The Christian Church and Slavery Prior to the American Civil War (Part 1)
On April 24, 2011 At 11:00 pm
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O, you professing Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says to you, Do unto others as you would they do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?
:Narrative from the Life of Olaudah Equaino
In the early days of slavery in the United States, slave masters were generally wary of fostering any form of religious consciousness among their slaves. Most American slaveholders, being less well informed than their Brazilian counterparts about the cultural and religious diversity of Africans in their native lands, sought actively to suppress native religious customs and African cultural identity among their slaves on the wrong assumption that it would lead to a "pan-African" awareness and unity among the slaves. Brazilian slaveholders, on the other hand, were aware of the cultural diversity of Africans and deliberately fostered the survival of native African cultural identities which worked to transfer old tribal animosities of Africans from their native lands to the Brazilian slave plantations.Thus, slaves in large Brazilian holdings would spontaneously group themselves according to their native tribal identities into : Nago, Gege, Hausa, Tapa, Congos, Dahomey, Fanti, Asanti and Mandinga. The splintering of the African slaves according to their tribal identities worked to the advantage of a "divide and rule" agenda of their masters, as Abdias do Nascimento observes in his Racial Democracy in Brazil: Myth or Reality?
Total secularization of the lives of African slaves in the United States was, however, not a realistic goal for people kept under dehumanizing conditions as the African slaves would require the comforting promises of religion to survive the harsh life of slavery. The fear of the white masters, that christian indoctrination might lead the slaves to an awareness fostering agitation, would be dispelled by the church which gave support to the institution of slavery. According to Kenneth Stamp in his The Peculiar Institution, Christianity, rather than undermine slavery promoted its survival when Southern clergy became leading supporters of slavery and took on themselves the duty of indoctrinating African converts to accept their conditions as God-ordained.A prominent early example was the Reverend William Graham, rector of the Liberty Hall Academy, Lexington Virginia who, in the late 1700s, defended slavery, arguing that the early christian church had not been commanded by Jesus to fight for social change but only to preach salvation to freemen and slaves alike.
Consequently, when the question of abolition was first raised as early as 1787, at the establishment of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Christian clergy were among the more vociferous opponents citing the bible in support of perpetuation of the "peculiar institution." During the religious revival period of the Great Awakening (that is, the first Great Awakening of the 1740s) prominent evangelists like George Whitefield campaigned openly and successfully in the Province of Georgia for legalization of slavery (Georgia had earlier outlawed slavery, but finally legalized it in 1751 as a direct result of George Whitefield's campaign). Some American historians such as Christine Heyrman in the book The Beginnings of the Bible Belt argued that the Christian missionaries of the 1740s had conceded to slavery to promote the success of their evangelical mission among New England farmer, many of whom were slaveholders and, therefore, might not have been well disposed to anti-slavery preaching.
The Great Awakening of the 1740s witnessed the first significant wave of conversion of African slaves to Christianity. Missionary efforts were deliberately directed at converting both enslaved Africans and freedmen by the major Protestant denominations such as the Anglican, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Quakers, especially in Pennsylvania. The Christian church as bastion of the slavery institution encouraged slave owners to allow their slaves attend church.
Early Christian slaves attended the same church as their masters (most were Methodist and Baptist) and in many Southern churches a special slave gallery was provided in which slaves' "spiritual" needs were attended to, which consisted mostly in teaching them to be obedient to their white masters. And the preachers were not short of verses, even in the Christian scriptures, which seemed to support the perpetuation of slavery. The favorite verses used in defense of slavery in the New Testament were Paul's admonitions to first century slaves to obey and be submissive to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-6: "slaves obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…as you obey Christ; Titus 2:9-10: "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to strive to please them in all things, teach them not to be contentious, not to steal, but to be loyal.."; 1 Peter 2:18-29: "Slaves accept the authority of your masters, those masters who are kind a well as those masters who are harsh…").
Continued in Part 2, The Christian Church and Slavery Prior to the American Civil War.
JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus (Read a Free Three Chapters Excerpt Here)