Press 2008