The Christian church played no major role in ending slavery at the Cape. From the 1820s, however, leading colonists stressed the role the church had to play in facilitating the transition from slave to free labour. Slowly the idea died that a Christian slave would be difficult to discipline due to a presumed equality of spiritual status. Among slaves there was a rapid extension of Christianity and the Muslim faith in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both Christian missionaries and Muslim imams cared for more than the spiritual well-being of their followers. They helped slaves and Khoisan labourers to adapt to a harsh and cruel world and, in some cases, to use the legal system to seek redress. Both Christianity and Islam stressed literacy not as a goal in itself but to understand a holy message. Religion and education remained closely tied until the end of the nineteenth century.
Many Europeans in the colonies did not take church attendance very seriously, but for most religion explained their world. Acting on the underlying assumption that a single orthodox truth revealed the mysteries of creation and life, the colonial state did its best to impose religious uniformity and if possible a single church denomination. The Christian religion also determined the European colonists’ secular standing. To be called a Christian during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the European colonies meant much more than a religious designation. As Winthrop Jordan, a historian of the American colonies wrote, the concept embedded in the term Christian seems to have conveyed much of the idea and feeling of ‘us against them: to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black’.
Perhaps because no single European nationality colonised the Cape the colonists were even more inclined to use their Christian faith
as a political and social identity. It was a widespread practice for burghers to refer to themselves as Christians, and others, too, called them by that name. A frontiersman, seeing two members of his community in the company of a Khoikhoi and an Englishman, remarked: ‘Here come two Christians, a [Khoikhoi] and an Englishman.’