03.31.15

The Reformational, Theological Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano, who was also known by his slave name, Gustavus Vassa, wrote one of the most important slave narratives in the history of the English-speaking world in 1789. In his Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano stated that he was born in “Eboe” (Igboland) in what is now southeastern Nigeria in 1745. Born into a well-to-do family in which his father was an elder in their home village, it seemed as though the young Equiano was on his way to becoming a big person in village life; but at the age of eleven Igbo-speaking slave catchers seized him and his sister to begin the odyssey that serves as the heart of the narrative. Equiano survived the Middle Passage, and would eventually become a maritime slave who served the British Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War. Following this period of his life, Equiano was the slave of a Quaker merchant conducting a shipping business in the Caribbean; during this time Equiano would earn enough money to buy his freedom in 1766. Between his time as a maritime slave and his self-purchase, Equiano received Christian baptism in 1759 and was a member of the Church of England.[1]

In his 2003 book Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes 1753-1833, historian John Saillant wrote that for a number of Afro-British writers in the 18th century, “Calvinism seems to have corroborated the deepest structuring elements of the experience of such men and women as they matured from children living in slavery or servitude into adults desiring freedom, literacy, and membership in a fair society.”[2] Drawing from Saillant’s assessment this essay explores how Olaudah Equiano framed his Interesting Narrative within a reformational theological framework, and applied it to the events of his own life as well as political, cultural, and social issues that had direct bearing on both enslaved and free Africans of the Atlantic World during the late 18th century. In his influential work Creation Regained theologian Albert Wolters defined a reformational worldview as a person’s fully-orbed intellectual framework of his/her’s fundamental “‘belief about things’…shaped and tested by the Scriptures.”[3] In brief, Equiano was an Afro-Protestant in that he drew from both scripture and his own experience to argue for the dignity of Africans as persons created in God’s image, that racial slavery denied the dignity of African personhood; therefore, there was no Christian justification for it, that God had included Africans in his eternal plan of redemption, and that free Africans deserved to experience societal shalom even through the creation of a new society in West Africa.

Writing upon the events of his life from birth to 1789, Equiano thought of his life as under the direction of God. He was a firm believer in the providence of God. In the beginning of the narrative, Equiano wrote that he knew “the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of” his life. Owing to this cognizance, Equiano highlighted key moments of his life in which he acknowledged God’s providential mercies in his life. Equiano’s belief in God’s providence seems to have been a fundamental part of his faith, even prior to his conversion in 1774. For example, when one of Equiano’s masters, Michael Pascal, sold him in 1759, he perceived that this horrible turn of fortune was punishment from God. He wrote: “I wept bitterly for some time: and began to think that I must have done something to displease the Lord, that he thus punished me so severely.” At this time in his life, Equiano tended to think that God based his goodness to him on his outward conformity to the Law. When he had time to ponder this new situation, Equiano came to assess that situation differently believing that God may have allowed this event for his ultimate good.

In other instances of the narrative, Equiano focused upon the divine mercies that came his way. In particular, Equiano attributed his freedom and the means of his freedom to many kind turns of providence. At the end of 1763, Equiano’s master, Robert King, allowed him to sail with a certain captain who sailed a ship owned by King. Owing to this situation, Equiano sought and received permission to engage in merchandising at different ports of call in the Caribbean. Equiano “trusted to the Lord to be with” him as he bought and sold goods like glasses, bottles, and fruit.

In contemplating how much he loathed the West Indies in comparison to his experiences on the open seas prior to 1759, Equiano longed to be free. He concluded to purchase his freedom through the money he earned selling his goods rather than escaping slavery. Equiano came to this conclusion based upon his belief in God’s absolute sovereignty over his life. He wrote: “I was from early years a predestinarian, I thought whatever fate had determined must ever come to pass; and therefore, if ever it were my lot to be freed, nothing could prevent me.” He also had resigned himself to the possibility of the opposite outcome; yet, Equiano prayed to God for freedom using the means of merchandising to earn the money. Though Equiano used the term “fate,” he was no fatalist. Equiano desired his freedom, and worked to that end; but he recognized that his own determination, or his own work had no bearing on God’s will in this situation. Yet he relied on God’s gracious providence; and God rewarded his work so that Equiano earned enough money to purchase his freedom in July 1766.

This is Part I in our three-part series on the life of Olaudah Equiano. 


[1] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative Narrative and Other Writings edited with an introduction by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

[2] John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes 1753-1833 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 4.

[3] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 4, 7.

Eric Washington
Eric Washington serves as Assistant Professor and History Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Minor at Calvin College. Dr. Washington is primarily interested in studying the African-American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century.

C’mon Up!