We'll soon be free, We'll soon be free, We'll soon be free, When de Lord will call us home. For almost eight decades, enslaved African-Americans living in the Antebellum South, achieved their freedom in various ways—one being religion—before the demise of the institution of slavery. It was “freedom, rather than slavery, [that] proved the greatest force for conversion among African Americans in the South” (94).
Starting with the Great Awakening and continuing long after the abolition of slavery, after decades of debate, scholars conceptualized the importance of religion for enslaved African-Americans as a means of escaping the brutalities of daily life. Overall, Christianity helped enslaved African American resist the degradation of bondage and naturally transmitted into traditional religious practices that have since served as a pillar of African-American culture. Overall, this genuine faith created a common bond among enslaved African-Americans who forcibly scattered across fifteen of the twenty-six American States.
According to 1860 U. S. census data, 3,953,000 occupied Southern and Border States--the largest number lived in Virginia, with Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina following respectively. Although long distances separated enslaved families and friends, a natural increase in the slave population preserved and transmitted religious practices which became truly “African-American”. Even though countless research and data proves that Christianity generally impacted slaves as a group, slavery had a wide variety of faces, which created differences among individual slaves.
In the Antebellum South, enslaved African-American’s worked in rural and urban areas within the parameters of white slave-owners and fellow blacks. The diverse forms of slavery correlated mainly with the slave’s location in the south and not only impacted the slave’s day-to-day life but affected the religious landscape for African-American slaves. Although the underlying concepts of Christianity created a mutual effect, the differences in demographic and cultural factors either hampered or influenced slave religion. This, in turn, presents a question: Did Christianity play different roles in the lives of African-American slaves epending on which section of the Antebellum South they resided? After reviewing numerous slave narratives, historical research, and scholarly dissertations, it is evident that location correlated with the religious landscape of African-American slaves. After examining distinct periods of the antebellum era, evidence is predominately shown by 1. ) variations in plantation missions across the Southern states; 2. ) differences black church participation throughout sections of the antebellum south, and 3. ) numerous state legislation that impacted slave religion.
The first understanding of slave religion began during the religious phenomenon known as the Great Awakenings, which caused an unprecedented spread of Christianity which coincided with dramatically increasing numbers of slaves converting to evangelical religions such as Baptist and Methodist faiths. This intense period of religious revivalism customized southern planters and slave-owners to the idea that slaves should be Christianized, which propagated the ideal plantation missions among the two largest African-American religions, as well as Presbyterians and Episcopalians throughout the South.
The establishment of antebellum plantations missions showcases the first major variation in Christian-experiences among slaves living in different sections of the antebellum south. At the peak of missionary zeal, the role of planation missions in the lives of black slaves differed between slaves concentrated in country areas and those centered in Southern cities. Some of the most insightful variations between rural and urban plantation missions are archived in the Library of Congress’s Slave Narratives.
For example, Hagar McIntosh, a former slave of a little farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, recalls her that “Old Master done take all the Negroes to city church on Sundays if he wanted to”. On the other hand, McIntosh commented in her interview that the neighboring master “have lots of land…and fixed up his slaves their own cabin” where missionaries came and preached. In another account, Nellie Jones of Savannah describes how “a gray-headed planter catechized us negro children …But I heard of the missionary instructing a large number of colored boys and girls at the big-planters farm”
Along with the division between rural and urban plantation missions, in the 1830s and 1840s, concern arose among Southern churchmen after acknowledging that multitudes of districts in the Southwest had churches that could not contain even “one-tenth of the Negro populations; besides others in which there are no churches at all”. The fact that nearly all Southwestern slave states lacked Christian institutions before plantation missions meant that religion played little to no role in the lives of the majority of slaves residing within these boundaries.
Even after missionaries brought the gospel to both rural and urban slaves at home, the prevalence of plantations missions varied from state to state. This deviation shaped the role of religion in the lives of black slaves depending on which state they lived and worked in. Although missionaries urged all slaveholders to actively participate in catechizing their slaves, since the plantation mission movement geographically centered in lowland South Carolina and Georgia masters and mistresses in these two states were more likely to read sermons to their slave, include them in family prayers, and instruct the slaves in Sabbath schools.
