Religion and Slavery

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Religion and Slavery

From the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, Western nations used religious doctrine to justify the enslavement of Africans. Although the bodies of the slaves were suffering, their souls were saved through conversion to Christianity. At the time of the Civil War, religion was still used to rationalize slavery, but it was also used by abolitionists to oppose the institution, and by the slaves themselves to resist bondage.

Christianizing Slaves

Converting slaves to Christianity involved educating slaves to some degree, but the abolitionist movement made Southern slaveholders question the wisdom of instructing slaves. On the one hand, the fear that abolitionist literature would incite slave rebellions had a chilling effect on any effort to educate slaves: The distribution of abolitionist literature in the South aroused a distrust of all missionaries coming into the region to promote religion. On the other hand, abolitionist arguments against slavery challenged proslavery apologists to push slave evangelization: If slavery was to be defended as a positive good, the slaves had to be converted to Christianity and master-slave relations had to be conducted along biblical lines. Schisms over the question of slavery resulted in the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1844 and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. The divisions, which relieved some of the anxiety among slaveholders that churches were sympathetic to abolitionism, also created greater urgency among Southern churches to convert the slaves.

The division also fostered the development of a proslavery analysis of the Bible, particularly in the Old Southwest. Preachers in Mississippi and Alabama began in the 1850s to perfect a proslavery religious argument. Samuel Baldwin of Mississippi argued that Adam's fall negated all human rights. God occasionally chose to return a few of these rights, but He withheld some as a curse on certain men and their descendants. Baldwin insisted that God cursed Ham and his offspring to eternal servitude, and that slavery was, as a consequence, an important feature of God's plan (Bailey 1985, pp. 79–80). Other slavery apologists cited the numerous biblical passages, particularly in the Old Testament, that discuss slavery and give little support to the belief that God was an abolitionist. Whereas abolitionists contended that the New Testament contains Christ's repudiation of slavery, supporters of slavery argued that the relationship of master and slave was sanctioned by God. Emancipation, therefore, was contrary to God's will.

Proslavery religious activists also argued that Christianity benefited slaves as well as masters. They contended that Christianity would regularize and pacify relations between slaves and masters. To achieve this end, plantation missionaries attempted to convince masters that they had duties toward their slaves. Masters and, particularly, mistresses, were urged to take an active part in catechizing slaves by reading sermons to them, including them in family prayers, and teaching them in Sabbath schools. Religion had to influence the owner's physical as well as spiritual treatment of his slaves. This ideal picture of a Christianized master-slave relationship contributed to the Southern myth of the benevolent planter-patriarch presiding benignly over his happy flock of slaves.

But slaves provided numerous accounts that depict devoutly religious masters as being the most difficult of owners. In testimony in 1863 before the American Freedman's Inquiry Commission, the former slave Mrs. Joseph Smith explained why she thought Christian slaveholders made the worst masters:

Well, it is something like this—the Christians will oppress you more. For instance, the biggest dinner must be got on Sunday. Now, everybody that has got common sense knows that Sunday is a day of rest. And if you do the least thing in the world that they don't like, they will mark it down against you, and Monday you have got to take a whipping. Now the card-player and horse-racer won't be there to trouble you. They will eat their breakfast in the morning and feed their dogs, and then be off, and you won't see them again till night. I would rather be with a card-player or sportsman, by half, than a Christian. (Raboteau 2004, p. 166)

Isaac Throgmorton, testifying before the same commission, recalled,

I believe the people that were not religious treated their slaves better than those who were religious. A religious man will believe whatever the overseer says, and he has control of the hands in the field…. If he says, "John has acted impudent," the master will come round and say, "Chastise him for it," and the overseer will give him two or three hundred lashes…. Then, in the next place, they don't feed nor clothe their slaves as well as irreligious man. (Raboteau 2004, p. 166)

Slaveholders who practiced the Christian principles of thrift and careful management spent less money on slaves and disciplined them more quickly. A Northern white journalist, Charles Nordhoff, made the same discovery when he reported his conversations with South Carolina slaves in 1863. Nordhoff wrote,

I find the testimony universal, that the masters were "mean." Now there was one Fripps, a planter on one of the islands, of whom the blacks habitually speak as "good Mr. Fripps." "Come now, Sam," said the questioner, "there was good Mr. Fripps, he could not have been mean." "Yes, sah, he bad to his people same as any of 'em." "Why do you call him 'good Mr. Fripps,' then?" "Oh!" said Sam, "dat no tell he good to we; call him good 'cause he good Metodis' man—he sing and pray loud on Sundays." (Raboteau 2004, pp. 167–168)

It is not clear how many African Americans were Christian during the time of the Civil War. Undoubtedly, many slaves learned the tenets of Christianity, accepted them, and attended church, without actually appearing on the official rolls of any church. By 1860 the black membership of the Baptist Church is estimated to have been 600,000, but church membership figures are not known for their accuracy. By the start of the war, Christianity pervaded the slave community. The vast majority of slaves were American-born, and the cultural and linguistic barriers that had impeded the evangelization of earlier generations of slaves was no longer a problem. The doctrines, symbols, and vision of life preached by Christianity were familiar to most blacks.

