"The most illiterate among them are their Teachers even Negroes speak in their meetings," claimed an Anglican missionary disturbed by New Light Baptists in Virginia (Raboteau 1978, p. 134). Late-eighteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism opened opportunities for both free and enslaved African Americans to profess and develop their faith. One former slave speaking of early-nineteenth-century camp meetings recalled, "Mostly we had white preachers, but when we had a black preacher that was heaven" (Sernett 1975, p. 93). Slave and free black Christians who spread their religion went by many names with different meanings. They were variously ministers, preachers of the Gospel, exhorters, deacons, watchmen, medicine men, and prayer leaders. Some received licenses to preach, some were assistants to white ministers, and others preached because they felt spiritual compulsion. By whatever title, with or without permission, license, or a slave owner's consent, these preachers propagated their faith, cared for their followers, and preached their inclinations across almost two centuries of American slavery.
Black preachers in and around the slave community were the founders of African American Christianity. They mediated among Christian ideals, African religions and community values, and slavery's stark reality. Communities of faith were anchored by their prayer meetings and ministrations. Their existence forged a host of contradictions and filled their lives with a special kind of danger. True believers in the white community encouraged them, sometimes openly, but often quietly. Many other whites saw in their efforts the threat of servile insurrection. The slave preacher often faced slave owners who worked to eradicate religion in the quarter and provided particularly harsh punishment for preachers. Those preachers with white support might travel among farms and plantations preaching to whites and blacks. Some enjoyed less hard labor, better food and clothing, and a lifestyle distinct from fellow bondpeople. Among free African American preachers was the drive to build new congregations through a peripatetic life. A few found a place among the most influential white leaders in their denomination. Any black religious leader faced a careful balance between tenants of faith and the comfort of whites.
Commonly illiterate, black preachers, particularly slaves, used sharp memories, cadence, imagery, and drama in their sermons. They might memorize Bible passages heard in a white church and recite them with an original pacing designed to build the audience's tension. Observers noted their ability to excite congregations to the point of frenzy. In Slave Religion (1978), Albert Raboteau contended their sermons were distinguished by repetition and gestures in a style that began conversationally before building to a call and response that peaked with chants followed by considerable shouting and singing. The dramatic performance set preachers apart. The prestige and status they attained no doubt attracted attention-seekers and frauds, but most claimed a genuine calling from God.
In the early eighteenth century when most slaves in North America were African there was little interest among whites regarding the religious state of their chattel. Despite laws forbidding emancipation of Christian slaves, slaveholders often cited this fear as a reason for not exposing slaves to Christianity. One also should not overlook the enormous cultural difference between owners and slaves. Owners believed Africans held primitive religious beliefs or were without religion. Among the slaves, however, it is very likely religious men revived African practices in America. In Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1972) Gayraud Wilmore stated, "Not a few of them were among the shipments of slaves from Dahomey and Togo, and it is they who must have formed the original cadres out of which the earliest Black preachers (not those who were designated as such by the slave masters and missionaries) began to emerge as the leaders of the slave society" (p. 23). The extent to which African religions and cults survived intact, disintegrated, merged with one another, and became part of Christian practices is a matter of much speculation among historians.
A powerful example of survival and change comes from the West Indies, a source of many slaves bound for North America. There, forms of African religion mixed with Catholicism among slaves held by the French and Spanish. Slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) and Jamaica developed religious forms Western observers grouped under the name Voodoo or Vodun. Although much is made of the witchcraft associated with Voodoo, forms of the religion centered on a belief in a supreme being mediated through a community religious leader. One might reasonably speculate the development of similar synthetic religious practices among early North American slaves, although there is little evidence.
The period before the American Revolution marks the first noticeable association of black's interest in Christianity. The popular appeal described by the Great Awakening religious revival of the 1730s and 1740s brought religion into the rural and frontier South among the most heathen population, including many Africans and African Americans. Driven primarily by Baptists and Methodists, the early message was often hostile to slavery, demanding of equality among individuals, and scornful of religious education. Baptists were most extreme, insisting on the independence of each church and providing an open environment for lay preaching. Baptists believed each person, including slaves, should testify about his or her relationship to God. More than any other denomination Baptists encouraged slave and free black preaching. Free black preachers, following the Baptist structure of responding to calls, were generally successful moving through different congregations in a missionary lifestyle. In addition to those black ministers who started the earliest black churches were many who served both white and black parishioners. In Trabelin' On (1979) Mechal Sobel identified a number of black ministers serving mixed congregations, particularly in late-eighteenth-century Virginia. Josiah or Jacob Bishop, a slave, replaced a white minister at the Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, in the 1790s. According to Sobel, Bishop eventually purchased his and his family's freedom with the aid of the congregation. Sobel also pointed out that many such slave ministers (as opposed to plantation slave preachers), "did not function with a black Baptist worldview," but rather they "had near-white world views" (p. 196). Further development of slave ministers with white worldviews would falter in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals modified their antislavery stance in the face of slaveholders asserting their financial and social influence. Even the Baptists came to accommodate a position supporting bondage. While this certainly dampened slave and free black enthusiasm, it was the succession of insurrection threats that most effectively suppressed black ministers.
