Published in 1867 by William Francis Allen (1830–1889), the poetry collection Slave Songs of the United States reveals much about American slaves' encounter with Protestant religion and the growth of African American Christianity. Throughout its development, the black church in America has served as a vital cultural resource, playing central a role in African American's economic, political, and social existence. Many of the spirituals found in Allen's collection, such as the following poem, Religion So Sweet, express an intense devotional sentiment:
O walk Jordan long road,
And religion so sweet;
O religion is good for anything,
And religion so sweet.
Religion make you happy.
Religion gib me patience.
O member, get religion.
I long time been a-huntin'.
I seekin' for my fortune.
O I gwine to meet my Savior.
Gwine to tell him 'bout my trials.
Dey call me boastin' member.
Dey call me turnback Christian.
Dey call me 'struction maker.
But I don't care what dey call me.
Lord, trial 'longs to a Christian.
O tell me 'bout religion.
I weep for Mary and Marta.
I seek my Lord and I find him. (p. 13)
While key components of slave religiosity were in some ways ancient, Christianity among slaves was relatively new and dynamic in the nineteenth century. Perhaps most important in understanding slave religion is appreciating the diverse means by which slaves created, practiced, and encountered their faith.
Religion was significant to many slaves long before the nineteenth-century experience with Christianity. Although the transatlantic slave trade was unquestionably brutal, Africans still managed to preserve cultural systems and adopted others in accordance with their new conditions. Many of the earliest slaves brought to the North American mainland came from the West Indies. Slaves in the Caribbean encountered Catholicism and Protestantism on the islands, where both Iberian and Anglo influences shaped religious practices. Some African slaves were practicing Muslims, and African obeah and winti cults also survived. Slave religion in North America began with a wide array of religious understandings in an environment where preserving any was increasingly difficult.
While it is certain that slaves practiced many forms of religion during the early development of North American slavery, very little evidence of their practices and beliefs survives. Some owners observed religious practices among slaves working the rice and indigo plantations of South Carolina. On these plantations, slave owners quickly conceded substantial autonomy to Africans. As Daniel Littlefield (1991) has proven, owners relied on African agricultural knowledge and developed the task system of labor, which allowed slaves their own time and space outside required work. Those early observations, however, tell only part of the story. Slave owners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were more often indifferent or hostile to religion among slaves. During the first century of American slavery, when the proportion of Africans remained high compared to slaves born in America, southern owners generally employed plantation systems similar to those in the Caribbean, where little provision was made for existence outside labor. There was a common belief among Anglo-European slave owners that English law required emancipation for slaves already converted to Christianity. In response, at least six colonial governments enacted specific measures discrediting the belief, according to historian Albert Raboteau (1978, p. 99). Others believed slaves were incapable of religious understanding. Owners who considered introducing Christianity were often dissuaded by the requirements of religious practice. Anglicans wanted congregants to read the Bible and develop a reasoned understanding of it. Slave owners quickly decided such education for slaves was too time-consuming and dangerous. Although Anglican clergy in South Carolina made small but significant efforts to overcome such challenges, it remains the case that owners throughout the colonies generally neglected the religious condition of slaves until the end of the eighteenth century.
Beginning in the 1770s a series of religious revivals or "awakenings" occurred in both Europe and America. Enthusiastic ministers captivated audiences with visions of hell for the unfaithful and profound guilt for believers who strayed from the path. The call was universal, and spread to the isolated rural regions of the colonies. Outcasts, slaves, and the downtrodden were all eligible for this new salvation. The newly formed Methodists and Baptists were particularly accepting of slave congregants and ministers in these denominations were instrumental in helping start some of the first black churches, including the oldest, the Silver Bluff Baptist church, which was founded in South Carolina around 1773. As slavery dwindled in the northern colonies, free African Americans established churches or joined white congregations; some preached. Similarly, a growing number of slaves in the South became exhorters and preachers. The founding of black churches and the emergence of slave preachers progressed inconsistently, determined largely by the comfort level of local whites. Regardless of the ebb and flow, slaves were increasingly exposed to Protestantism and the Christian message of freedom through faith.
The nineteenth century proved more dynamic than the late eighteenth century. A second Great Awakening began in the early 1800s and grew out of maturing evangelical Protestant practices. Evangelicals embraced a more open religious ideal, based less on theology than on devotion and faith demonstrated through a conversion experience. Historians debate the extent and influence of the awakenings, but they agree that slave participation in Protestant evangelical denominations grew dramatically after 1830. This is partially explained by a shift from early evangelical opposition to slavery. In the late eighteenth century Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterian evangelicals rejected slavery, often citing the Quaker example, but found that this position, combined with some of their more unusual practices, limited their appeal to white slave owners. Choosing instead to make missionizing slaves a part of their religious agenda, these Protestants began to grow their membership roles more rapidly.
This was also the period of slave revolts, leading to a pervasive fear of slave insurrection among whites. Beginning in the 1790s, a series of prominent slave uprisings occurred: the revolution in Haiti, Gabriel Prosser's 1800 effort, Denmark Vesey's attempt in 1822, and Nat Turner's 1831 revolt. American slavery expert Eugene Genovese (1974) argues that this was the time when many slave owners decided religion should be used as a tool for social control. The debate about exposing slaves to religion did not end, however, and resistance remained among many politically powerful owners. The more practical opponents argued that slaves should only learn Christian ideas supporting slavery. The reality was, however, that various forms of religion were already well developed among slaves. While most varieties of religious practice were Christian, slaves did not simply receive religion from whites. Antebellum slaves worshipped with a life-affirming spirituality, the constituent parts of which will never be fully identified.
Strong evidence for slaves' management of their own religious practice is provided by the many different sources indicating that slaves on large plantations placed significant value on their ability to worship clandestinely. In these private spaces, slaves cultivated what became African American Christianity after the Civil War (1861–1865). This environment cultivated worship forms such as the ring shout and spiritual possession. According to some historians, it also linked religion with resistance. Other scholars argue, however, that—given the apparent pervasiveness of secret worship and the relatively few examples of insurrection—slave religion was more supportive of accommodation than rebellion. Still others, perhaps the majority, contend that religion did not compel slaves to choose between accommodation and resistance. Certainly, those professing Christianity provide examples of both accommodationists and rebels.
While one cannot precisely measure the extent to which slaves embraced Christianity, or the influence of other religions, or the geographic development of African American religion, one can confidently show that religion was central to many, if not most slaves. Moreover, during the antebellum period slave religion had a decidedly Christian hue. Religion was a vital means of coping in environments where individuals found themselves degraded and powerless. It offered self-affirmation, communal understanding, and hope in the face of hopelessness. There was enormous power in these ideas of the mind and spirit—places where slave owners could rarely gain a foothold.
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.
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery: 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
David F. Herr