Slave Worship

Slave preachers were common in the South, despite periodic attempts by whites to suppress them. Although many slaves were encouraged to attend white churches, they often felt inhibited by the presence of whites. Sarah Fitzpatrick, once a slave in Alabama, recalled,

Niggers commence ta wanna go to church by de'selves, even ef dey had to meet in de white church. So white folks have deir service in de mor-nin' an' Niggers have deirs in de evenin', a'ter dey clean up, wash de dishes, an' look a'ter ever'-thing…. Ya' see Niggers lack ta shout a whole lot an' wid de white folks al' round em, dey couldn't shout jes' lack dey want to. (Raboteau 2004, p. 226)

Another former slave, Robert Anderson, recalled, "We would gather out in the open on summer nights, gather around a big bonfire, to keep the mosquitoes away, and listen to our preachers preach sometimes half the night" (Raboteau 2004, p. 221).

Religious interpretations by slaves, which sometimes were limited by the prohibition on slave literacy, focused not merely on the attainment of spiritual freedom but also on the attainment of physical freedom. Traditional African religions had a distinctly nonmessianic cast, emphasized community and fidelity to tradition as a means of fulfillment, and promoted the long view on immediate issues of social justice. To Africans, time was cyclical. Accordingly, slave clergy preached an eventual reversal of fortune, conveying the message that in time, the bottom rail would be on top. Imbued with African sensibility, slave preachers constructed a universe that was morally self-correcting, one in which justice would be restored and imbalances of power reversed over the vast stretch of time.

Traditional attempts to catechize slaves had been unsuccessful, for the most part because whites tried to persuade blacks to accept alien ritual, worship, and theology. When evangelical whites invited blacks to participate in worship through singing, praying, and preaching in ways similar to African traditions, more blacks were prompted to become Christians. Slave preachers also promoted an African style of worship. Robert Anderson remembered of his slave community, "There would be singing and testifying and shouting" (Raboteau 2004, p. 221). Mose Hursey, a freed man, remembered,

On Sundays they had meetin', sometimes at our house, sometime at 'nother house…. They'd preach and pray and sing—shout too. I heard them git up with a powerful force of the spirit, clappin' they hands and walkin' round the place. They'd shout, "I got the glory. I got that old time 'ligion in my heart." I seen some powerful 'figurations of the spirit in them days. (Raboteau 2004, p. 221)

Whites often observed slave religious meetings. Mary Boykin Chesnut reported on one gathering in her diary in the 1860s: "The Negroes sobbed and shouted and swayed backward and forward, some with aprons to their eyes, most of them clapping their hands and responding in shrill tones, 'Yes, God!' 'Jesus!' 'Savior!' 'Bless de Lord, amen,' etc. It was a little too exciting for me. I would very much have liked to shout too" (Raboteau 2004, p. 221). Some whites found the black style of worship to be humorous, but just as many apparently found them as affecting as Chesnut did.

Spirituals were an integral part of slave worship. Drawing from the Bible, Protestant hymns, sermons, and African styles of singing, slaves fashioned a religious music of their own. Spirituals were communal songs that were performed with hand-clapping, foot-stamping, head-shaking excitement. They were sung as prayer meetings for full effect. Harris Barrett, writing after slavery had ended, recalled,

Those who have never heard these songs in their native setting can have no conception of the influence they exert upon the people. I have sat in a gathering where everything was as quiet and placid as a lake on a summer day, where the preacher strove in vain to awaken an interest; I have heard a brother or sister start one of these spirituals, slowly and monotonously; I have seen the congregation irresistible drawn to take up the refrain; I have seen the entire body gradually worked up from one degree of emotion to another until, like a turbulent, angry sea, men and women, to the accompaniment of the singing, and with shouting, moaning, and clapping of hands, surged and swayed to and fro. I have seen men and women at these times look and express themselves as if they were conversing with their Lord and Master, with their hands in His…. (Raboteau 2004, p. 244)

Not all slaves cared about religion. Some complained that they were too tired from a week of work to participate in services. The former slave Margaret Nickerson recalled, "On Sunday after working' hard all de week dey would lay down to sleep and be so tired; soon ez yo' sleep, de overseer would come an' wake you up 'an make you go to church" (Raboteau 2004, p. 225). Other African Americans spent Sundays in the same activities as nonreligious whites: hunting, fishing, marble shooting, storytelling, and resting. Sunday also served as market day for those slaves who were allotted individual plots to produce vegetables or poultry for their own use.

The clash between religion and slavery continued after the conclusion of the Civil War. Freedmen's aid societies were private charitable associations active during the Civil War and the immediate postwar years that provided both short-term welfare and educational opportunities for ex-slaves. By 1867 the societies were under attack for welfare paternalism that promoted negative views of the freedmen. When the American Missionary Association tried to induce the American Freedmen's and Union Commission to combine evangelicalism with teaching duties, the freedmen's commission collapsed in 1869, a casualty of religious controversy.


Bailey, David T. Shadow on the Church: Southwestern Evangelical Religion and the Issue of Slavery, 1783–1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Davis, David Brion. In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2001.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Mathews, Donald G. "Religion and Slavery—The Case of the American South." In Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey, ed. Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980.

Owens, Leslie Howard. This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caryn E. Neumann

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Religion and Slavery

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Religion and Slavery