"Ol' Satan's Church is Here Below"
Southern Religion and Black Female Resistance
in the Late Antebellum South
By Leif E. Trondsen
In the three decades preceding the Civil War, Southern slavery -- that "peculiar institution" -- underwent a marked outward transformation from its earlier and more violent manifestation. During this period, many slaveholders adopted a more "paternalistic" approach toward their African slaves. This change was due in large part to a series of ominous slave rebellions that swept both the United States and the Caribbean.1 The last of these occurred on August 21, 1831 and was orchestrated by Nat Turner, a black slave and apocalyptic visionary. In a brutal two-day rampage, Turner and his rebel slaves killed nearly sixty white plantation owners and their family members as well as sacked some fifteen plantation homes.2 When the Virginia militia ultimately suppressed Turner's rebel force, a wave of fear shook Southern white confidence to its core. Large planters in particular realized that a "kinder and gentler" institution of slavery -- at least outwardly so -- was required to mollify the simmering resentment of their increasingly defiant black slaves.
One crucial component of this new paternalistic slave-order was what former slave Fredrick Douglass called "Southern religion."3 In an unholy alliance of blatant self-interest, Southern pastors and planters propagated their own version of Christianity among the South's enslaved black population, one which demanded obedience to authority and justified racial inequality.4 This paper will examine "Southern religion" as it applied in particular to enslaved black women during the late Antebellum South. It will address the following three overarching themes: 1.) The creation and usage of Southern religion as an ideological tool of planter repression of black female slaves; 2.) The types of physical and mental abuses that the "paternalistic" practitioners of Southern religion continued to employ against enslaved black women; and 3.) The uniformly negative response of these black slave women to this distorted vision of the Christian message. In examining these themes, this paper will utilize the contemporary narratives of former slaves themselves (particularly the well-known autobiography of Harriet Jacobs) as its principal frame of reference. Lastly, it will conclude with an overall assessment of the efficacy of Southern religion as a bulwark of slavery in the closing decades of the "Old South."
As noted above, during the early 1800s a series of violent slave rebellions forced many white plantation holders to "remake" the time-honored institution of slavery in the late Antebellum South. These planters often adopted a new "persona" in relationship to their black slaves, that of paterfamilias (or "paternal head of the household") and asserted their "paternal interest" in every aspect of the lives of their slaves.5 Historian Ira Berlin writes:
This systematic application of the language of family to every aspect of the master-
slave relationship elevated the importance of the domestic metaphor. From this new
perspective, the plantation joined master and slave together in a collective enterprise
that benefited all. Planters -- particularly the great ones -- and their apologists spoke
grandly of "their people" and "their family," black and white, asserting the mutual
affection between master and slave and bemoaning the heavy responsibilities of
Unfortunately, this is the image of the Antebellum Southern plantation that has captured the popular imagination, due largely to the influence of the best-selling novel (and latter successful film adaptation of) Gone with the Wind.
This "paternal care" on the part of white planters also extended to the spiritual lives of their black slaves. There had existed earlier attempts to "Christianize" the millions of enslaved Africans in the South, principally during the eighteenth century by the Society to Propagate the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Nevertheless, these missionary attempts were never conducted in any systematic fashion.7 The Nat Turner Rebellion, however, highlighted the dangers of this previously haphazard approach toward Christian evangelization. Turner, like many enslaved blacks before 1831, had been allowed to attend local services unsupervised by his white owner. Based on this initial religious education, Turner formulated his own vision of Christianity, one which included the overthrow of the white slaveholders by their oppressed black slaves -- the new "Children of Israel" -- in a final bloody Armageddon.8
The testimony of ex-slave Harriet Jacobs stated unequivocally that the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 -- and not mere "altruism" -- was the principal catalyst for this wave of planter-inspired evangelization. "After the alarm caused by Nat Turner's insurrection had subsided," she writes, "the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters."9 During the rebellion, this very real threat to the safety of the planters and their families had emerged from an unexpected source: enslaved black women. Although not part of the original planning, many female black slaves "opportunistically" joined the fray and turned on their white mistresses in particular.10 The focus of planter evangelization, therefore, was black male and female slaves, both of whom had threatened the social order of the Old South during the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831.
