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AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum

Religion of the Slaves

Taken from another listserv.

The Religion of the Slaves

By Prof. Terry Matthews. Adjunct Asst. Professor. Wake Forest University

A Review

As we have already seen, the shifting of attitudes towards slavery resulted in profound changes in Southern society in general, and in religious circles in particular. In the 1780's, Methodists--who represent a standard example--had formulated strong rules against slavery, and slaveholders. Slavery was deemed to be "contrary to the laws of God, man and nature, and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion." Indeed, by 1784 Methodists were so bold as to say that they "promised to excommunicate all Methodists not freeing their slaves within two years." By 1820, however, the Methodist church in the South was increasingly at one with its culture on the issue of race, and was advocating a "Mission to the Slaves."

As the conflict over slavery heated up, and as news of the Vesey conspiracy broke in 1822, and word spread about the rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831, a great fear enveloped whites. Afraid for their lives, their investments, the civil peace, and the preservation of the South's way of life, whites demanded--and their state legislatures passed--laws curtailing the rights of African-Americans to assemble, to worship, to become literate, and to do much more, except under strictly controlled circumstances. At the same time, this fear and anxiety was producing an outpouring of concern to make Christians of the slaves in the hope that they might learn to turn the other cheek, and to accept their lot in life.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Christianity had made little or no in-roads among blacks for fear that they might take literally such narratives as the Exodus. But as this "crisis of fear" spread across the South, suddenly rather impressive efforts were made to address the "needs" of the souls of black folk. These were well organized evangelistic endeavors, particularly in those areas with large plantations. Congregations stepped up their appeals, and refined their approaches to African-Americans. Preachers and planters alike urged them to fill the gallerys, and special seating that was set aside for these honored guests. Some owners were even motivated to build "praise houses" on their land, and recruited black preachers to proclaim the Lord's name (as long--of course--as a white foreman was present to monitor things so that they did not get out of hand). Large slaveholders like the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones worked to comprise a Christian primer for slaves to instill teachings that were designed as a response to the portents of revolution, and to serve as preventive measures to any insurrection.

I do not mean to suggest that the whole effort to evangelize the slaves was motivated by a concern for safety. Certainly, there were numbers of whites who cared about blacks, both as persons possessing immortal souls, and as friends with names. Many others saw the mission to the slaves as an unfolding of God's divine plan and these early evangelistic efforts as the first step in a long process that would eventually lead to the converting of the heathen of the dark continent. But there were many others who sought to pacify and comfort the slaves, to make them more dutiful and servile, and to defer any gratification they might have longed for in this life to the next. In other words, the motives of White Southerners were decidedly mixed. Often there was a genuine recognition of the human needs of African Americans, but rare was the time when members of the "Ruling Race" would overlook the unique caste and economic status of black people.

It would be difficult to determine whose religion--that of African-Americans or that of whites--was more profoundly affected by this preoccupation with racial matters during the antebellum period. On the surface, it would appear that the religion of black people was. But the reality is that both were profoundly affected. Very little of what the white church attempted and accomplished from 1830 to the Civil War, remained free of racial and interracial considerations.

The Religious Life of the Slaves

By the standards of the early nineteenth century, African-Americans were said to be "a wretched stock of heathen, in utter darkness of a loathsome pagan idolatry." Various plantation owners expressed the concern that "the superstitions brought from Africa have not been wholly laid aside." Witchcraft, alleged superstitions, and fetishist practices were often cited as evidence that the plantation slave refused to abandon African paganism for American Christianity.

There certainly may have been an element of truth to these observations about the persistence of African-American spirituality in the face of efforts of whites to erase it. The Ashanti had a folk saying that "No one shows a child the Supreme Being." Although the African's world was populated by a plurality of powers, including the forces of nature and a legion of magical spirits, most tribes believed in a Supreme Being who was viewed as a creator, giver of rain, and sunshine, the all-seeing one, the one who exists by himself. Moreover traditional African religion made no distinction between the sacred and secular. All of life--not part--was sacred. Nor was there any sense of a division between this life and the one to come. All of life was part of a continuum in which both the living and dead took part. Long before their contact with whites, Africans were a strongly religious, and deeply spiritual people.

