Church Attitudes Toward Slavery

views updated

Church Attitudes Toward Slavery

During the summer of 1707 Rev. Francis Le Jau (1665–1717) wrote from South Carolina to his superiors in England, imagining he might "with God's blessing … have a day in the week for the Instruction of poor Indians and Negroes" (Pennington 1935, p. 449). As a member of the new Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) Le Jau was a missionary in the wilderness, preserving the presence of the Anglican Church and converting the heathens. The British were making a significant religious effort in the American colonies, but their efforts, like Le Jau's optimism, faded in the face of uninterested and hostile reactions. There was, among colonial slave owners, almost no concern over the religious state of bondpeople. When they considered it, owners held many concerns. Although it was not true, they worried English law required them to free converts. They feared the explicit egalitarianism evangelical Christians emphasized. They worried Christian slaves would adopt the idea of religious freedom and use it to revolt. They doubted the claims of missionaries such as Le Jau, who claimed Christianity would make slaves better servants.

Ministers would consistently urge the conversion of slaves during the 1700s, but historians agree there was little systematic progress converting slaves, or their owners for that matter. Nevertheless, there were important changes. Outside the Anglicans among the religions in North America, the relatively new and small Protestant denominations paid attention to slaves. Methodists and Baptists were most successful. Both grew significantly in the late eighteenth century during the First Great Awakening, a period of religious revival. Baptists maintained autonomous congregations, allowing outreach to slaves in local contexts. Methodists sent itinerant preachers throughout the rural South where they often ministered to slaves.

The First Great Awakening emphasized conversion and personal experience with God. New evangelicals preached the fallen state of humans and the free will to find salvation through faith. The conversion experience, a point of personal realization of one's reliance on God, became an important innovation. Evangelical Protestants moved away from church hierarchy and pedantic examinations of faith to embrace emotional testimony and a less elaborate liturgy. They sought all people, regardless of race or class, recognizing Martin Luther's (1483–1546) idea of a priesthood of all believers. In such venues they regularly welcomed slaves. The Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations adopted antislavery positions in response to evangelical growth.

Early evangelicals' physical and emotional displays were disconcerting to everyone outside the converted. Church leaders struggled with the emotionalism and the movement might have faded without important changes. There were some splits. Presbyterians invested in the emotional framework and, unwilling to conform to the larger denomination, formed the Disciples of Christ. More important for slaves was Protestant denominations accepting slavery and endorsing missions for slave conversions. After the American Revolution (1776–1783) there was another wave of religious revivalism in the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicals were drawing thousands of converts to camp meetings where hosts of preachers would call people to the faith over the course of a week or more. Slaves were included in many revivals. Religious outreach to slaves also increased in the 1800s as more slave owners adopted religion. Other owners saw religion as a useful form of social control, something they worried over when the threat of slave violence grew. Almost once a decade during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, slaveholders faced insurrection plots. First was Gabriel Prosser's (1776–1800) 1800 revolt, then Denmark Vesey's (1767–1822) 1822 scheme, and finally Nat Turner's (1800–1831) 1831 insurrection.

Protestant churches continued to involve slaves in a variety of forms. There were a few independent African American churches in the South, but more common were white churches where slaves participated in a segregated environment. White ministers would hold services in the slave quarters at the request of owners. There were also slave preachers, both those appointed by whites and others called by their faith. Slave preachers and exhorters might preach to white audiences in some circumstances, but that was the extent of white tolerance for slaves in leadership positions. The extent of slaves participating in these organized religious efforts is apparent after the Civil War (1861–1865). Former slaves made churches the centers of their communities throughout the country.


Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Comminey, Shawn. "The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and Black Education in South Carolina, 1702–1764." The Journal of Negro History (Autumn 1999): 360-369.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Johnson, William Courtland. "'A Delusive Clothing': Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Slave Community." The Journal of Negro History (Summer 1997): 295-311.

Pennington, Edgar Legare. "The Reverend Francis Le Jau's Work among Indians and Negro Slaves." The Journal of Southern History (November 1935): 442-458.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Sernett, Milton C. Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975.

Smith, Timothy L. "Slavery and Theology: The Emergence of Black Christian Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America." Church History 41, no. 4 (December 1972): 497-512.

                                        David F. Herr

About this article

Church Attitudes Toward Slavery

Updated About content Print Article