Religion Practiced by Slaves

views updated

Religion Practiced by Slaves

The religious life of slaves in antebellum America was shaped by and varied according to a number of factors. These included, but were not limited to, slaves' African region of origin, the section of the United States slaves lived in, the predominant local plantation labor system, the European American and Native American religious cultures slaves were exposed to, and the historical moment under consideration. Three significant regions will be considered in this brief discussion of religion and slavery: the Carolina-Georgia Low Country, the Chesapeake, and the Gulf Coast. Each is considered in terms of its African-influenced religious life and in terms of the form of Christianity that took hold.

Understanding the religious life of the enslaved requires that clear distinctions be made between the way the sacred and secular were experienced in European American and African Diasporic societies and cultures. By the antebellum period, both the sacred and secular realms of Euro-American society were increasingly subject to church dictates concerning the daily life of congregants. Despite the vibrant culture of worship brought about by the Second Great Awakening, Christian churches failed to completely control the daily lives of whites, and exerted even less control over the spiritual life of enslaved African Americans. This latter population (a majority in some locations), harboring resentment toward the master population, possessed of a completely different cultural worldview, and retaining their own spiritual values resisted the reality of white control through an alternate religious culture (Gomez 1998, pp. 247–248). The great majority of the African captives imported into America came directly from Africa or with only transitory stops in the Caribbean. These people— primarily the Bakongo, Ovimbundu, Igbo, Ibibio, Akan, Mandinka, and Bambara—faced with the social death of slavery, chose to create a cohesive unified religious community in which ethnic differences enriched the collective religious experience, but were subsumed by central religious institutions: the ring shout, baptism, root-work, hoodoo, funeral rites, and the exhortative priest (Patterson 1982). Each of these institutions was drawn from the African cultural imagination and then integrated into African American religious culture (Gomez 1998, pp. 12–16; Stuckey 1987, ch. 1; Thompson 1984).

Scholars disagree on the impact American religious movements had on slave worship practices during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some, such as Sterling Stuckey (1987), maintain that even if reform movements initiated a gradual transition from the "Africanized" Christianity of the slave quarters and the "hush harbor" to more Western conventions of worship within churches, most slaves still favored the more lively and outdoor settings of the ring shout and John Kunering ceremonies (Stuckey 1987, p. 167). Others argue that the impact of Euro-American culture, society, and worship practices was much more fundamental. In Roll Jordan Roll (1976), for example, Eugene Genovese claims that by the nineteenth century Afro-Caribbean religious practices had almost completely given away to the religion of the master class.

Hoodoo: African Folk Magic Among Southern Slaves

Hoodoo is a term that refers to a collection of folk magical practices used in the South before the Civil War and still practiced today. The English word hoodoo is derived from the Ewe word hudu; hoodoo is also known as conjuration, conjure, or rootwork (from the practice of chewing and spitting out plant roots as part of some hoodoo rituals). Hoodoo is not a separate religion; it was practiced by slaves who had become Christian as well as by those who had not. Hoodoo in the nineteenth-century rural South was primarily West or Central African in origin, though some spells or rituals were borrowed from Native American peoples such as the Chickasaw and Cherokee. Slaves practiced hoodoo in order to gain some control over their lives—to avoid being whipped, to attract love, to cure disease, to foretell the future, or to contact the spirits of their ancestors.

Henry Bibb (1815–1854) was a former slave from Kentucky who obtained his freedom by fleeing northward, first to Detroit and later to Canada. In 1849–1850 he published an autobiography in which, among many other things, he described hoodoo spells and rituals. Although Bibb discusses his early use of hoodoo in order to inform the reader that he has outgrown "superstition," his autobiography is considered an accurate source of information about Southern folk magic. Below are some excerpts:

There is much superstition among the slaves. Many of them believe in what they call "conjuration," tricking, and witchcraft; and some of them… say that by it they can prevent their masters from exercising their will over their slaves…. The remedy [to prevent a flogging] is most generally some kind of bitter root; they are directed to chew it and spit towards their masters when they are angry with their slaves. (Bibb 1849, p. 25)

Bibb describes an instance in which he paid another slave for a hoodoo recipe to keep his master from beating him:

After I had paid him his charge, he told me to go to the cow-pen after night, and get some fresh cow manure, and mix it with red pepper and white people's hair, all to be put into a pot over the fire, and scorched until it could be ground into snuff. I was then to sprinkle it about my master's bedroom, in his hat and boots, and it would prevent him from ever abusing me in any way. After I got it all ready prepared, the smallest pinch of if scattered over a room, was enough to make a horse sneeze from the strength of it; but it did no good. (Bibb 1849, p. 27)

Later on, Bibb paid another "conjurer" for a love charm, which also failed:

After I had paid him, he told me to get a bull frog, and take a certain bone out of the frog, dry it, and when I got a chance I must step up to any girl whom I wished to make love me, and scratch her somewhere on her naked skin with this bone, and she would be certain to love me and would follow me in spite of herself…. So I got me a bone for a certain girl, whom I knew to be under the influence of another young man… [and] when I got a chance, I fetched her a tremendous rasp across the neck with this bone, which made her jump. But in place of making her love me, it only made her angry with me. She felt more like running after me to retaliate on me for thus abusing her, than she felt like loving me. (Bibb 1849, pp. 30–31)


SOURCE: Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: Author, 1849.

According to Lawrence Levine (1977), while enslaved Africans brought no unified "African" culture with them, they did create a new and unique African American religious culture (pp. 3–5). Likewise, Stuckey and Michael Gomez (1998) argue that Africans developed a religious life of their own, largely independently of whites, by developing (1) religious institutions based on African patterns; (2) an Africanized version of Christianity; and (3) a quasi-Islamic religious life.

Spirituality in the Low Country

The Low Country is a coastal region of Southeastern North America stretching from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Northern Florida, and including South Carolina and Georgia. Its original inhabitants—the Chicora, Cherokee, Creek, and other Native American cultural groups—were displaced by the Spanish, French, and British and the enslaved Africans they brought to the region. By 1830 in South Carolina as a whole, Africans (slave and free) outnumbered whites 323,000 to 258,000 (Gomez 1998, p. 295), with the greatest concentration being along the Atlantic coast. Having a numerical advantage—annually reinforced by "fresh saltwater" captives who brought with them their own religious ideas from West Central Africa, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and Senegambia—enslaved African Americans developed a new spiritual gestalt that focused on two major religious institutions: root-work and the ring shout. Both of these practices were most likely first introduced during the colonial period by Bakongo and other Congo-Angolans practicing close variations of Western Bantu traditions (Gomez 1998, p. 250; Stuckey 1987; Thompson 1984, p. 107). Root-work, a spiritual practice that originated out of the Bakongo reverence for minkisi—the sacred medicines embodied in certain roots, herbs, and minerals—functioned as an amalgam of medical and spiritual practices (Thompson 1987, p. 108). The ring shout simultaneously expressed Bakongo reverence for the quartered circle as a symbol of the totality of life, various complicated intersections, particularly of the living with the ancestral realm (Pemba/Mpemba), and the motion of the sun, as recorded in the counterclockwise dance of its practitioners. By 1810, the ranks of ring shouters had been strengthened by captive men and women from Sierra Leone, organized into variants of Poro (male) and Sande (female) initiation societies, allowing the enslaved African American community to preserve spiritual agency in a rich cultural context. These institutions were most clearly preserved by the Gullah culture, from Georgetown to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and to a lesser extent by the Geechee culture of the Ogeechee River area in Georgia and North Florida; they were also found in the Congaree Swamp area outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

The Chesapeake of Virginia and Maryland

Virginia had a history of close cross-cultural contacts between African Americans, Native Americans, and Euro-Americans during the early colonial period, as evidenced by the records of the House of Burgesses. Africans and Scottish bondsmen ran away together, Africans and Native Americans rose up in revolt together, and Africans and Englishmen joined forces to suppress these uprisings. The result was a division during the antebellum period between the religious culture of slaves and the religious culture of free African Americans, the latter being much more patterned on Eurocentric Christianity. The slave culture that developed in the Tidelands was, however, weakened by an internal slave trade that arose to meet a demand for labor caused by the spread of cotton culture into the Louisiana Territory.

