Slavery and African American Religion
Slavery and African American Religion
Christianization. One of the most important developments in African American culture in this era was the spread of Christianity within both the slave and free black communities. In the Southern colonies, where most American slaves lived, Anglican missionaries led the way. Their efforts were directed at both white and black populations, as preachers tried to bring all Americans to Christ. Slavery was an important feature of this religious task. Part of the groundwork for this development was in the preaching of George Whitefield, the English revivalist who visited America seven times between 1738 and 1770. Whitefield called for the conversion of the slaves. He considered it the duty of slave owners to bring their slaves to Christ. Whitefield and his colleagues stressed the duties of masters to care for their slaves in a humane way and developed an ethic of Christian paternalism that was a basic tenet of the American slave system. In exchange for this care preachers told their slave converts that they owed absolute obedience to their owners, just as they did to God. This worked to the slaves’ disadvantage, on the whole, as religion offered support for punishment of slaves’ misdeeds. The cruelty of slave owners was much less likely to be punished, nor did the missionaries question the justice of the slaveholding system. Anglican missionaries worked especially hard to ensure that their religion supported the orderly, hierarchical world of slave labor, meeting the needs of their white planter supporters. But the relation between Christianity and slavery was uneasy. Whitefield brought many Americans to Christ during his visits, and his followers brought even more into the fold as they began preaching a more evangelical and emotional form of Christianity than had existed in America before the 1750s. During the revolutionary era Christianity would come to challenge slavery as well as support it.
Evangelicalism’s Challenge. The introduction of slaves to Christianity was feared by many European Americans, however. They recognized that Christianity, especially in the evangelical form coming into prominence in the mid 1700s, provided a basis for antislavery feelings. They feared that slaves brought to the freedom of Christianity would begin agitating for freedom from bondage as well. The dramatic experiences of some Christians during the revivals of the Great Awakening of the 1740s and 1750s brought this danger home. For example, Hugh Bryan, a South Carolina slave owner, became caught up in the religious enthusiasm that followed a visit from Whitefield in 1740. Whitefield took a stand against slavery, and Bryan soon followed him and began preaching against slavery as a sin warning about God’s coming punishment. Significantly he raised the threat of slave uprisings, hitting a nerve in the colony that had recently experienced the Stono Rebellion, the most serious slave insurrection in colonial times. Bryan then began to preach to the slaves themselves. He cast himself as a new Moses who would lead the slaves to freedom as the biblical Moses led the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Bryan was an extremist who symbolized the fears of many Americans about the overenthusiasm of revivalistic Christianity. His ministry had little practical effect, as over time Bryan abandoned his antislavery position and took up life once again as a respectable planter and slaveholder. Yet his brief career as a Christian abolitionist demonstrated that African American Christianity was a potentially significant threat to the established order of society and religion.
Christian Egalitarianism. In addition to individual preachers who argued that slaveholding was sinful, there was an antislavery message embedded within the forms of Christianity that spread in the revivals from the 1740s on. The key idea was the equality of all believers in Christ. Evangelicals preached that Christ called all humans to repentance for their sins and to faith in God’s saving power. There was no different treatment for blacks and whites. They preached the power of the conversion moment as an intense realization of the truth of these statements in experience. Preachers worked to produce these conversion experiences in all their listeners, white and black. Both groups responded, sharing the emotions and the ecstatic behaviors of people coming together to Christ, and blacks as well as whites left these experiences feeling they had the ability to preach to others about them in turn. As the revivals spread throughout the South in the 1750s and 1760s, the power and challenge of Christian equality became apparent. In Maryland and Virginia, for example, this racial equality within religious experience presented a direct challenge to the prevailing order. The established Anglican religion was marked by much more formality and distance between minister and laity, between whites and blacks. Anglicanism’s decline was in part due to the appeal of the new evangelicalism to people, such as slaves, who had felt excluded from the old order. One revivalist preacher noted in 1757 the appeal of his kind of emotional, freewheeling religion for slaves especially, in a way that suggested the revolutionary potential of this faith. He wrote that “Many of them only seem to desire to be, they know not what: they feel themselves uneasy in their present condition, and therefore desire a change.” The rebirth, or renewal, slaves found in revivalistic Christianity was just one sign of a broader rebirth in freedom that many hoped to share.
SLAVES AND CHRISTIAN FREEDOM
One of the earliest petitions from African Americans seeking their freedom came from a group of slaves in Massachusetts. In 1774 they petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for their liberty in a document that shows how political freedom and religious freedom mingled together for at least some early Americans. That only some understood this link is shown by Massachusetts’s failure to respond to the plea of these men; slavery began to end in the state only after a judicial decision against it in the early 1780s.