The planation missions were extremely successful in Georgia after the 1830 planter-assembly of two powerful associations for the religious instruction of slaves—the most famous being the Liberty Country Association. Thanks to these alliances, many Georgia slave-owners built churches on their own plantations because almost half of the states’ slave population lived on estates with more than thirty slaves. Prominent planters facilitated the role of religion for enslaved Africa-Americans living throughout South Carolina.
For example, mainstream South Carolina planters, Charles Pinckey, Edward Laurens, and Whitemarsh Seabrook, “stressed the benefits of a Christian slave population before South Carolina agricultural societies”, which inspired many masters to carry the gospel to their own slaves and fund antebellum plantation missions across the South. Even though it is difficult to measure the overall effectiveness of plantation missions, the missions provided a rational for training and supporting black spiritual leaders and helped nurture black congregations that began in the 1840s and 1850s.
Despite the mission’s support, due to regional variations in the organization, leadership, and governance of antebellum church structures, black church participation impacted the role of religion in the lives of slaves dispersed across the South. It is important to note that African-American slaves gathered together in formal and non-formal religious institutions even before the tide of plantation missions swept over the antebellum south.
But missionary efforts coupled with the great conversion of the revival influenced Christianity upon the life of African-American slaves so much that, according to a figure quoted by Du Bois, “there were 468,000 black church members in the South in 1859” while later, in 1860, Joseph C. Stiles estimated a slave church number of “near Six Thousand souls”. In spite of the generalized role of church participation in the lives of slaves as an overall group, throughout the antebellum South the most common difference in the role of church participation occurred between city slaves and enslaved African-American living in countries.
Urban slaves living in or close to towns or cities, household servants, and slave artisans throughout the south—had more opportunities to participate in institutional church while enslaved African-Americans in remote rural areas had less opportunity to attend services due to the distant between large plantations and churches. Even during the latter decades of the antebellum era, sparsely settled southern areas had a higher likelihood of mixed congregations. In these areas, Masters limited their slave’s participation in institutional church and tended to restrict separate worship.
Former Jacksonville-slave, Viola B. Muse, members: the slaves were permitted to sit about the church yard on wagon and on the ground and listen to the preaching. When the slaves wanted to hold church they had to get special permission from the master and at the time a slave hut was used, a white preacher was called in and he would preach to them not to steal On the other hand, in largely populated areas and “church towns” it was not uncommon to see separate black churches with enslaved exhorters and even preachers.
Along with differences between the role of religion in the lives of city and country black slaves, areas that had a large predominance of certain Christian denominations also created inequalities. With their affinity to African beliefs, the Baptist and Methodist faith drew large numbers of slaves. The hierarchical structure of Methodism limited the possibility of “black members organizing their own churches under their own black preachers”, which meant that religion usually played a more limited role in the lives of slaves residing in areas with a large Methodist presence.
Contrastingly, Baptists simply offered black men and women more opportunity for participation and religious experience than any other denomination, slaves that lived in areas with Baptist dominance had the most active participation in institutional worship. Out of all the Baptist associations in the antebellum South, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana had the largest black churches and more African-American preachers, exhorters, and deacons than any other states in the antebellum South.
Black preachers and separate black churches were not confined to just these states, however. The majority of African-American churches, preachers, and active slave participation occurred in Southeastern seaboard states and “extended into western areas of the South as well”. Although many slaves throughout the south participated in institutional churches visible to Southern whites, abundant testimony proves that the enslaved African-American community had an “invisible institution” of Christianity that was truly their own.
Even though enslaved African Far away from the eyes of their masters, the slave’s extensive religious life fully matured by the closing decades of the antebellum era and formed an emotional connection that could withstand any distance. One of the many reasons this “invisible institution” sprung about was due to state law that attempted to prohibit religious freedom of the enslaved. Due to the nature of certain state legislation and the religious implications these laws placed upon slave, the role of Christianity in the lives of slaves also varied accordingly.
