Religious Instruction

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Religious Instruction

A central paradox of American slavery was the offering of Christian religious instruction to those who lacked freedom. Within the Christian context the call for obedience and acceptance was met directly by the idea of exodus and self-direction. It is hardly surprising that slaves were attracted to a religion in which sacrifice brings honor and New Testament ideas of justice challenge bondage. However, the extent of slaves' conversion and the means of transmission of religious principles remain less than clear.

The Spread of Christianity among Slaves

Historians continue to debate the extent to which antebellum slaves adopted Christianity. After the 1820s there was a steady increase in the number of black churches, but such counts do not usually include plantation churches and certainly do not include the informal religious gatherings slaves valued. If one uses the number of churches as a measure of influence on slaves, then Christian influence was small. The anecdotal evidence, however, suggests a much broader saturation of Christian identity among slaves. Historians reading planters' journals, slave narratives, public speeches, and private diaries find that slaves and their owners believed Christian understanding was widespread among slaves by the middle of the antebellum period. Whatever the number, slaves often found two very different exposures to religious understanding: that of the white church and that which flowed from the syncretism of African and Anglo-American religious beliefs.

Religious instruction included a complex array of methods and ideas. Perhaps the most pertinent question about early slavery and religion is how much of African culture survived the trans-Atlantic voyage. Studies from the 1950s suggested that the transition to North America was filled with such physical and psychological trauma that few African practices were preserved, yet subsequent historians have steadily moved away from this claim. Although it may never be possible accurately to measure African cultural and religious survivals, evidence indicates that slaves perpetuated African ideas and practices into the nineteenth century.

Organized Religious Instruction

The first significant organized efforts by whites to teach slaves in the English colonies of North America were by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an organization of the Anglican Church. Chartered in 1701, the SPG worked throughout the colonies at teaching Christian ideals. The Anglican Church faced an uphill struggle in the colonies. Few ministers sought appointment to the colonies, and, outside the elite, colonials showed little enthusiasm for the state church. As Shawn Comminey notes in a 1999 article, the group focused most of its Southern effort on South Carolina. The region's dispersed population and limited urban development made the SPG's work difficult outside the Charleston area. Outreach to slaves developed slowly. The historian Robert Olwell argues that the Anglican efforts were never particularly effective. In his 1998 book, Olwell contends that slave owner resistance was mostly successful in keeping Christianity from slaves.

The Reverend Alexander Garden (c. 1686–1756) devised a plan for educating young male slaves with the hope that the system would create slave-directed plantation education throughout the region. Garden advocated literacy, writing, and even basic mathematics to support an understanding of Christianity. First opened in 1742—two years after South Carolina passed legislation outlawing instructing slaves in literacy and writing—the Charleston Negro School proved an exceptional case. Operated by the Anglican Church with declining enthusiasm and directed by Harry, one of the first slaves Garden taught, the school remained open for twenty-two years until Harry's death.

The Consequences of Religious Instruction

Although the Charleston Negro School was unusual, it reflects the growing eighteenth-century debate over what slaves should know. Fears that slaves with education and religious understanding might become too dangerous to subdue were met by concerns that not instructing slaves would end in the same result. This deep ideological and religious difference among slaveholders meant that slaves would, however gradually, learn about, embrace, and eventually transform Christianity. Other social forces contributed to the advance of slaves' religious instruction. The American Revolution brought new ideas supporting egalitarianism that, though unsuccessful at ending slavery, resonated strongly with the rise of Protestant evangelicalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Donald G. Mathews notes in a 1975 article that the rise of the evangelicals successfully made slavery a system in which slaves became "the moral charges of whites" (p. 300). Mathews studies the famous slave-owning Georgia clergyman Charles Colcock Jones (1804–1863), who believed slaves were morally deficient and religiously degraded. A lifelong crusader for the improvement of slaves through religious instruction, he addressed master and slave, the religious and the unconverted. According to Mathews, Jones "tried to arouse in Christians a sense of guilt and in non-Christians a sense of self-interest, both of which could be transformed into a universal sense of obligation" (p. 308). Jones believed slaves were not inherently inferior, but degraded by the brutality of slavery. Religious instruction would improve master-slave relations because slaves would learn masters held a deep Christian concern for their well-being. Jones hoped his message would convince the majority of unconverted slave owners that their best interests were served by the Christian church. Yet, as Mathews observes, Jones's efforts largely failed because, for whites, the social changes required to join in Christian fellowship with slaves were too extreme and, for slaves, the passive acceptance of a white understanding of the Bible was unrealistic. Nevertheless his message helped promote among proslavery advocates the importance of slaves' humanity.

If Charles Colcock Jones failed to develop a social movement for change in the South, his effort can otherwise be understood as sharing in the larger and more successful movement among Protestant evangelicals who sought to instruct slaves in Christianity. Albert J. Raboteau, in his important 1978 study of slaves and religion, contends that the Great Awakening and the rise of revivalism offered slaves new opportunities for Christian understanding. Circuit-riding Methodist itinerants reached rural plantations, camp meetings increased local church enrollments, and the general fervor surrounding revivals encouraged planters to consider their own and their slaves' religious condition. The intensely personal and emotional conversion experience replaced formal religious instruction, obviating the need for literacy. Evangelicals sought religious experience over doctrine as they recognized the freedom emanating from a priesthood of all believers. Baptists and Methodists did not require formally educated clergy, and this cleared the way for talented slave exhorters and preachers to carry a Christian message into the slave quarters, often outside the direct influence of whites.