Gabriel Prosser's (1776–1800) failed attempt to lead a revolt around Richmond, Virginia, in 1800 included a controversial claim that white Methodists and Quakers would be spared. Denmark Vesey (1767–1822) emphasized the threat of Christian slaves in 1822. His Charleston insurrection plot, fostered within the autonomous space of the white supported African Methodist Church, convinced many whites that rather than refuse slaves religion they must attend to black religious participation. White leadership in Charleston closed the church and required black religious events to be held only with whites present. White clergy found themselves castigated in the Charleston papers as having "sown the firebrands of discord and destruction; and secretly dispensed among our Negro Population, the seeds of discontent and sedition" (Wilmore, p. 39). The problem arose again on a larger scale with Nat Turner's (1800–1831) revolt a decade later. Turner was a Baptist lay preacher, who although not called to the pulpit, believed he was called to lead an insurrection. In the aftermath of the Turner revolt there was a new landscape for black preachers to navigate. Eugene Genovese described it in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974): "Hence the apparent contradictions of the period: a decline of antislavery sentiment in the southern churches; laws against black preachers; laws against teaching slaves to read and write; encouragement of oral instruction of slaves in the Christian faith; and campaigns to encourage more humane treatment of slaves. If the slaves were going to get religion, then religion had to be made safe for slaveholders" (p. 186).
The challenge this posed was probably underestimated by proponents of regulated Christianity for slaves. Milton Sernett revealed the extent when he separated the various roles black preachers played in Southern communities. Sernett made four divisions: ministers, exhorters, self-appointed preachers, and cult leaders. He offered Harry Hosier (1750–1806) or "Black Harry," as Carter Woodson identified him in The History of the Negro Church (1921), as an example of a black minister. Hosier is frequently identified by historians because he worked with Anglican bishop Francis Asbury and other leaders in the Methodist movement. Hosier preached to whites and blacks, receiving regular acclaim. Bishop Asbury had Hosier accompany him on more than one occasion because he recognized more people would come to hear this black preacher than himself. Hosier represents African and African American preachers who worked through white denominations. They almost always preached to mixed audiences and all black congregations. These men most often positioned themselves as mediators between concerned slave owners and Christian slaves. They might receive disobedient slaves for correction when their reputation for influence exceeded that of white overseers and owners. Masters certainly expected them to convey the "proper" Christian messages supporting slavery. As Sobel observed, the black minister "was not simply a 'handkerchief head' or an Uncle Tom trying to placate the owner" (p. 158). They tried serving both slave and slaveholder interests and this was a precarious balancing act under any circumstances.
Although Methodists and Baptists continued to support ministers even after most Southern states passed laws against licensing black preachers, the suppression limited their public exposure. More numerous especially after 1830s were slave exhorters. They were sometimes unlicensed, usually not ordained, but often served in the capacity of a preacher. Exhorters were officially assistants to white ministers, but evidence suggests white oversight was often absent. In their official role they might read selected Bible passages chosen by the minister during a service. They also worked as liaisons, helping regulate slave behavior through church courts and activities in the slave quarter. The unobserved time slave exhorters spent ministering afforded them more opportunity than black ministers to convey evangelical Christian ideals of equality and freedom. These activities drew the attention of masters who frequently offered incentives for trustworthiness. Exploiting individuals through their vanity or sense of entitlement, owners provided fine clothes, better provisions, and control of one's time in return for promises to advocate a pro-slavery religious message. Exhorters were more successful developing a separate Christian identity for blacks than has been acknowledged. John Blassingame, in The Slave Community (1972), illuminated the vitality of the plantation praise meeting, held away from whites. He emphasized both the syncretism of African and Christian practices and the freedom of the black preachers to emphasize freedom through faith.
Self-appointed preachers could, more than exhorters, subvert slave owners. Owing nothing to denominational or slave owning authority, these preachers and Sernett's final category of cult leaders likely overlapped. Raboteau contended there was a distinction between preachers and conjurers. Supernatural interactions were often in conflict with Christian beliefs. Other historians, including Blassingame, however, found a syncretism between supernatural beliefs and Christian ideas. While historians' understanding about the relationships among these spiritual values is incomplete, one might consider Genovese's claim. He speculated there was overlap among exhorters, radical preachers, and conjurers, suggesting that some preachers played all three roles depending on the context and slave preachers of whatever stripe were community leaders who received prestige and power for their efforts. Genovese also suggested why those self-appointed preachers and those more focused on African religion did not use the freedom from denominational control for radical purposes.
Free as they might be from organized religion they faced constraints. Slaves themselves had much control over who among them might preach. Preachers had to emotionally stir their audiences. Call-and-response structures were integral to praise meetings and ring shouts, two of the most common religious expressions over which a slave preacher would preside. Even within the more formal church structure, slaves expected to engage the preacher during the sermon. On the other side masters could control even those slave preachers without denominational allegiances. White reaction to slave preachers was a mixture of toleration and repression. Pragmatic slave owners recognized the impossibility of eradicating religion among slaves and sought supervision. Others were genuinely moved to protect slave preachers, but there was a constant undertone among whites insinuating preachers were the worst kind of slaves because of their ability to foment rebellion.
More importantly, black preachers—free or slave—represented much more. Their existence in itself testified to the inherent human dignity among African and African Americans. That these preachers often spoke with wit, elegance, and wisdom further affirmed individual worth and a positive collective identity. Even those preachers who toed the line for slave owners reflected an authority from God rather than from a master. The rich development of Afro-Christian thought was a valuable resource when coping with the often inhuman circumstances slavery imposed. Preachers revitalized the tired, mediated between the white world and the black, and cultivated a new form of Christian belief.
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David F. Herr