Your Petitioners apprehind we have in common with all other men a naturel right to our freedoms without Being depriv’d of them by our fellow men as we are a freeborn Pepel and have never forfeited this Blessing by aney compact or agreement whatever. But we were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from our dearest frinds and sum of us stolen from the bosoms of our tender Parents and from a Populous Pleasant and plentiful country and Brought hither to be made slaves for Life in a Christian land. Thus we are deprived of every thing that hath a tendency to make life even tolerable, the endearing ties of husband and wife we are strangers to.... By our deplorable situation we are rendered incapable of shewing our obedience to Almighty God how can a slave perform the duties of a husband to a wife or parent to his child How can a husband leave master and work and cleave to his wife How can the wife submit themselves to there husbands in all things. How can the child obey thear parents in all things. There is a grat number of us sencear . . . members of the Church of Christ how can the master and the slave be said to fulfill that command Live in love let Brotherly Love contuner and abound Beare ye onenothers Bordenes. How can the master be said to Beare my Borden when he Beares me down whith the Have chanes of slavery and oppression against my will?
Source: “To Gov. Thomas Gage and the Massachusetts General Court, May 25, 1774,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th ser. 3 (1877), pp. 432–433,
Slavery and Methodism. Some Baptists drew on their own egalitarian tradition to oppose slavery, but it was the Methodists who took the evangelical challenge to slavery to the furthest extreme in the revolutionary era. At this time the Methodists were a reform movement within the Anglican Church. As it became a separate group with the coming of war and the disestablishment of the Anglicans, it was centrally organized, following Anglican tradition. Policies set by the group’s leaders were harder to ignore at the local level than for the Baptists who let each congregation govern itself. English Methodists such as John Wesley joined American followers such as Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in condemning slavery as evil and un-Christian. Freeborn Garrettson, a Methodist minister and former slaveholder, was struck one day while singing a hymn about Christian freedom by the contradiction of holding fellow humans in bondage. He claimed the experience of conversion had changed his life so much that it was as if he had never owned slaves, so free from his earlier sin he felt. Other early American Methodists agreed, and the denomination’s governing body, the Methodist Conference, took stands against slavery and the slave trade in its meetings in 1780, 1783, and 1784. Methodist revivalists such as Thomas Rankin often preached to large crowds of blacks and whites meeting together, and they noted with approval the special enthusiasm of their African American converts. Rankin described a 1776 meeting where feelings were so high he begged people to compose themselves. “But they could not,” he wrote, “some on their knees, and some on their faces, were crying mightily to God all the time I was preaching. Hundreds of Negroes were among them, with the tears streaming down their faces.” Methodism was a Southern religion, however, and as the egalitarian ideals of the Revolutionary War period faded a bit, the intransigence of slaveholders increased. Faced with outspoken objections to their policies, Methodist leaders abandoned their antislavery positions beginning in 1785 although they continued to try to convert slaves.
Christian Runaways. These lessons were not lost on African Americans themselves, who took matters into their own hands when possible. Notices about runaway slaves often blamed religion for their disobedience. In 1767 the Virginian owner of the runaway Jupiter described him as “a great Newlight preacher” who had fled when his master had punished him for “stirring up the Negroes to insurrection.” Five years later another Virginian advertised the escape of Primus, who had “been a Preacher ever since he was sixteen Years of Age, and has done much Mischief in his Neighborhood.” Likewise another slave named Sam came to flee bondage after being “raised in a family of religious persons, commonly called Methodists;” he had “lived with some of them . . . on terms of perfect equality.” Colonial newspapers were filled with such accounts, which were warnings against the bad effects of Christianizing blacks.
Black Preachers. African Americans slowly began to take leadership positions in their religious lives, roles that would lead to other forms of leadership and protest, just as so many European Americans feared. They pursued their opportunities in the face of strong and direct opposition from white leaders throughout the colonies, and the coming of the Revolution did little to ease that opposition. Once again they were helped in this by the evangelical emphasis on conversion. With experience as the basis of religious authority, being educated was not a requirement for preaching, and slaves could start their own ministries. In 1776 an Anglican attacked this trend, criticizing his evangelical rivals because the “most illiterate among them are their Teachers even Negroes speak in their meetings.” By the end of the 1700s there was a significant group of black preachers, especially among the Baptists. One early example was Lewis, a slave in Northern Virginia, who in 1782 was preaching to crowds as large as four hundred people. Sometimes black preachers spoke to white or mixed audiences, but their most important work was among other black slaves, whom few white preachers cared to address.