Across the antebellum South, state legislatures enacted laws restricting African-American slave religion and literacy—mainly out of fear that Christianity would create: egalitarian tendencies among the slaves; and a form of assembly for insurrectionary purposes. In Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama, where the slave population outnumber the white, legislatures passed stricter and more numerous laws. Slaves in these sections experienced a restricted role of religion in their lives, especially because of religious assembly laws that “typically regulated the ime, place, and manner of slave meetings for religious or spiritual purposes. ” However, by 1850, every state in the antebellum South had enacted laws that restrained the religious exercise of enslaves African-Americans. Several state legislatures passed laws restricting African-American--both slaves and freed—from preaching. For example, until 1863, Georgia legislature enforced a legal code which prohibited “any church, society, or other body or any persons to grant any license or other authority to any slave or free person of color, to preach, or exhort, or otherwise officiate in church matters”.
In 1832, North Carolina passed a similar law which “forbade slaves and free Negroes to exhort or preach in public”. With the passage of more and more religious-restricting laws, slave rebellions became religious in tone and were followed by even tighter legislation. Following three of largest antebellum slave revolts—which were led and planned by either African-American preachers or enslaved religious leaders—New Orleans, Virginia, and South Carolina passed laws specifically “proscribing religious meetings” among the slaves.
Overall, states with the most legislation restricting religious actively tended to limit the visible role of religion in the lives of African-American slaves living within these boards. However, from a perspective unseen to the white residents in the three states, the role of Christianity fostered behind the scenes in the slave cabins. To simply generalize the Christian experience of American-born slaves would mar the role of religion in the lives of slaves and their descendants. Unlike most revisited histories, the slaves annotated their thoughts, experiences, and lives with details that bring their culture and religion to life.
Thanks to these records, there is no doubt that Christianity influenced and impacted African-American slaves as an entire group. In spite of the overall impact, just like today, anyone simplifying a group’s perspective usually presents somewhat biased results. Therefore, one cannot help but ask the question presented in the beginning of this paper: Did Christianity play different roles in the lives of African-American slaves depending on which section of the Antebellum South they resided?
Conclusive answers to the question at hand can definitely be found after examining geographical differences between rural and urban areas; differences in state religious assembly laws; demographic and regional inconsistencies between plantation missions; and state to state variations in black church participation. Although I believe my answers produce conclusive results, future research and further exploration is necessary to truly answer this question. Given more time, I would have taken a look at every state in the antebellum south.
After researching the role of religion in lives of slaves residing in each state and comparing the data gathered, I believe more comprehensive results would have emerged. Although my results and answers could have been more conclusive, the conclusions reached not only provide interesting insights, but also relate to a variety of religious communities. Despite the different experiences among planation mission communities, the spiritual beliefs and elemental teachings in every mission forged a common culture with core beliefs and assumptions that have enhanced the ideology behind many African-American religious communities.
Nevertheless, no matter the section, the overwhelming number of converts to evangelical religions has remained a consistent fixture in the communities of the descendants of enslaved African-Americans. Also, state legislation restricting church participation and religious freedom forced into antebellum slaves in an “invisible institution” that necessitated quick adaptations. This creative adaptability in the religious practices of the “invisible institution” carries on in African-American religious communities as well.
The conclusions reached throughout this paper have, in turn, helped create a long-lasting distinctiveness in African-American religious communities. This distinct African-American religious community has not only become a part of religious communities around the United States, but has continued to help form the culture of U. S. religious communities. These factors, sequentially relate to how global religious communities view and interact with both U. S. and African-American religious communities. Sizing down from a global level, the conclusions reached in this paper have impacted me, personally, as well.
The fact that the remnants of slave religion have withstood the test of time and perpetually affect religious-communities on local, national, and global levels today has proved to me that—not matter how far the distance—religion can play a powerful role that not only connects communities, but saves lives as well.