Slavery and the Making of AmericaDrawing of a sermon at the First African Church in Richmond, Virginia
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Religion
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Historical Overview Religion
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As late as 1800 most slaves in the U.S. had not been converted to Christianity. In the years that followed, however, widespread Protestant Evangelicalism, emphasizing individual freedom and direct communication with God, brought about the first large-scale conversion of enslaved men and women.
Illustration of an African-American Church
African-American Church. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
At first, itinerant ministers, captivating large audiences at revivals and camp meetings across the North and South during the middle part of the century, reached only a small percentage of the slave population with their calls to Christianity. Larger numbers of black men and women were converted during the resurgence and intensification of revivalism during the Second Great Awakening of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At that time, Baptist and Methodist ministers appealed to the slave and free black populations, preaching a plain-styled message of hope and redemption while also catering to manners of worship that African men and women carried with them to America, including spirit possession, call-and-response singing, shouting, and dancing.

Whereas an earlier generation of evangelical preachers had opposed slavery in the South during the early nineteenth century, Protestant clergymen began to defend the institution, invoking a Christian hierarchy in which slaves were bound to obey their masters. For many slaveholders, this outlook not only made evangelical Christianity more palatable, but also provided a strong argument for converting slaves and establishing biracial churches.
Illustration of a revival meeting
Revival Meeting. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
Even so, with much of the religious life of the slave community existing as an "invisible institution," beyond the purview of whites or formal churches, white control over African-American religious practices and spiritual beliefs was limited. Slave preachers might emphasize the need for obedience to the master while whites were present, but among other slaves they reformulated their teachings, emphasizing themes of suffering and redemption. Slaves sang spirituals filled with lyrics about salvation and references to biblical figures like Moses, who led his people to freedom. On occasion, these songs functioned even more explicitly as expressions of resistance, encoding messages about secret gatherings or carrying directions for escape.

While some planters became convinced of Christianity as a type of social control, others welcomed ministers to the slave quarters and built plantation chapels out of genuine Christian impulses. Regardless of motives, however, slaveholders remained mindful of the potential subversiveness of religion among slaves. In the 1820s and 1830s, two of the most significant slave rebellions in American history were plotted by Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, two men driven by religious fire. In 1829, David Walker's inflammatory text, AN APPEAL TO THE COLOURED CITIZENS OF THE WORLD, not only condemned Christians who supported slavery, but also used Christianity as a way to validate slave revolt. In South Carolina, Virginia and throughout the South, these and other events resulted in regulations on black meetings and black preaching without white supervision. Biracial churches also limited the rights of black congregants.
While fear of slave insurrection led to prohibitions on black churches meeting openly in many parts in the South, the black church movement flourished in the North. As members of the Church, blacks were ostensibly the brothers and sisters of whites, equals in the eyes of God. This sentiment was instrumental in helping blacks to gain the right to be ordained as Baptist and Methodist ministers, but it did not prevent discriminatory practice within the church, including segregated seating.
Portrait of Reverand Richard Allen
Reverend Richard Allen. Mooreland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
In Philadelphia, blacks established St. Thomas Episcopal Church in 1794 as the culminating response to this type of discrimination. Black churches in the North continued to grow into the nineteenth century, providing for much more than the spiritual needs of the black community. They, aided in the adjustment of new black residents, acted as mediators in the personal lives of blacks, and played a vital role in antislavery activities including the protection of fugitive slaves. Black ministers like Philadelphia's Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and Boston's Thomas Paul were among the strongest leaders in black communities.

During the Antebellum period and after the Civil War, black churches, not just in the North, but throughout the nation, offered African Americans refuge from oppression and focused on the spiritual, secular, and political concerns of the black community. Following emancipation, the church continued to exist at the center of black community life. With freedom, African-Americans rejected the second-class status they had been offered by white co-religionists and withdrew in large numbers from biracial congregations. Aided by the Freedmen's Bureau, freedmen and freedwomen pooled their resources to build greater numbers of independent black churches -- symbols of African-American demands for self-determination.

Kimberly Sambol-Tosco is a graduate student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation will explore the centrality of gender in African-American political identities in the North during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
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