Accordingly, in the three decades following Nat Turner's insurrection, large numbers of planters "took up the cross," as Ira Berlin notes:
They supported the denominational missions to the still skeptical slaves, welcomed
itinerants onto their estates, and paid them to tutor their slaves in the Bible, visit the
sick, attend funerals, and even perform marriages. Some built plantation chapels for
their slaves. A few led their "black families" in prayer, just as they did their white
family. Operating against restrictive legislation passed in the wake of the Nat Turner
rebellion of 1831, they even encouraged slaves to take to the pulpit, if not as preachers
-- which was illegal in many states -- then as exhorters and deacons. For many masters,
the paternalistic burden became a Christian burden, and Christian responsibilities
became the slaveholders' responsibilites.11
In this effort, white planters were greatly assisted by a host of Southern preachers and prelates from all Protestant denominations, who acted as the main architects and promoters of Southern religion.12 Many of these clergymen also came from or married into important slaveholding families. To show their "orthodoxy" concerning slavery to their social peers, these "ministers of the Gospel" even owned slaves themselves. Therefore, the religious establishment too had a vested interest in maintaining the socioeconomic and political status quo in the late Antebellum South.13
These white clergymen utilized their weekly sermons, denominational catechisms, and selective reading of biblical passages as the principle tools of religious instruction of the plantation slaves. An example of the sermons to which these slaves were subjected is one given by Bishop William Meade of Virginia in 1856:
Poor creatures! You little consider, when you are idle and neglectful of your
master's business, when you steal, and waste, and hurt any of their substance, when
you are saucy and impudent, when you are telling them lies and deceiving them, or
when you prove stubborn and sullen, and will not do the work you are set about
without stripes and vexation -- you do not consider, I say, that what faults you are
guilty of towards your masters and mistresses are faults against God himself, who hath
set your masters and mistresses over you in his stead, and expects that you would do
for them just as you would do for him. And pray do not think that I want to deceive
you when I tell you that your masters and mistresses are God's overseers, and that,
if you are faulty towards them, God himself will punish you severely for it in the next
Harriet Jacobs recorded similar sermons given by a local Episcopal priest to the slaves of the plantation on which Jacobs lived.15
The denominational catechisms of the day also emphasized the religious duty of slaves to obey their masters and mistresses. These "injunctions to obedience," notes one historian, "were skillfully inserted in the places where they would have the maximum impact."16 The popular 1859 Plantation Catechism, for example, contained the following religious instruction:
Ques. What is the fifth commandment?
A Catechism for Colored People of 1834 also exhorted male and female slaves "to be obedient to them that are your Masters" and prohibited slaves from "harbor[ing] a runaway."18
Ans. Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land
which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Ques. What does this commandment require you to do?
Ans. This commandment requires me to respect and to obey my father and
mother, my master and mistress, and everybody else that has authority over me.17
Many Protestant preachers also were fond of selectively quoting biblical verses to the plantation slaves. The writings of the Apostle Paul, for example, were perennial favorites:
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with
fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eye-
service, as menpleasers; but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from
the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing
that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord,
whether he be bond or free (Eph. 6:5-8, KJV).
The preachers of Southern religion also supplemented these verses with the so-called "slave beatitudes," which stated: "blessed are the patient, blessed are the faithful, blessed are the cheerful, blessed are the submissive, blessed are the hardworking, and, above all, blessed are the obedient."19
Nevertheless, Southern religion was not a genuine theology -- that is, "a systematic, disciplined reflection on Christian faith and its implications."20 It could not draw, therefore, on the rich heritage of the great Christian theologians throughout the centuries, many of whom had attacked the entire notion of slavery as contrary to the will of the Creator.21 Rather, Southern religion was an ad hoc and artificial creation, the principal goal of which was to prop up the increasingly beleaguered institution of slavery. Accordingly, Southern religion was fraught with glaring theological and moral contradictions. The latter greatly impacted the lives of enslaved black women, particularly as regards the separation of slave families, the sexual exploitation of female slaves, and the daily brutality to which all slaves in the South continued to be subjected.
