Organized religion held great power for those in bondage. Whether seated separately in biracial congregations or attending independent segregated churches, slaves found church one of the few places where they might tend to individual needs. Although Christianizing slaves was rare in North America during the seventeenth century and remained controversial in the eighteenth, slave exhorters and preachers were soon vital to the development of African American culture and the black church.
Unlike other Protestant denominations, the Methodists and Baptists advocated an end to slavery in the colonial era. Both groups were instrumental in supporting black preachers and allowing slaves into their congregations. Albert J. Raboteau, in his 1978 study of slavery and religion, observes that this African American and Anglo-American synthesis created its own momentum, increasingly removed from white direction. Slaves desired church participation in ways that led to their increased presence in Methodist and Baptist congregations by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The historian Carter G. Woodson (1921) argues in his history of the Negro church that church "served often as an outlet for expression of the Negro social mind, now for a renewed determination to break their chains through prayer, then to resort to concerted action on the basis that he who would be free must himself first strike the blow" (p. 242).
Before the Revolutionary War the Methodists had successfully established several stable African Christian communities in the South. Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood, in their 1998 study, recount examples of African Americans, some slave, some free, who cooperated with white religious leaders while developing independent black churches. George Liele (c. 1751–1828), born a slave in Virginia and later able to purchase his freedom, was ordained a Baptist minister in 1775. Liele created the First African Church of Savannah, Georgia, three months after his ordination. Later David George (1742–1810), a slave and childhood friend of Liele, was instrumental in the formation of the famous Silver Bluff Baptist Church established on the plantation of George Galphin between 1773 and 1775. George was the church's first preacher.
Most slaves did not have their own churches. Slave participation in white churches amounted to a segregated presence during services. Many churches created separate galleries or placed slaves in the rear pews. Urban churches often created entirely separate services to accommodate large numbers of slaves. Most Baptist and Methodist churches admitted slaves through conversion and baptism, and required adherence to doctrine and liturgy, but denied slaves any official roles outside those whom they allowed to preach or exhort. The personal nature of evangelical Protestant practices, however, made controlling slaves difficult. Church discipline, calling for orderly personal behavior and proper religious understanding, was important in antebellum congregations. Baptists and Methodists understood that Christian fellowship required equal treatment among members in these matters. Slavery, on the other hand, demanded that slaves maintain an inferior position. Mediating these values was exceedingly difficult.
Black churches' relative independence ebbed and flowed across the South. Whitting B. Johnson (1996) notes that while whites in Charleston worked to dismantle the four-thousand-member African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, Savannah whites assisted in the creation of independent black churches. By 1860 Savannah had five black churches. Whites rarely granted slaves the freedom to worship without some semblance of white supervision, yet black preachers and black churches persisted in the antebellum period. Through these churches slaves and free blacks were able to make decisions affecting their own lives outside of white influence. Self-governance fostered cultural independence and the further development of Christian understanding appropriate for their context.
Boles, John B. ed. Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Frey, Sylvia R., and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Johnson, Whittington B. Black Savannah, 1788–1864. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1921.
David F. Herr