The Great Awakening brought about by the missionary efforts of George Whitfield, among others, from 1740 to 1790 led to the freeing of hundreds of enslaved Africans, largely by white converts (Gomez 1998, p. 251). Still, during this period no more than 4 percent of the African American population (slave and free) converted to Christianity (Gomez 1998, p. 254). By 1830, one in every seventeen Africans had converted, bringing the percentage to six. From 1790 to 1830 black church life in Virginia developed along lines that mirrored class distinctions within the black community. Field slaves were largely excluded from proselytizing efforts, while free blacks organized their own churches largely along white Christian lines. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, poor whites were showing the influence of African American forms of worship during revival meetings that featured outdoor worship, shouting, dancing, and other "ecstatic" manifestations.

During the antebellum period, the predominant African ethnicities found in the Chesapeake region were the Igbo and Ibibio (Bight of Biafra), followed by the Asante and Fante (Gold Coast/Akan), and Mandinka and Bambara of Senegambia. Gomez and other scholars suggest that slaves of Igbo origin had an unusually strong connection to their homeland that led to heightened psychological stress and despair, manifested at times in suicidal behavior (Gomez 1998, pp. 250–251). Slaves of Igbo origin resided primarily in the Tidewater region, where tobacco cultivation employing the gang labor system predominated. Although the region had a large concentration of black labor, the gang system mitigated the development of a strong cultural community comparable to that of the Gullahs or Geechees in the Low Country. Nonetheless, a local religious community did develop among slaves. This was weakened, however, when many slaves from the Tidewater region were sold "down the river" during the spread of cotton into the Louisiana Territory.

Forced into the Gulf region and other parts of the Louisiana Territory, Chesapeake slaves, unable to take much of their material culture with them, held onto their beliefs and crossed their Igbo-Akan-Mande religion with their new region's Fon-Ewe-Yoruba-Bakongo traditions to create a new religious subculture. After the Bakongo, the Bambara were the most dominant cultural presence among slaves in the Gulf region. Their African-influenced spiritual worldview is indicated by their prominent use of amulets. With the importation of increased numbers of captives from Congo-Angolan and Fon-Ewe Yoruba regions, a synthesis of African religious culture known popularly as voodoo—or vodun in its Haitian variant—developed in the region.

Christianity and the Pursuit of Freedom

In the antebellum period, the free black population developed an emancipatory form of Christianity most strikingly proclaimed by David Walker (1785–1830), advocated by Maria Stewart (1803–1879) and Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), and practiced by Denmark Vesey (1767–1822). In his 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, Walker, an African American abolitionist from Wilmington who made Boston his base, argued that slavery and true Christianity were incompatible:

I ask O ye Christians !!! who hold us and our children, in the most abject ignorance and degradation…. If you will allow that we are MEN… does not the blood of our fathers and of us their children, cry aloud to the Lord of Sabaoth [sic] against you, for the cruelties and murders with which you have, and do continue to afflict us? (Walker 1994 [1829], p. 16)

Walker's Appeal is significant, as it signaled a reaction against biblically based claims of African inferiority. Walker identified historical events as the cause of enslaved African Americans' debasement. He wrote of "Our Wretchedness in consequence of Slavery" (p. 17), "Our Wretchedness in consequence of Ignorance" (p. 29), and "Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Preachers of the Religion of Jesus Christ" (p. 46).

Many blacks demanding immediate freedom based their appeal in part on Christianity. In 1857 two black Christians from Cleveland, John Malvin and the Reverend Robert Johnson, writing in The Liberator, condemned a biracial man who supported slavery and black inferiority. Malvin and Johnson wrote that "we do not love him, but hate him as an apostate from the religion of Jesus Christ, and a traitor and disgrace to his people" (Aptheker 1971, vol. 1, p. 391). Christianity, thus, had been transformed from solely being the belief system of the slave master into a part of the insurgent culture of those seeking freedom.


Aptheker, Herbert. A Documentary History of the Negro Peoples in the United States, vol. 1. New York: Citadel Press, 1951.

Berry, Mary Frances, and John W. Blassingame. Long Memory: The Black Experience in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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

Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

,Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.

Walker, David, and Henry H. Garnet. David Walker's Appeal and Henry Highland Garnet's Address. 1848. Reprint, Nashville, TN: James C. Winston, 1994.

Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.

Kwasi Densu

About this article

Religion Practiced by Slaves

Updated About content Print Article


Religion Practiced by Slaves