One ironic contradiction of Southern religion, which ostensibly supported the importance of the plantation "extended family," was its lack of moral condemnation of the sale of slave family members for economic gain. Enslaved black women regularly were separated from their children or husbands at the whim of their white owners. The anguish of such familial separation is captured in a letter (1852) of Marie Perkins to her husband Richard, both of whom were slaves:
Dear Husband I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has
sold Albert [their young son] to a trader on Monday court day and myself and other
child is for sale also and I want to let me hear from you very soon before next
cort if you can I don't know when...I want you to tell Dr. Hamilton your master if
either will buy me they can attend to it know and then I can go afterwards I don't
want a trader to get me A man buy the name of brandy bought albert and is gone
I don't know whare they say he lives in scottsville. . .I am quite heart sick nothing
more I am and ever will be your kind wife.22
It is unknown whether Marie Perkins ever was able to reunite with her children or husband.
Harriet Jacobs records similar stories of the separation of black slave families due to the greed of their white masters:
On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block.
She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children
were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town.
Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he
intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would
sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother
in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands
in anguish, and exclaimed, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?" I had no words
wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.23
Jacob's own grandmother, who had saved her meager earnings in an effort to purchase her children's freedom, also witnessed her sons and daughters being dragged off to the auction block to be sold like "chattel."24
The hypocrisy of such blatantly anti-familial actions on the part of white slaveholding "Christians" was apparent to many enslaved blacks. Henry Bibb, a runaway slave, wrote years later (1852) to his former master, the Rev. Albert G. Sibley:
You profess to be a christian -- a leader in the Methodist Episcopal Church,
and the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ, and yet you sold my mother from
her little children, and sent them to a distant land -- you sold my brother George
from his wife and dear little ones while he was a worthy member, and Clergyman,
of the same church, to which you belong. . . Oh! what hypocrisy is this! A Methodist
class leader, separating husbands and wives. . .Vain is your religion -- base is your
Harriet Jacobs too railed against the practitioners of Southern religion for not stopping this wholesale separation of enslaved black families: "Notwithstanding my grandmother's long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her [five] children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their [Christian] masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend."26
Another troubling aspect of Southern religion for enslaved black women was its ambiguous sexual morality. Historically, Protestantism had enshrined the biblical notion of "chastity" within the framework of its Christian morality. For married couples, chastity involved fidelity to one's partner, while for single people it entailed sexual abstinence. This strict moral code was promoted by all the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus, for Episcopalians, the Ten Commandments, with its prohibition against adultery (Ex. 20:14, Dt. 5:18), received special attention in the "Catechism" included within the 1786 U.S. Book of Common Prayer27
In the patriarchal social order of the Antebellum South, however, the sexual exploitation of enslaved black women by their white masters was regarded as a "right" of mastery. Thus, "white males in slave society were at liberty to exploit slave women, despite family or Christian obligations to the contrary."28 This notion of white male sexual privilege carried over to the younger male scions of planter families, who viewed sexual relations with black females almost as a "rite of passage" to manhood. Therefore, sexual exploitation of enslaved women -- largely involving forced miscegenation and, to an unknown extant, "slave breeding" -- appears to have been widespread in the first half of the nineteenth century.29 Indeed, one recent study of WPA interviews of former slaves conducted during the 1930s estimates that "forced sex was a problem on roughly one out of five plantations."30
It is no surprise, then, that the testimonies of both blacks and whites from this period are replete with brutal stories of forced miscegenation. Pauli Murry, a black writer in the 1950s, for example, recounted the rape of her enslaved great-grandmother Harriet in 1844, which had been passed down orally within her family:
It happened right after Reuban [Harriet's slave husband] was run off the place.
Harriet had nailed up the door [to her shack] as usual and put barricades against
it. Later that night, after everyone had gone to bed, the other slaves heard Marse
Sid [son of the plantation owner] break open Harriet's door. Ear-splitting shrieks
tore the night, although he stuffed rags in the door and window cracks to muffle
Harriet's cries. They heard little Julius [Harriet's son] screaming and Harriet's
violent struggle before Sidney had his way with her. Nobody interfered, of course.31
These forceful rapes only ceased when Sidney's brother Francis, who also had eyes for Harriet, beat his sibling senseless. Harriet, however, already was pregnant with Sidney's child.