AN EVANGELIST REACHES OUT TO SLAVES
Samuel Davies was a leader of the Presbyterian revivals in rural Virginia in the 1750s. Like many other revivalists, Davies was interested in bringing African slaves to Christ, along with their white masters. In 1757 and 1761 he and some other likeminded ministers published a series of letters in London describing their efforts with America’s slave population with an eye to encouraging English aid. Davies supported his efforts, noting that African Americans seemed to want the benefits of the revival experience. “Many of them,” he wrote, “only seem to desire to be, they know not what: they feel themselves uneasy in their present condition, and therefore desire a change. ” Change did come to some. “There is a general alteration among them for the better. The sacred hours of the Sabbath, that used to be spent in frolicking, dancing, and other profane courses, are now employed in attending upon public ordinances, in learning to read at home, or in praying together, and singing the praises of God and the Lamb.” Davies knew well the differences between his white and black adherents. He baptized them only “after they had been Catechumens for some time, and given credible evidence, not only of their acquaintance with the important doctrines of the Christian religion, but also of a deep sense of these things upon their spirits, and a life of the strictest Morality and Piety. As they are not sufficiently polished to dissemble with a good grace, they express the sensations of their minds so much in the language of simple nature, and with such genuine indications of Sincerity, that it is impossible to suspect the possession of some of them.” Davies praised their religious fervor and hoped that the “poor African slaves will be made the Lord’s free men.”
Sources: Samuel Davies, Letters (London, 1761), p. 15;
Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 181, 183–184.
Slave Churches. Black ministers were crucial figures in the development of African American religion and culture. They were uniquely situated to combine elements of European Christianity, African rituals and traditions, and the actual experience of the slaves. Over time slave communities began to establish congregations, served by local slave preachers, or itinerant free black preachers. One example was the success of an independent black church in the neighborhood of Jamestown, Virginia. Led by a man named Gowen, in 1781 it numbered some two hundred members. Probably the first such congregation was founded in the early 1770s in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia. This congregation began when a white Baptist converted eight slaves owned by George Galphin. One was named David George, and he became a gifted preacher. When the white minister fled as the British occupied Savannah in 1778, George became the congregation’s minister, but this was only the first step in his independent career. As the war continued he eventually moved on to Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1782 left for Nova Scotia, founding a church for black refugees there. The 1790s brought him to Sierra Leone, where he founded yet another Baptist congregation. Jesse Galphin and George Liele were two more preachers who got their starts in Silver Bluff. Galphin became an itinerant based in his First African Church in Augusta, Georgia. Liele ended up leading a church with more than 350 members in Jamaica, but not before he had converted a slave named Andrew Bryan around 1780. Bryan was owned by the brother of Hugh Bryan, the early antislavery evangelist. During the 1780s Andrew Bryan gathered a black Baptist church in Savannah that had more than two hundred communicants in 1790. These examples show the highly personal networks through which Christianity spread among African Americans. It was only after the revolutionary era that black Christianity would come into full flower, but the seeds were planted in the important and difficult work of men such as David George and Andrew Bryan.
African Traditions. Africans brought to America as slaves came with their own religious beliefs and practices. The concerted effort to make slaves Christians combined with the dispersal of the African population across the colonies to break down these religions as organized systems. But elements of many African practices and beliefs survived among Africans and were passed on to later generations. These practices merged with Christian beliefs in many cases to form a distinctive and highly varied African American Christianity. The full development of this religion would await the growth of the large plantations in the South between the Revolution and the Civil War. Yet there is evidence, however scarce, that the pieces were present in this earlier time. Beliefs in magical powers and in the ability of certain people to “conjure” or invoke the spirits in various ways seem to have prevailed among many African Americans. Many also seem to have practiced special rituals related to healing physical and emotional sickness, with amulets, foods, and spells that supposedly could help friends or hurt enemies. Special burial rituals were also practiced, especially for slaves who never became Christians. They might be buried in carefully arranged ways, with valued objects to help them on their journeys. African Americans were by no means alone in having these beliefs in this time; many whites had similar ideas about witchcraft and magic and practiced their own versions of healing rituals. Traditional African practices could easily overlap Christian rituals, as the ecstatic visions of ancestors in the spirit world could correspond to the emotional outpourings of the Holy Spirit during a revival. Many European Americans even took up African beliefs, in modified forms. Such exchanges were never truly free or equal, however. Even in the realm of religion, blacks and whites might share a faith and even a meetinghouse, but whites always came first. In 1762, when Whitefield visited Virginia, the church quickly filled with an overflow crowd of both races. An observer noted, “Mr. Whitefield was obliged to make the negroes go out to make room for the white people.”
Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990);
Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991);
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978);
Leigh Eric Schmidt, “‘The Grand Prophet,’ Hugh Bryan: Early Evangelicalism’s Challenge to the Establishment and Slavery in the Colonial South,” in Colonial America, edited by Stanley Katz and others, 4th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), pp. 604–616;
Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).