As Eugene Genovese points out in his 1974 study of slavery, W. E. B. Du Bois estimated that one in six slaves were associated with some form of Christianity by the 1850s. In addition to the rise of evangelicalism, Genovese also contends that the threat of insurrection, including the 1831 rebellion led by Nat Turner (1800–1831), encouraged planters to understand religion as a form of social control. Genovese agrees with Raboteau that the effort fostered oral teaching and the reform of the harshest attributes in slavery. Facing the repercussions of the aborted 1822 insurrection planned by the religiously inspired Denmark Vesey (c. 1767–1822), South Carolina planters realized that "if the slaves were going to get religion, then religion had to be made safe for slaveholders" (p. 186).

Mechal Sobel is less convinced that events like Turner's rebellion increased religious instruction for slaves. In his 1979 book he writes that "black religion was in for particular trouble after the revolt" (p. 168). Whites recognized and feared the Africanized form of Christianity slaves had developed by the 1830s and worried that black preachers, revivals, and slave religious gatherings posed grave threats. Many slave preachers were beaten when caught returning from evening prayer meetings. Sobel quotes the Reverend Joseph Abrams, who reported being beaten and said, "Even I can say with Paul, I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (p. 169).

Another prominent historian of slavery, Lawrence W. Levine (1977), agrees with Genovese that the 1830s marked a significant rise in the religious education of slaves, and that by the 1850s it could be characterized as a "widespread conversion" (p. 18). Both Levine and John Blassingame (1979) emphasize Negro spirituals as evidence of Christianity's widespread acceptance among slaves. Milton Sernett (1975) gives more credit than does Mathews to Charles Colcock Jones and other religious leaders, including William Capers (1790–1855) and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825), for motivating planters.

Following the scholarly positions taken in the 1970s, the historian William Courtland Johnson, in a 1997 article, argues that the evidence for widespread change is in fact less conclusive. Johnson also emphasizes the African aspects of African American Christianity in the antebellum period and the resistance of slaves to Christian thought; he points to the lack of regular exposure to whites and their religion (white enthusiasm for which he questions) in large areas of the cotton South.

Secret Meetings

In areas where Christian ideas were present, religious instruction among slaves often took place at secret meetings. Although the evidence is typically secondhand, it is clear that even on plantations where slaves attended church they embraced the risky clandestine gatherings. Services held in secret were an important venue for the development and spread of African American Christianity. In these gatherings African religious ideas could flourish and interact with Christian ideas. Forms varied from brush arbor gatherings, shouts, spiritual possession, to gathering around bowls or overturned pots.

On the large antebellum plantations there was often a persistent struggle over separate and secret slave meetings. Orville Vernon Burton (1985) traces the twentyyear effort of James Henry Hammond to destroy slave religion outside white control. In 1831 Hammond was a new arrival to his Edgefield plantation and immediately set out to end slaves' religious night gatherings. He understood the revolutionary potential of religious instruction and railed against other planters who believed it improved slaves' obedience and general behavior. Hammond exclaimed at a Farmer's Club meeting: "No very extencive inserection can take place except through their churches" (p. 156). As Burton notes, Hammond's efforts were unsuccessful, and in the early 1850s the planter finally sanctioned four prayer meetings a week held in the slave quarters.

An Irreducible Tension

Two central questions remain: What happened during sessions of religious instruction of slaves, and did the religious understanding they gained lead them to greater accommodation of their masters or resistance against them? The efforts of Vesey and Turner demonstrate how resistance might develop out of religious ideas. But then another question arises: Why were there not many more Veseys and Turners? On the other hand, if slaves internalized ideas of accommodation, then why were planters like Hammond convinced unsupervised religious instruction was dangerous?

The historian Beth Barton Schweiger contends that the historical evidence does not support the argument by Raboteau and others that slaves gained a sense of self and liberation through their religious understanding. She cites Raboteau, David Brion Davis, Orlando Patterson, and Eugene Genovese as rejecting the notion that slaves had a choice between accommodation and resistance; instead, these scholars point to an irreducible tension between the two. Slaves learned that Christianity contained both ideas and did not necessarily embrace either one. Each slave's developing understanding of Christianity was built around this dichotomy.


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Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Comminey, Shawn. "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and Black Education in South Carolina, 1702–1764." Journal of Negro History 84, no. 4 (1999): 360-369.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

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

Johnson, William Courtland. "'A Delusive Clothing': Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Slave Community." Journal of Negro History 82, no. 3 (1997): 295-311.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Mathews, Donald G. "Charles Colcock Jones and the Southern Evangelical Crusade to Form a Biracial Community." Journal of Southern History 41, no. 3 (1975): 299-320.

Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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

Schweiger, Beth Barton. "Max Weber in Mount Airy, or, Revivals and Social Theory in the Early South." In Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

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

Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

                                   David F. Herr

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Religious Instruction

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