The Power of the Gospel: Experiences of Christian Slaves In the Antebellum South
There is no denying that America’s slaveholding past still weighs heavily on the nation’s conscience. About 388,000 Africans in total were abducted from their homes and subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage before being sold into bondage in North America. Through natural increase, the number of enslaved persons in this country reached 3.9 million on the eve of the Civil War1. Their lives were characterized by harsh labor, squalid living conditions and unspeakable violence, often at the whims of an impulsive overseer or master. It was a system that strived to strip the enslaved of their humanity and render them as property.
Historians began intensively investigating the characteristics of the daily lives of slaves only after the Civil Rights movement gained traction in the middle of the 20th century. With this increase in scholarship, new dimensions of their plight became readily apparent2. One topic that benefited greatly from this extensive research was the experiences of slaves who believed in Christianity. Historians found that a large number of slaves came to know the full picture of the faith in spite of the “gospel of submission” that southern society attempted to force on them. For many of the slaves who accepted a more historic, unmodified Christianity, their relationship with God was able to serve them powerfully in a number of ways.
Since early colonial times, there had been attempts by missionaries to convey Christianity to the enslaved Africans of North America. Most of these initial efforts proved fruitless because they focused on theology and catechisms instead of on practice and the reality that underlies a twisted world that could allow slavery at all. This focus on doctrine was quite unpopular with slaves who saw these tenets as inapplicable to their lives3. This set of circumstances changed rapidly with the coming of the Second Great Awakening which began after the American Revolution in 1790. As the fervor of political freedom spread into the nation’s religious life, American Christians started to move away from the doctrinal emphasis of older denominations like the Anglicans. They were attracted to the passionate characteristics of new evangelical protestant denominations such as the Baptists and the Methodists4. In the place of catechisms and traditional rituals, these new denominations emphasized the personal experience of conversion, a powerful emotional experience in which the revivalists taught that the Holy Spirit came upon a person, thereby giving them a desire for God and a disinclination toward sin. This form of Christianity was much more attractive to African American slaves. In fact, a historian asserted that “the revivalism of the Great Awakening, spread over time and space by evangelical preachers, created the conditions for large-scale conversion of the slaves”5.
Why Evangelical Protestantism?
One key factor in the success of slave revival was the highly emotive nature of Evangelical Protestantism. Loud outbursts of joy and other sentiments were commonly heard as an evangelical preacher gave his sermon. This made the faith more appealing to slaves because it fit much better with their African cultural heritage which included similar aspects of emotional expression during religious ceremonies6. Also, Frey and Wood observed that “no rigid format shaped revival services...and that this open format allowed for innovation and highly participatory forms of worship”7. This meant that slaves could take part in these revival services in traditional forms of African dance and song. A well-known example of such a practice can be found in the call and response spirituals that converted slaves would sing at these religious meetings.
Another characteristic of Evangelical Protestantism that contributed to its appeal with slaves was its departure from the complicated doctrine that characterized more traditional denominations. Instead, evangelical preachers encouraged members to feel the burden of their transgressions and see a clear need to turn to God in faith. This emphasis on a personal relationship with God was much easier to understand and accept for both blacks and whites in the American South. Furthermore, the increased simplicity of this evangelical message meant that the slaves who adopted the faith could communicate its content to others held in bondage more effectively. The experiences of John Thompson, a slave born in Maryland in 1812, clearly exemplify this development. He noticed that “the Methodist religion was brought among us, and preached in a manner so plain that the way faring man, though a fool, could not err therein…As soon as it got among the slaves, it spread from plantation to plantation”8.
Finally, Evangelical Protestantism’s initial belief that anyone, regardless of race or status, was able to have a powerful connection to God through a conversion experience was one of the most powerful reasons why it was successful at attracting slaves into the fold. The Gospel, the life and meaning of Jesus Christ, was seen as something that could transcend the barrier between slaves and their suppressors. Matthews notes that “at least in the early period of Evangelical expansion, blacks were thought as an integral part of the church – as fellow Christians”9. This idea was shockingly radical for the time period but it certainly did not conflict with the Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, English Standard Version). Slave owners, unfortunately, never appreciated this aspect of Evangelical Protestantism. As these new denominations matured in the 1820s and 1830s, it soon became apparent to the leaders of these organizations that they had to appeal to planters if they wanted to maintain legitimacy in southern society. Slave owners made the decision to seek after the preservation of their power and influence and embrace a type of modified Christianity that endorsed slave-owning and the prejudiced hierarchy that was already present in the antebellum South. This was a form of Christianity that slave holders and other churches had been using to subjugate slaves since the inception of slavery. It claimed that a slave’s salvation was contingent on how well they respected the wishes of their earthly ‘owner’. Despite the prevalence of such doctrine in some southern denominations, the more egalitarian, revivalist interpretations of the Bible continued to proliferate. Many of the African American Christians held in bondage who had been exposed to these interpretations chose to reject the teachings of dominion and hierarchy and hold on to what they had originally heard. They took it upon themselves to spread this evangelical message to others, to resist the justifications offered to them by their oppressors and to teach themselves more of the ideas of historic Christianity.
