Slavery and Religion in the Antebellum South

By Iulia O. Basu-Zharku
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

For many decades, scholars have debated the importance of in helping slaves cope with the horrible experience of in the antebellum South. However, the way they treated the subject differs and the conclusions they reached are varied. From the early 1920s through the 1960s, the accent was put on the variety of religious traditions and rituals of the antebellum Southern slaves, but without them receiving the credit for these traditions, which were considered as being adaptations of European beliefs and rituals. Later on, in the 1970s and 1980s these traditions are considered as actually having been weak among the Southern slaves, replaced by , which, however, was adapted by the slaves according to their needs. In the 1990s and 2000s, the subject of slavery and religion is much more specific: for example, scholars focus on the role religion played in helping slave women cope with slavery, or the role religion played in helping elderly slave women cope with the “peculiar institution.” Nonetheless, whether the scholars’ bias is more or less pronounced, the truth about the role of religion in helping slaves cope with their hardships is evident: religion gave slaves a sense of personhood, dignity and power that they were otherwise denied in their lives, a way of showing the world their humanity and a way of resisting the gruesome experience of slavery.

African American Slaves after the Civil War
African American slaves photographed after the Civil War

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Newbell N. Puckett was the major name in researching religion and slavery. He affirmed that most African-American religious beliefs were borrowed from European Americans.i Slave women were especially prone to this influence, since they were working in the houses of their masters, and passed on this knowledge to their children,ii which perpetuated the European beliefs in the slave population at large. Such beliefs as the superstitions related to death (e.g., “do not count carriages in a funeral procession”),iii most positive control signs (e.g., finding lost things by various meansiv, divining your future matev), or prophetic signs and omens (e.g., black cats are bad signsvi) are European in origin, according to Puckett. In addition, in his view, blacks emulated white in general, adopting Christianity but keeping the African tendency of concentrating on the relationship between man and God, with no heavy accent on morality. Thus, he contended, cursing, drinking, adultery, theft, and lying were not considered big sins by most slaves.vii However, Puckett contended that Voodoo and conjuration might be of African origin, but even in this case some beliefs were probably coming from European sources.viii

Although Puckett exhibits a very Euro-centric and racist bias in his pages, there are, in his writing, hints of how slaves used religion to resist slavery. Some examples include hoodoo doctors giving charms to run away,ix root chewingx or walking backwards and throwing dirt over the left shoulder to avoid whipping,xi and bewitching the master’s wife to feel the whipping.xii He also contended that black churches had their own traits: the music, songs, and the spontaneous dance-rhythm.xiii Moreover, learning the bible by singing (because slaves were not taught to read or write), and singing spirituals to let fellow slaves know of a religious meeting at nightxiv were also noted by Puckett as traits of the slaves’ agency.

In the 1970s, the focus changed, as Albert Raboteau’s analysis of slave religion demonstrates. The ways in which slaves adapted Christianity to their own needs is emphasized, and the slaves’ agency becomes more pronounced. Thus, slaves accepted Christianity not because their masters imposed it on them, but because it was a trend in Africa, from where they had come, and some refused to adopt it because in Africa they had adopted .xv Also, Christianity was adapted and in some cases converged with African beliefs.xvi One example would be the religious dancing and shouting, which originated in the African spirit possessions but now represented Christian ecstatic experiences.xvii In addition, religion compensated for the hard life of slavery and helped in the resistance of slaves to it.xviii The latter example stands for resistance as well, since it empowered slaves to ask for the back-rails on seats to be removed so that they could pray.xix Their prayers were also symbols of resistance (e.g., they prayed for freedom, they prayed even when they were forbidden to, and they refused to pray for the Confederacy, when their masters ordered them to),xx and spirituals were shouted, dramatized, giving slaves strength, meaning and hope.xxi Despite the white ministers’ trying to label these traditions as sins, African-Americans kept them alive.xxii Moreover, slaves accused their masters through other whites, formed Christian fellowships, organized their own churches (African Baptist Churches),xxiii and had their own black preachers, who obtained the license to preach and were very eloquent, thus proving the abilities of blacks.xxiv These considerations of Raboteau are not Euro-centric anymore and focus on the slaves’ agency-something that was denied to them in most of Puckett’s pages.

This trend of focusing on the slaves’ agency continued in the next decade. In a collection of essays, Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, the focus is on the slave communities’ adaptation of Christianity. Illustrative to this were the biracial churches, in which slaves could not only show their humanity but also carve out their own space, in response to the segregation policies. Thus, slaves and masters were recorded separated or together, according to the whims of the church clerk, sometimes they were baptized together ,xxv the death of slaves was faithfully recorded, and baptisms and licensing of black preachers gave them a positive sense of self.xxvi Nonetheless, because some churches did not allow slaves to attend unless they had their master’s permission, slaves had to stay in separate pews or galleries, and were not always extended the right hand of fellowship or even called “Brother” or “Sister,” slaves built their own community and Christian fellowships, by worshipping in their quarters, at night, and praying for freedom.xxvii Moreover, independent Protestant Black churches arose from the dissatisfaction of slaves and free Blacks with the white community and preachers (e.g., preaching about servants having to be obedient, but masters still maltreated them). This also offered slaves an opportunity to exert leadership and develop their ministry skills, although many times black churches were under white supervision and representation (e.g., the Poindexter code required a white preacher or two whites to attend any Black church and by the 1830s no free or slave black could preach).xxviii

Other forms of resistance to the control of slave-owners were related to religion, as well. Many slaves converted to another denomination than their masters urged them to (e.g., becoming Baptist instead of Methodist, singing Methodist hymns instead of practicing Catholicism)xxix or because of the inadequate conditions of worship, especially in the case of Catholicism (e.g., foreign-born priests, understaffed churches, priests breaking the silence of confession, and having to take communion after whites and free blacks).xxx Moreover, slaves took Catholicism and adapted it through syncretism with African religious traditions (e.g., using candles, feast days, burial customs etc. in their rituals and upheld the image of the healing, exorcist priest). xxxi However, even when they did stay in the faith, slaves found ways of resisting the slave-owner’s control: in the case of Catholicism, they complained to the superiors of Jesuit priests who maltreated them, and sought top have their marriages blessed to force their masters to preserve the union and recognize their humanity.xxxii

 If up until now, slaves are shown as being imitators of the European culture of their masters, and then shown as agents of their religious life and as resisting the terrible institution of slavery through religion, the 1990s see the start of a gendered approach to slave religion. Patricia Morton focused on slave women, their common images of Jezebels and Mammys, their lack of protection in front of hard labor, and their lack of being respected as women and mothers. Being one of the first Methodists, slave women found meaning and hope in religion in times of sickness and death,xxxiii but also in such concepts as the sacredness of motherhood and personhood,xxxiv and in the principles upheld by the Methodists (e.g., humility, piety, charity, sobriety, love, simplicity), all in contrast to the property, status and wealth values of slave-owners.xxxv This, in itself was a way of resistance. Other forms of resistance included demonstrative, emotional conversion experiences in which slave women would find the personhood and dignity refused them by their owners, fighting for their bodies-temples of the Holy Spirit-and thus not only denying the Jezebel image imposed on them but also complaining about the slave men’s sexual abuses (complaining about their masters sexually abusing them was not possible).xxxvi 

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