The African beliefs in one Supreme Being, in a realistic distinction between good and evil, in lesser spiritual powers, and in creation as the handiwork of God, paralleled much in the Hebraic background of Christianity. These similarities lessened the cultural shock as the African came into contact with the tenets of White Evangelicalism. But on occasion there was conflict. A white Methodist reported an aged Negro--to whom he had been trying to explain the dogma of the Trinity--once asked which of the three "was the head man to which he should go when asking for anything."

During the early history of slavery, the Africanisms that were retained in African American spirituality were often seen to be (by whites) a pagan faith. These rituals and dogmas were variously described as Voodoo, Hoodoo, Witchcraft, and superstitions, and were particularly prominent among the Gullah speakers of South Carolina. Whites often commented on these "pagan practices," and fetishes, and were threatened by them. As a result, great effort was expended on eradicating these practices, and many were lost within a generation.

The degree to which whites were successful in this, however, is the subject of great debate. Melville J. Herskovits has advanced the thesis that the success of Baptists in attracting blacks was rooted in the appeal of immersion which suggests a connection in the slaves' mind with the river spirits in West African religions. Others have attacked this position including, the black scholar E. Franklin Frazier who argues that enslavement largely destroyed the social basis of religion among blacks, and that the appeal of Baptists to blacks concerns the emotional content of their worship. Stanley Elkins (whose views were heavily influenced by what took place in the concentration camps of World War II Europe), has argued--like Frazier--that slavery was so demeaning that blacks (like the Jews in the camps) were eventually stripped of every shred of dignity and humanity, including their faith. John Blassingame, on the other hand, has provided a significant body of evidence that blacks hung on to their religion as a form of resistence.

What is clear is that African-Americans were fairly quick to abopt the prevailing evangelical culture. Denominations such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians which stressed order did not attract the slaves. Most African-Americans instead gravitated to the emotionalism of the Methodists and Baptists. Indeed, in a number of ways the religion of the South's black population shared much more in common with the Evangelical Protestantism of the region's whites than it diverged from it. After all, it was the evangelicals among Southern whites who were motivated to bring the slaves to the Christians faith. These evangelicals imparted to the black church many of their forms and practices. (You may recall that earlier in the semester I argued that the black church preserves intact several forms of expression that characterized white evangelicals in the nineteenth century.)

But blacks also bequeathed something back to the evangelical tradition. There is fair body of evidence that suggests some whites copied certain practices of black worshippers. Shouting in worship, for example, was one such borrowing. Many blacks looked down on whites who shouted in worship being poor copies of themselves, or in the parlance of our day, as "wanna-be's." The call and response pattern also appears to be derived from the African heritage.

Even though Black evangelicalism shared much in common with its white counterpart, when African-Americans held their own services, whether approved and overseen by whites or held clandestinely ("stealing away to Jesus"), they added their own flourishes and unique styles to the white religious legacy. In so doing, they created an "invisible institution," a church that was their own. Because Black evangelicalism was not identical to its white counterpart, the points of difference between the two tell us a great deal about the religious world of the slave.

One of these differences was the expressiveness of spirit that came to characterize black religion. While it is true that White Methodists and Baptists were also expressive, as the Reverend Henry Mitchell suggests in Geneovese's book, "the whites were fiery mad, while the blacks were fiery glad." For Black Christians, the message was presented unvarnished and the response was uninhibited. Such bad news as one's eternal damnation called for a groaning and bewailing befitting one's anguish and sorrow. Such good news as God's gracious offer of forgiveness through the love of Christ's sacrificial death was received with shouts of joy and praise for blessed release. This expressiveness meant that most blacks felt inhibited in white churches, even though many were seen at the altar along with whites.

Most African-Americans found their spiritual needs were best met in secret. They would gather in "hush arbors" and "praying grounds." A pot would be turned over to hold in the noise, and in the safety of the wee hours or a secluded location, they could express themselves freely, and interpret their faith as they saw fit.