Some planters and their sons employed less forceful means to gain access to the bodies of enslaved black women. Harriet Jacobs recorded how her master, Dr. Flint, seduced one female slave with promises of better treatment. When their illicit liaison ended in pregnancy, Dr. Flint simply sold both the slave woman and her husband. Following this incident, the lustful white planter relentlessly pursued Jacobs herself with similar blandishments (and threats).32 White Southerners also attested to the widespread practice of forced or cajoled miscegenation. Fanny Kemble, the famed nineteenth-century English actress, who later married a wealthy Georgia planter, remarked: "Nobody pretends to deny that, throughout the South, a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and colored women."32
One unfortunate byproduct of this sexual exploitation of enslaved black women was the
wrath they incurred from their white mistresses. As one scholar notes:
Lacking the power to prevent sexual activities between male owners and slaves,
white women on plantations struggled to discourage sons, shame brothers, and
conceal marital infidelities. The jealousy and hatred many white women harbored
for the slave women to whom their husbands were attached was legend within the
Harriet Jacobs, for example, recorded a scene in which a young slave girl, who was giving birth to her master's child, was brutally mocked by her mistress. "You suffer, do you?" the mistress coldly exclaimed. "I am glad of it. You deserve it all, and more too."34 Additionally, "the evidence suggests that mistresses were free with the whip when dealing with [slave] women and children."35
Again, the hypocrisy of this unchastely behavior on the part of white "Christian" males was obvious to many female observers, both white and black. One plantation mistress, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, remarked bitterly in a journal entry dated 1858:
I know that this is a view of the subject that is thought best for women to ignore
but when we see so many case of mulattoes commanding higher prices. . .oh is it
not enough to make us shudder for the standard of morality in our Southern homes?
A most striking illustration of general feeling on the subject is to be found in the
case of George Eve [a Southern planter], who carried on with him a woman to the
North under the name of wife-- She was a mulatto slave, and although it was well
known that he lived constantly with her violating one of God's ten commandments,
yet nothing was thought of it. There was no one without sin "to cast the first stone at
him. . ."36
Harriet Jacobs too decried such "unchristian" actions of these white planters, who used black slave women for mere sexual gratification.37
White plantation owners in the late Antebellum South also continued the earlier practice of physical and verbal coercion against their slaves, despite their "newfound faith." The narratives of ex-slaves from this period abound with incidents of "Christian" planters, including clergymen, brutalizing their black slaves. For example, Susan Boggs, an ex-slave from Virginia, testified before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in 1863:
don't see any difference between the slaveholder who had religion and those who
had not. . .Why the man that baptized me had a colored women tied up in his yard to
whip when he got home, that very Sunday and her mother belonged to that same
church. We had to sit & hear him preach, and her mother was in church hearing him
preach. . .And he had her [daughter] tied up & whipped. That was our preacher!38
Harriet Jacobs reported the barbarous actions of a neighboring plantation owner who, among other savage acts, "shot a woman through the head, who had run away and been brought back to him." Jacobs further noted that, "He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower."39 Indeed, Mrs. Joseph Smith spoke for many slaves when she commented that Christian slaveholders "were the hardest masters." The latter practiced greater vigilance, excessive thriftiness, and stricter control over their plantations than did their less "religious" counterparts.40 Accordingly, "the ideal of the patriarchal master, his rule tempered by Christian benevolence, was for many slaves an ironic fiction."41
In spite of such physical brutality, many slaves believed that the morally degrading "Gospel" of slave obedience and docility was the most offensive feature of Southern religion. "The ministers used to preach, Obey your masters and mistresses and be good servants,'" Mrs. Joseph Smith recalled, "I never heard anything else. I didn't hear anything about obeying our Maker."42 Another former slave, Beverly Jones of Virginia, recounted that "Niggers had to set an' listen to the white man's sermons, but they didn't want to 'cause they knowed it by heart. Always took his text from Ephesians, the white preacher did, the part what said, Obey your masters, be good servant."43 Accordingly, enslaved blacks did their best to undermine the pernicious influence of Southern religion in their community. They found a variety of creative ways in which to defy the evangelistic impulses of their white masters: by boycotting plantation services, by changing denominations, by refusing to obey white moral precepts, and, above all, by creating their own black churches.
