Slaveholder Controlled Practice of Religion

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Slaveholder Controlled Practice of Religion

During the first half of the nineteenth century Protestant evangelicals enjoyed increasing popularity through their open call and emphasis on conviction over theology. Their efforts in rural regions where slavery flourished renewed consideration of a Christian mission to slaves. Slaveholders never resolved their debate about Christianizing slaves, but throughout the nineteenth century more slaves identified in some way with Christianity. In the contested terrain where a religion based on freedom was only possible if it upheld slaves' perpetual bondage, the question became how well slaveholders might control it.

Colonists paid little attention to slaves' religion in the first 200 years of slavery in America. The most significant effort was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an organization of the Anglican Church, chartered in 1701. The task was large and the ranks of committed clergy thin. The SPG project was roundly unpopular. English priests judged the difficult living in the colonies undesirable, the colonists did not welcome the missionary effort, and slaves themselves were unenthusiastic.

Perhaps the people initially most able to generate slave interest in Christianity were their owners and evidence shows before the 1830s that most remained indifferent or opposed to bringing any religion to slaves. Many colonial planters incorrectly believed British law required the emancipation of Christian slaves. Historian Albert Raboteau (1978) found that six colonial legislatures passed statements explicitly rejecting the idea in an effort to dislodge the misunderstanding. Some slaveholders feared Christianity because it was based on individual freedom and self-direction. Such tenets were inimical to slavery. There was also the belief among many Protestants that reading the Bible was necessary for the faithful. Few slaveholders would provide their chattel such a powerful and potentially dangerous ability. South Carolina planter Whitemarsh Seabrook (1793–1855) claimed that any owner willing to teach their slaves to read belonged in an asylum (Genovese 1974).

Efforts involving slaves in Protestant evangelical churches nevertheless persisted and grew during the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. Historians still contest the intensity and breadth of this revival period and it is likely that slaves' exposure varied, but slave conversions grew. Part of this increase came from Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian officials moving away from their late eighteenth-century opposition to slavery. Their revised message was a religious imperative to care for slaves. Another change was the belief by some slaveholders that religion was useful for social control. The slave revolution in Haiti during the 1790s, Gabriel Prosser's (1776–1800) 1800 revolt, Denmark Vesey's (1767–1822) attempted slave insurrection in 1822, and Nat Turner's (1800–1831) attempt almost ten years later were morbid reminders of possible violent resistance. Vesey claimed a Christian God directed his efforts. It was evident slaveholders needed religion supporting slavery.

Slaveholders were not likely to have believed they could exert ideological hegemony through religion, but they probably underestimated the extent to which slaves would develop their unique Afro-infused Christianity. Christopher Morris, writing in The Journal of American History, observes, "Slaves were perhaps Christian enough to satisfy owners that they saw matters their way, but they remained African in their beliefs enough to maintain a distinct point of view" (1998, p. 1004). Historian William Courtland Johnson argues more stringently than Morris that slaves, "even within white presence … were often able to observe enduring African religious traditions by masking them under the guise of Christian worship" (1997, p. 304). The extent to which slave religion was African, Christian, or a syncretism of many forms remains open, although most historians tend to accept slaves developed a special form of Christianity.

As the Protestant denominations accommodated slavery, they made their mission efforts to plantations palatable. Eugene Genovese (1974) argues the resistance was strongest on the east coast. Slaveholders in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi offered little opposition to denominational outreach in the slave quarters. While efforts to develop and control slave religion were not uniform, one can conclude there were increasing numbers of slaveholders who were themselves becoming religious by the late antebellum period. How well the slaveholders shaped slave religion is difficult to determine. Genovese described the efforts as the "progress of slaveholder sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the slaves" (1974, p. 186). As early as 1829 the extremely powerful and wealthy South Carolina planter Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) supported religious instruction for slaves as long as the message emphasized obedience. Pinckney may have been exceptional for the 1830s, but within twenty years it appears many more slaveholders decided religion was appropriate for slaves.

The obligation of southern Christians was, by the late antebellum period, to shoulder the duty of instructing slaves. Certainly some slaveholders who were themselves devout dedicated time to the religious condition of their slaves, but most efforts came from the clergy. Slaves attending white churches were mostly in urban centers. Plantation slaves in the rural South were reliant on organized religion entering their world. The plantation missionary effort was a primary means for this. Itinerant preachers and missionaries had to secure permission from slaveholders, establish a place for worship, and follow whatever conditions owners demanded. Preaching and ministering was made difficult without written materials and ministers worked to have slaves memorize catechisms and songs (Sernett 1975). In this manner many large plantations began to regularly expose slaves to Anglo-European forms of organized Christianity.

Religion for slaves as understood by slaveholders was a new support for the institution. Under proper control, with the right preacher, Christianity bolstered slavery by encouraging good behavior and safely occupying time outside labor. Slaveholders insured the primary message was Saint Paul's (d. between 62 and 68 ce) instruction for servants to obey their masters. While this was likely the content of many sermons to slaves, it is also evident preachers encouraged forgiveness, agape love, and dependence on God (Northup 1853). Slaveholders, however much they sought to shape a political message of obedience, would only ever partially succeed.


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

Johnson, William Courtland. "'A Delusive Clothing': Christian Conversion in the Antebellum Slave Community." The Journal of Negro History (1997): 295-311.

Mathews, Donald G. "Charles Colcock Jones and the Southern Evangelical Crusade to Form a Biracial Community." Journal of Southern History (1975): 299-320.

Morris, Christopher. "The Articulation of Two Worlds: The Master-Slave Relationship Reconsidered." The Journal of American History (1998): 982-1007.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.

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

Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth. An Address Delivered in Charleston before the Agricultural Society of South Carolina at Its Anniversary Meeting. Charleston, SC: A.E. Miller, 1829.

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

Sernett, Milton C. Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865. Metuchen, NJ: The 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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Slaveholder Controlled Practice of Religion

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