As Black Christians had the opportunity to develop their own styles of preaching and singing they did so. The preacher may have been unlettered, but his preaching was far from theologically illiterate. He knew all he needed to know--the biblical message of salvation--and a rich intimate awareness of the Savior who lived in the believer's heart. Slaves were highly critical--in these settings--of white preaching that tried to keep them in their place. They saw sermons on stealing--for instance--as self-serving in that it tended to hide a greater evil. It was alright to steal a ham--they reasoned--if it was needed to feed one's family. This theology is reflected in a song sung by the slaves:

We raise de wheat,
Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,
De gib us de crust;

We sif de meal,
Dey gib us de huss;

We peal de meat,
Dey gib us de skin;

And dat's de way
Dey take us in;

We skim de pot,
Dey gib us de liguor,

And say dat's good enough for n*gg*r."

Such theologizing helped them to develop what today might be referred to as a situational ethic.

John Jasper and Black Worship

Interestingly, given the increasing racial proscription in the mid-1800's, Many Black preachers developed a significant following across the South among both whites and blacks. John Jasper of Virginia was one such man. Slaves would defer funeral ceremonies for as long as necessary to bring him to the plantation for the service. And Jasper was equally popular among whites. During the Civil War, Jasper won a warm response from the Confederate wounded to whom he preached and offered solace.

On the surface, Jasper's preaching sounded unlettered, but his message was informed with a profound theology. His most famous sermon was entitled "De Sun DO Move' an De Earth Am Square." He gave this sermon hundreds of times to both whites and blacks, who listened to it, but the message his listeners heard was dependent on their race.

Jasper had heard that some heretics were misleading his people into believing that the earth moved around a stationary sun, and so he choose to respond to this new scientific understanding. When he arose to speak many of Richmond's most fashionable whites and the countryside's poorest slaves had flocked to hear him. Jasper went on to proclaim that "Joshuar tell de sun ter stand' still till he could finish whippin de enemy an de sun was travellin' long dar thew de sky when it stops for Joshuar. It stopt fer business an' it went on when it got thew." The whites had come for their own amusement, and many left laughing at what they considered to be Jasper's childish ignorance.

But they missed the power of what Jasper was saying. Although he sounded illiterate to them, this man was fully capable of perfect English. Using (for want of a better term) Black English, he was putting forward the proposition that God could intervene to alter the natural order. And what was slavery according to whites? It was part of the natural order of things. In their own hearing, Jasper was proclaiming that "the God of Joshuar" could and would intervene to save his people. He was putting forward a damnning critique of their position although few if any of the whites who heard him recognized it. But slaves did not miss the point.

Other revolutionary themes were also implicit in the preaching of men like Jasper, themes that were very clear to Blacks, but opaque to whites. When the Bible taught that Jesus came to die for everyone, African-Americans knew that meant them as well. The story of Adam and Eve and as it was told by Black Preachers, had Adam becoming so frightened by his sin that he turned white.

Nor did Blacks accept the pro-slavery argument that their condition was a result of a curse for the sin of Ham. Yes, the conditions in which they lived were evil. But they did not see themselves as being evil. (This rejection of Original Sin probably reflects a survival in that West African religions tended to be life-affirming rather than guilt inducing.)

The spiritual music composed and sung by African-Americans was as direct, heartfelt, and expressive as Black Preaching. Such African-American hymns as "Swing low, Sweet Chariot" conveys a message that few whites heard: a fundamental equality of persons. God welcomes both whites and blacks to the skies.

Some Concluding Observations

African-American religion dealt with life as blacks lived it. It was about pain and sorrow, sin and shortcoming, pardon and joy, praise and thanksgiving, grace and hope. This version of Evangelicalism provided a wonderful benefit; it was able to accomplish great things in their lives that were frequently shouted about.

Evangelicalism took root among African-Americans. Large numbers underwent conversion, baptism, instruction, worship, and lived the life of Christian even in face of oppression. Although, the development of their own religious institutions would await Emancipation and the war's end, there were many thousands of Negro Baptists and Methodists by 1850.

In some ways, church life proved to be more important than family life, (which says something about the impact of slavery on African-American family life as much as does about the power of religion and spirituality in the lives of African-Americans). That is significant, because in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the impact of Christianity on the Southern black population had been extremely small. Indeed, the religion of modern blacks, represents a relatively modern development that dates back to the last several decades before slavery was brought to an end.

Peace, blessings, favor and grace, Alta

"I have learned that no one can experience true love, or a joyful presence, or create an optimal future until one makes peace with one's past. Genealogy heals the soul!"


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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