Access to the Word
One of the most striking ways that some enslaved Christians sought to deepen their faith was their pursuit of reading skills in an effort to better access and understand Scripture, the Bible. Slaves always knew that uninhibited access to the Bible would allow them to read what they - and Christians through the ages - saw as God’s Word without the dishonest, power-seeking influence of their oppressors. Teaching a slave to read or write was something that was explicitly outlawed in the antebellum South, so slaves took on tremendous risk when they decided to pursue these religious-oriented literary ends. As a direct result of this delicate situation, many devised creative, resourceful, and oftentimes ingenious ways to develop the capability to read:
“Sam Johnson, slave preacher on a South Carolina plantation, learned to read from his master's young son. The boy's parents had forbidden him to drink tea or coffee which he liked. Sam, who was also the butler, supplied him with both in exchange for reading and writing lessons, from which he learned enough to be able to read the Bible”10.
With this powerful skill, slaves such as Sam Johnson could now take it upon themselves to spread the information that they were able to discover on the pages of the Bible.
One of the main ways Christian slaves spread information about the Bible was through slave spirituals. These were songs that blended the traditions of their African cultural heritage with the hymns that they sang in churches. The content of these songs strove to put the ideas of the Christian faith in terms of their own experiences in bondage. Accordingly, this enabled many slaves to powerfully resonate with the Scripture and to learn it despite their inability to read. In fact, Raboteau notes that these spirituals were where “the characters, themes, and lessons of the Bible became dramatically real and took on special meaning for the slaves”11. This ability to foster such a strong emotional and intellectual connection with Scripture was what made these spirituals such an effective tool in spreading the Gospel and the tenets of Christianity throughout the slave community.
Slave preachers were another important factor in the spread of Christianity among slaves and the nurture of their faiths after conversion. Most were not official ministers, as laws in southern states prevented them from holding such titles. Still, slaves that felt called into such a role took it upon themselves to guide the Christians held in bondage around them. They would hold prayer meetings and often share the Bible in casual meetings with their fellow slaves. These preachers would deliver passionate sermons which were well known throughout the North and South in antebellum times. Blassingame describes the common elements of such messages as “vivid phrase, folk poetry and picturesque words”12. The content of these sermons normally dealt with a wide variety of topics from the Gospel to God’s promises of comfort and provision. Importantly, most of the activities that the slave preacher presided over were done in secret. This allowed both the enslaved minister and the slaves in attendance to speak of their faith without the restraints that southern society worked to impose on them.
In addition to spiritual leadership, slave preachers played numerous other roles in their communities. They occupied a unique position where they both called on their fellow slaves to follow Christ and also endured the unspeakable hardships of slavery like the rest of their flock. This allowed them to effectively empathize with their fellow slaves and meet various other needs in their local communities. Blassingame illustrates this point with his research that found slave preachers were “able to unify the blacks, console the sick, weak, and fearful, uplift and inspire them…and was accepted as a counsellor and arbiter in the quarters”13. By acting in these different capacities, slave ministers were often influential leaders who played a key role in diffusing conflict between slaves and organizing subtle acts of resistance against their captors.
Holding on to Humanity
For bondsmen who professed their faith, the role of Christianity in their lives went far beyond information they spread against the will of their masters or a tool to help them organize their communities. It also interacted with them on a deeply personal level. One of the main tenets of Evangelical Protestantism spoke of striving to cultivate a meaningful relationship with God in a person’s daily life. This was a powerful revelation for slaves of the faith because to them it meant their heavenly, transcendent Lord and Savior was with them in the midst of the toil and cruelty that characterized their existence. He was their confidant with whom they could share the torrent of emotions in their lives. The historian Blassingame elaborates on this practice: “They poured out their troubles to Him and saw visions of Him. He was the great Comforter. Isaac Mason [a slave] found in times of affliction ‘that by turning my heart toward God, He would take care of me and provide for my wants’”14. For Christian slaves, encounters such as these powerfully embodied Biblical assurances that Christians had used for centuries, like the one found in the Old Testament prayer book, Psalms, that says “You [God] are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word” (Psalm 119:114). The great emotional burden that Christianity helped displace in their lives allowed for slaves to recapture one aspect of the humanity that the system of slavery labored so passionately to remove completely.