One popular response of slaves to the continual sermons of obedience by white preachers was for the black congregation to walk out of the service and not return. Ex-slave Lunsford Lane recalled one such incident in 1834: "A kind-hearted clergyman. . .who was popular with colored people. . .gave a sermon to us in which he argued from the Bible that it was the will of Heaven from all eternity that we should be slaves, and our masters be our owners, [and] many of us left him. . ."44 Additionally, white preacher Charles Colcock Jones recounted a similar reaction by a black congregation in 1834 to his sermon on slave obedience:
I was preaching to a large congregation on the Epistle of Philemon: and when I
insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and upon the
authority of Paul, condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience
deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those that remained looked
any thing but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. . .There were some
too, who had objections against me as a Preacher, because I was a master, and said,
"his people have to work as well as we."45
It is doubtful that many of these black parishioners attended Jones' church services on the following Sundays.
Other slaves rejected the denomination of their masters and moved to ones that were more welcoming to blacks. Historically, plantation slaves were expected to follow the religious practices of their owners, as Vinnie Busby, an ex-slave from Mississippi, described: "We went to Church at de white folks Church. . .We had to go to whut ever Church our Marse went to."46 However, another former slave, Moses Roper, concluded that his master provided "a bad sample of what a professing Christian ought to be." Therefore, he left his master's Baptist congregation and opted instead for one of the Methodist Church.47 Harriet Jacobs and her fellow slaves also found refuge from their master's preacher, the "sanctimonious" Episcopalian the Rev. Mr. Pike, in the more joyous services of a Methodist "shout."48
Another means by which enslaved blacks undermined the influence of Southern religion was their refusal to obey the moral precepts of their plantation ministers, especially the prohibition against stealing from one's master. Richard Carruthers, an ex-slave from Virginia, recalled one such sermon:
When the white preacher come to the plantation to preach to us niggers, he picked
up his Bible and claimed he gitting the text right out fo'm the good book, and he
preach: "The good Lord say:' Don't you niggers steal chickens fo'm your missus.
Don't you niggers steal your marster's hogs.' And that would be all he preach.48
Nevertheless, as historian Albert J. Raboteau has noted, "While white preachers repeatedly urged Don't steal,' slaves just as persistently denied that this commandment applied to them, since they themselves were stolen property."49 Former slave Charles Brown of Virginia echoed this sentiment directly to his master: "I told my master one day -- said I, You white folks set the bad example of stealing -- you stole us from Africa, and not content with that, if any got free here, you stole them afterward, and so we are made slaves."50 Another former slave, Henry Bibb, justified stealing from one's master on a different but related ground:
I did not regard it as stealing then, I do not regard it as such now. I hold that a slave
has the moral right to eat and drink and wear all that he needs, and that it would be
a sin on his part to suffer and starve in a country where there is plenty to eat and wear
within his reach. I consider that I had a just right to what I took, because it was the
labor of my hands.511
Nevertheless, as historian Albert J. Raboteau notes, "the slaves' own moral code was careful to distinguish between taking' from the master and stealing' from another slave, which was regarded as a serious wrong."52
Above all, slaves resisted Southern religion by forming their own autonomous churches, free of white control. Black women, moreover, were an integral part of these burgeoning underground congregations, which met secretly in the slave quarters or in the relative seclusion of the brush arbors (the so-called "hush harbors").53 In these clandestine gathering, slaves sang their own hymns, though often, as Harriet Jacobs pointed out, "not troubl[ing] their heads about the measure."54 These spirituals were drawn from a variety of sources and reflected the experiences and longings of the black community in bondage.55 Slaves also taught one another to read, so that they could peruse the Bible and glean its meaning for themselves. Many members thus could refute the moral exhortations of white preachers by quoting alternative biblical verses to their "Christian" masters.56 Moreover, black slave preachers, though often illiterate, whipped their congregations into a frenzy with powerful and eloquent sermons. Years later, former slave Clara C. Young of Mississippi fondly remembered one such slave preacher:
De preacher I laked de bes' was name Mathew Swing. He was a comely nigger,
black as night, an' he sho' could read out of his han'. He neber larned no real
readin' an' writin' but he sho' knowed his Bible and would hol' his han' out an'
mak lak he was readin' an' preach de purtiest preachin' you ever heered.57
On most Sundays evenings throughout the Old South, therefore, enslaved blacks braved their white masters' wrath in order to attend their own services, ones free of the gospel of slave obedience and racial inequality propagated by Southern religion.
