Slaveholder Opposition to the Practice of Religion

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Slaveholder Opposition to the Practice of Religion

Antebellum South Carolina planter and large slaveholder Whitemarsh Seabrook (1793–1855) declared masters with an inclination to use literacy to instruct their slaves in religion belonged in an insane asylum (Genovese 1974). A former slave responding to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewer about religious opportunity said, "Us niggers never have a chance to go to Sunday school and church. The white folks feared for us to get any religion and education" (Yetman 1970, p. 37). Frederick Law Olmsted's (1822–1903) famous travel account includes his statement that religious instruction varied, but often he encountered slaveholders who possessed "an avowed distrust of the effect of religious exercises upon slaves" (Olmsted 2001, p. 213). Others including Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) and Charles Colcock Jones (1804–1863) strongly advocated a Christian mission to slaves. The debate among slaveholders was never resolved.

Early in the development of American slavery there is no significant evidence of religious outreach to slaves by North American colonists. After almost a century, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an organization of the Anglican church chartered in 1701, tried to reverse this. Focused most keenly in South Carolina, the results were poor. Dr. Francis Le Jau (1665–1717) found slaveholder resistance to SPG efforts so strong he required slaves seeking conversion to promise that they understood baptism would neither free them nor lessen their obligations (Raboteau 1978, p. 123). Eighteenth-century opposition focused on the likelihood that Christian slaves would prove unruly because they would expect the equality of all people. Advocates worked diligently arguing there was a strong distinction between temporal and spiritual equality.

More pervasive than efforts to resist converting slaves was enormous indifference to their religious condition. The slave-holding South was predominantly rural with a poor infrastructure. There were insufficient clergy for all religious efforts and the Church of England was unpopular among backcountry colonists. Parishes were enormous and travel was arduous. English clergy were at best unenthusiastic about their appointments to this rough-and-tumble environment. The problem of converting slaves was further exacerbated by Anglican clergy's insistence that the process be an education. Slaveholders were particularly opposed to such efforts and even when they consented, the process was exceedingly time-consuming.

The Great Awakening during mid-century greatly expanded outreach to slaves through Baptists and Methodists who emphasized a call for all people regardless of status and conversion over religious instruction. The inclusion of slaves was only part of a dramatic shift in denominational focus. Preachers moved away from rigorous teaching and strict liturgy. The focus on a personal conversion experience, often expressed in physical and emotional displays, was disruptive to all the Protestant denominations. Multitudes might join in the revivals and emotional meetings of these denominations. Church officials fretted over the sincerity of converts, the overt forms of conversion, and their own inability to control new expressions of religious fervor. Most problematic for slaveholders was early evangelical opposition to slavery, particularly among Methodists. Thomas Coke (1747–1814), Francis Asbury (1745–1816), and John Wesley (1703–1791) all opposed the institution.

Evangelical conviction against slavery proved less strident than slaveholders' insistence that religion conform to the institution's needs. By the time of the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, the evangelical Protestants were preaching the benefits of religion as a means of improving slavery for masters and slaves. In the same period was the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and much closer to home, Gabriel Prosser's (1776–1800) religiously inspired insurrection attempt. Many slaveholders determined that they ought to shape any religion slaves might receive to limit its dangerous potential. Others argued just as adamantly that slaves should be removed from religious exposure because of its potential to foment rebellion.

In the first thirty years of the nineteenth century there were more concentrated efforts to convert slaves. Mission work to plantations became a significant part of Protestant clergy's focus and slaveholders increasingly faced inquiries as to the religious state of their bondpeople. It is also true that many more slaveholders were themselves converting to some form of Protestantism. Evangelicals had moved from the fringes of southern life to the mainstream and were finding more wealthy elite planters in their congregations. In this environment many who would prefer slaves have no religious access, often sought a middle ground. As noted earlier, White-marsh Seabrook was such a person. In his 1834 address to the Agricultural Society of St. John's Colleton, he struck a cautionary chord. Missionaries should divest themselves of the approach to slaves that implies any equality between black and white people, Seabrook argued. Slaves need only understand those parts of the Bible supporting their obedience and submission. They might also learn what was necessary for salvation. Seabrook wanted the eradication of black preachers who were, he believed, "instruments of positive evils to society." He was most forceful against any effort that might "level" the social space between slave and free people (Raboteau 1978, pp. 169-170).

Slaves, however, did not only receive religion from organized outreach. By the late antebellum period, slave religion was a mixture of Anglo-European Christianity and a variety of African religions. The proportions and solubility of the parts remains a matter of debate, but it is clear religion was entrenched in the slave quarter. In the time and space outside white control slaves met and celebrated a life-affirming spirituality that would emerge as Afro-Christianity after the Civil War (1861–1865). Owners who opposed these practices were frustrated by their lack of understanding and by slaves' persistence. One former slave reported, "The white folks would come in when the colored people would have a prayer meeting, and whip every one of them" (Raboteau 1978, p. 214). Even when owners supported church attendance, slaves sought their own secret meeting space. This resistance certainly added anxiety for slaveholders who opposed slave religion.

During the late antebellum period slaveholders who opposed slaves' participation in religion must have felt their side was in decline. Even if they managed to keep their own slaves removed from organized religion, it was quite likely that unless their plantation was in a heavily black region such as coastal South Carolina and Georgia, their slaves likely had exposure to Protestant Christianity.


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                                        David F. Herr

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Slaveholder Opposition to the Practice of Religion

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