The notion and the experience of sharing such a significant connection with the God of the universe meant that Christian slaves were also able to find affirmation in another facet of their identity that their captors sought to destroy - their self-worth. Throughout their lives, slaves were seen as mere property. They could be mortgaged like a house or sold away from their family on the whim of their master. In contrast, Christianity offered a completely different message to them as exemplified by the words of the apostle John: “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1). This notion that they were treasured by God like children empowered them. Matthews explains that Christianity provided for the slaves who believed by “establishing a claim upon the oppressor for recognition of the slaves’ dignity as human beings, enhance their self-esteem, order their daily lives in an ultimately meaningful way, and create a special identification with the Supreme Being and His Mediator”15. The ability of the faith to speak against the false identities that planters pushed on them and to create personal significance highlights just how powerful Christianity was to the Christian slaves.
The subversion of the slave’s identity as property was one of the main reasons slaveholders detested the spread of Christianity to their slaves. This desire of the planters, when combined with the other tenets of the faith, empowered slaves to defy their masters. That is also why some slave owners considered a slave as ‘ruined’ after he or she was exposed to the Gospel. But the faith of many slaves gave them confidence to assert what they knew to be right. Since the faith that they had was purely between them and God, it represented a portion of their lives in which their masters had no purview. If the owner’s will conflicted with God’s, Christian slaves had the opportunity to not only disobey their masters, but to also do so with the authority of their Creator. One of the main areas of daily life in which these acts of subversion often emerged was the insistence of many Christian slaves to simply practice their faith. For instance,
“when Thomas Jones, for example, grew concerned about the state of his soul, his master told him to stop moping about, forbade him to attend prayer meetings, and ordered him to stop praying. In spite of repeated and severe whippings, Jones persisted in attending Methodist class meetings and refused to promise that he would abandon prayer”16.
These small pieces of autonomy, albeit even in and through severe abuse, helped Christian slaves to assert that their earthly master didn’t have the authority he claimed to have. Even more powerfully, their willingness to endure punishment showed that their masters could only impact their physical bodies and could not strip them of their devotion to God. Moments like these allowed slaves to affirm their humanity and resist the notion that any slave owner could completely control his ‘property’.
Of course, these realities can only be claimed for those slaves who fully came to the Christian faith. The conditions on each plantation throughout the antebellum era varied dramatically and slaves who lived on the same estate did not all believe the same thing. Many slaves chose to hold on to the religions of their African heritage or practiced a synthesized religion that incorporated these African faiths with a few tenets of Christianity. Other slaves were Muslims or had no religion. Also, not every plantation or slave community was able to find access to the Bible or the guidance of a slave pastor. Accordingly, this meant some slaves were held under the owners’ “gospel of submission”. Tragically, any of the organized church denominations in the South were completely complicit in these developments. The harm done by these churches and individuals claiming to be Christian can be covered only by something as grand and as powerful as the hope of what many slaves chose to believe in, a triumphant God and Father who ultimately has the last word.
These failings of the church, though, should not diminish how the historic, biblically-focused Christian faith was able to meaningfully impact the lives of slaves in antebellum America against all odds. The inception of Evangelical Protestantism brought slaves the idea that God saw no difference between them and the whites around them. Their drive to read the Bible for themselves and the spirituals they composed allowed them to easily disseminate the faith across different plantations. The “invisible institution” - as historians have referred to slave religion for years – was able to foster organization in the slave community through enslaved spiritual leaders and the secret religious meetings they held. Having a personal relationship with an almighty God enabled many Christian slaves to find comfort and significance in their daily lives. Their faith inspired them to confront the notion that they were subhuman and to speak against the very people who attempted to posit this ghastly idea. This spirit of defiance in the face of injustice would continue to characterize the experience of African American Christians, even after the Civil War destroyed the institution of slavery. The remaining remnants of the institution, of course, regrettably continue to persist in American society. But as in the antebellum South, the same hope that the slaves held onto so dearly remains and daily brings light to dark places in our own time.
1. Gates Jr., H. L. (2014). Slavery, by the Numbers. The Root. 2. Hornsby Jr., A. (2004). Companion to African American History. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing. 3. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 4. Frey, S. R., & Wood, B. (1998). Come shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 5. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 6. ibid. 7. Frey, S. R., & Wood, B. (1998). Come shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 8. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 9. Matthews, D. G., (1977). Religion in the Old South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 10. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave Religion: 'The Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
11. ibid. 12. Blassingame, J. W., (1979). The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press. 13. ibid. 14. ibid. 15. Matthews, D. G., (1977). Religion in the Old South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 16. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave Religion: 'The Invisible Institution'; in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press.