People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
From his seemingly safe perch in New York, Solomon Northup had little cause to think much about the plight of slaves who toiled in the American South. He was, after all, a successful, even prosperous, free black man with a wife and children. When his mind did turn to slavery, Northup often expressed little sympathy for his bonded brethren, being, as he was, unable to “comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slavery.”
But Northup’s perspective on slavery changed drastically in 1841. In that year, Northup found himself duped by two slave catchers who kidnapped him and shipped him to Peter Tanner’s sugar plantation in Louisiana. As was the case throughout the Antebellum American South, Christianity was a key feature of Tanner’s plantation where Northup toiled as a slave. Every Sunday, Tanner gathered all of his slaves around him and read favorite passages from the Bible. He was especially fond of the 47th verse from the 12th chapter of Luke: “And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Tanner was always sure to elucidate the reading of the Word with a brief sermon:
D’ye hear that? Stripes! That nigger that don’t take care—that don’t obey his
lord—that’s his master—d’ye see?—that ’ere nigger shall be beaten with
many stripes. Now ‘many’ signifies a great many—forty, a hundred, a hundred
and fifty lashes. That’s Scripter!
Tanner was not alone among white southerners who combined slavery and Christianity in an unholy union of brutality, violence and social control. Well-known missionary William Capers published a catechism in 1852 designed especially for the religious instruction of slaves. Like Tanner, Capers emphasized the obligations of the dutiful servant:
Let as many servants as are under your yoke count
their own masters worthy of all honor...and they that
have believing masters, let them not despise them
because they are brethren, but rather do them service
because they are faithful and beloved.
This imperative to obey and submit to one’s master in all things had devastating consequences for enslaved Africans. So suggests Frederick Douglass, the famed fugitive who decried plantation Christianity as “the justifier of the most appalling barbarity; a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds; and a secure shelter, under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal abominations fester and flourish.” What’s more, Douglass argued that “religious slaveholders are the worst…almost invariably the vilest, meanest and basest of their class.” So brutal did Douglass find religious masters that he expressed a strong preference to be enslaved by non-religious whites, writing: “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery…I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.”
In many cases, the behavior of religious masters became a model for other whites to follow. Harriet Jacobs, a runaway slave from Virginia, recalls in her own personal narrative that she had often seen Northern clergymen who opposed slavery on their first introduction to the system. But a lengthy stroll around the grand plantations, along the ‘beautiful groves and flowering vines’, was enough to change most minds. The reverend gentleman who first opposed slavery often returned to the North assuring his brethren in the cloth that slavery is nothing more than a “a beautiful ‘patriarchal institution;’ and that the slaves don’t even want to be free.” This was certainly the case for George Whitefield, the famous itinerant preacher who whipped the country into a religious fervor during the Second Great Awakening. Whitefield was an early critic of American slavery and its attendant brutalities. But extensive travels among the planter elite throughout the South encouraged him to change his tune. Where he once opposed slavery, he eventually became a slave owner himself, confident that God had bestowed favor on him by giving him the means to purchase several blacks.
Perhaps this close relationship between political and religious power in the antebellum South should not surprise us too much. Writing in The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe argues that the missionary’s objectives “had to be co-extensive with his country’s political and cultural perspectives…With equal enthusiasm, [the missionary] served as an agent of a political empire, a representative of a civilization, and an envoy of God.” Making the case even stronger, Michael Gomez argues plainly, “it is an unassailable fact that American Christianity is directly responsible for the psychological impairment of many within the African based community.” Perhaps some proof of this can be found in the poems of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a collection of poetry:
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land
Taught my benighted soul to understand
But if it is true that some blacks accepted the idea of African savagery and inferiority as proffered by Christian missionaries, then it is also true that many enslaved Africans found in Christianity a remarkable resource from which they crafted an effective resistance. One need look no further than Nat Turner’s rebellion for evidence that Christianity could inspire terrific rebellion among the enslaved. Turner had served for years as a black preacher on his home plantation in Southampton, Virginia when he saw a vision of the Holy Ghost in the sky; and, on the earth, fields of corn be-speckled with blood. These visions secured in Turner’s mind the knowledge that, just as “the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew…it was plain to [him] that the savior was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.” In the end, Turner led one of the most dramatic slave rebellions in American history, comfortable in his conviction that his was a mission divine.
So just how did slaves wrest from their masters’ theology of submission and slavery a totally new set of beliefs that focused on freedom and deliverance? To begin, it is clear that many slaves rejected outright the idea that they were inferior, or that their masters were somehow specially favored by God. Simon Brown, a man who spent most of his life in bondage in Virginia, made quite clear the differences between white and black religion. Brown admitted, “he never put much faith in the white man’s religion.” Indeed, “the slaves had their Christian religion too, and it wasn’t cold and proper like in the white folks’ church.” For his part, Frederick Douglass argued that “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”
Rather than look to their masters as a source of religious and spiritual insight, enslaved Africans instead looked to themselves and to the traditions that they bore with them from Africa. Writing in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois details how the cultures of America appeared in the religious expression of African Americans: “My grandfather’s grandmother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees…The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has traveled to us and we sing it to our children.” Now, in the mouths of Africa’s children, the religious songs of slaves carried both the imprint of Africa and a demand for justice. Frederick Douglass placed so much faith in the pathos of slaves’ songs that he often “thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.” And so it has been for many blacks who found themselves flung about the Americas as upon so many currents of air and sea.
Jason R. Young, author of Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY, Buffalo