Perhaps the most significant message to which slaves responded enthusiastically was the Pauline epistle to the Galatians: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Protestant evangelical Christianity encompassed slaves as it developed in the late eighteenth century and the unmistakable message of personal salvation and liberty through faith was bedrock for African Americans held in bondage. Messages of freedom and deliverance were, however, in conflict with slave owners (who feared the revolutionary power in such texts) and within two generations both Methodists and Baptists, the denominations that most successfully included slaves and openly held against slavery, moderated their positions.
Nineteenth-century sermons directed to slaves certainly encompassed more than the most powerful message of freedom and those delivered by white ministers were often in keeping with ideas supporting slavery. Fearing they had too long neglected the spiritual needs of slaves in the years following Nat Turner's (1800–1831) revolt, the Virginia Baptist General Association agreed white pastors should occasionally preach sermons on the duty of masters to give religious instruction to their servants. When antebellum slave owners and white preachers spoke to slaves they often ignored cultural differences and sermons would subsequently fail to impress slave congregants. Even when the message was not focused on obedience, it lacked the complex association to other Afro-Christian practices, which had developed apart from white Christianity.
Although illiteracy encumbered many slave preachers, reading the Bible or a sermon was not an insurmountable challenge. Black preachers were known for sharp memories, powerful oration, and acute empathy for their audience. Slave preachers preached about the Bible even if they never read it. The biblical focus of African American Christianity was a principle characteristic according to historian Albert J. Raboteau (1978), writing in Slave Religion. Rather than a formal exegesis, black preachers were master storytellers. Historian David Reynolds argues black sermons were "characterized especially by vernacular dramatizations of the Bible and by secular stories about the conflict between the powerless and the powerful" (1980, pp. 479-480). Sermons were only a part of the religious message when slaves gathered away from whites and could structure their own services. Historian John Blassingame (1972) emphasized the praise meeting as a primary form of religious worship in the slave quarter. Sermons usually began quietly and with much anticipation. The preacher ordered his message to generate tension and a dramatic climax. Using cadence and gestures he kept the congregation rapt until he began a call and response that grew into singing, shouting, and emotional release. In this structure the sermon was connected to the preacher and the congregation. It was only successful if they joined in the vibrant call-and-response, affirming their acceptance of the message and its delivery. The sermon's content would typically suggest related spirituals that might develop as a ring shout. A song leader called out the verse, while shouters rhythmically walked or stomped in a circle and those outside the ring sang the chorus. The improvisational quality of the call-and-response sermon carried into the musical worship.
Sermons delivered to slaves were a primary form developing the unique qualities in black American Christianity. Constraints and control by whites, who desired obedience and submission as primary messages, did not limit black preachers who drew affirming images validating slaves' humanity. Eugene Genovese argued, in his seminal work Roll, Jordan, Roll, that the most common message counseled "acceptance of what could not be helped, of a dogged effort to keep the black community alive and healthy—a strategy of survival that like its African prototype, above all said yes to life in this world" (1974, p. 279).
Bailey, Kenneth K. "Protestantism and Afro-Americans in the Old South: Another Look." The Journal of Southern History 41, no. 4 (1975): 451-472.
Crow, Jeffrey J. "Slave Rebelliousness and Social Conflict in North Carolina, 1775 to 1802." The William and Mary Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1980): 79-102.
Crowther, Edward R. "Independent Black Baptist Congregations in Antebellum Alabama." The Journal of Negro History 72, nos. 3 and 4 (1987): 66-75.
Dickson, Bruce D. "Religion, Society, and Culture in the Old South: A Comparative View." American Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1974): 399-416.
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.
Harrison, Daniel W. "Virginia Baptists and the Negro in the Antebellum Era." The Journal of Negro History 56, no. 1 (1971): 1-16.
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Reynolds, David S. "From Doctrine to Narrative: The Rise of Pulpit Storytelling in America." American Quarterly 32, no. 5 (1980): 479-498.
David F. Herr