In light of this pervasive black defiance of planter-inspired evangelization, Southern religion as an ideological tool to "pacify" the slave population was a resounding failure. Although there were no further slave insurrections between 1831-1861, this was due largely to the draconian measures enforced upon enslaved blacks in the aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion. Plantation owners, for example, instituted a system of armed patrols of poor and unruly whites to insure that no slaves ventured out at night unauthorized (i.e., without a "pass" from their owners). The brutality of these white "ruffians" -- and their feral bloodhounds -- was legendary, as Harriet Jacobs repeatedly noted.58 Moreover, many Southern states passed laws barring blacks from becoming preachers or even from attending religious services of their own. These white legislators had not forgotten the recent examples of the rebel leaders Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, both of whom utilized biblical apocalyptic imagery to incite the slave population.59 Above all, however, the large planters in particular reorganized their plantations to function according to a well-ordered and tightly supervised "system," one which afforded black slaves little opportunity for collective action.60 Accordingly, the slave insurrections of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were no longer possible in this new environment of black repression in the closing decades of the Old South.61
Nevertheless, the black slave population did not submit willingly to the "paternalistic" slave-order that white planters attempted to forge in the decades between 1831-1861. "Slavery is damnable," cried Harriet Jacobs, regardless of the outward form it took.62 "Of course, enslaved women rejected slavery's system and the raw power it granted to white men and women alike," notes historian Deborah Gray White. "In so doing they have made resistance a defining aspect of female slavery, one that shaped relationships and identity."63 Such resistance was manifested primarily through the "intransigent behavior" of black slave women, particularly that of "house" slaves. Such defiance included female slaves systematically disobeying the orders of their white mistresses, often doing the opposite of what was required of them.64 Still others engaged in work "slow-downs" in an effort to make the plantation system less productive.65 Lastly, in desperation, some enslaved black women even engaged in murder or arson as the ultimate act of defiance against the plantation system that ruled their lives.66
This is the context, therefore, in which black resistance to Southern religion should be viewed: it was part of an overall pattern of slave defiance of planter-driven repression -- however "paternalistic" it may or may not have been -- in the late Antebellum South. Enslaved black females, like their male counterparts, saw Southern religion as but one more tool of white slave owners to enforce black submission. This they steadfastly refused to do. Like former slave Henry Bibbs, most enslaved blacks also believed that their masters' "slave holding religion" was "of the devil."67 Accordingly, they devised a variety of ingenious means to resist its "diabolical" doctrines. In this effort, they were successful. For in the aftermath of the Civil War, a host of well-organized and well-attended black churches arose from the once clandestine "hush harbors" of the Old South to continue the struggle for full civil rights of the African American community.68 It is a struggle that continues to this day.
1. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 203. Another important slave uprising was that of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, which occurred in 1822 -- just 9 years prior to the Nat Turner Rebellion discussed below. See Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith, Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1998), pp. 286-90.
2. For an overview of the Nat Turner Rebellion, see Herbert Aptheker, The Event, in Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 45-57. See also Johnson and Smith, Africans in America, pp. 308-12, which includes large selections of primary source material.
3. Frederick Douglass, The Narrative and Selected Writings, Edited by Michael Meyer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), p. 252.
4. In a speech at Finsbury Chapel, in Moorfields, England, on May 12, 1846, Fredrick Douglass spelled out to his audience the full import of Southern religion:
I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter,
the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing
tracts and bibles, sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in
various ways for the promotion of the gospel in foreign lands -- the slave not only lies forgotten,
uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America?
Why, we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands as the
great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward and
torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed. They stand forth as the
foremost, the strongest defenders of this institution...Instead of preaching the gospel against tyranny,
rebuke, and wrong, ministers of religion have sought, by all and every means, to throw in the back-
ground whatever in the bible could be construed into opposition to slavery, and bring forward that
which they could torture into its support. This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery, and the
most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounces it to
the charge of infidelity.
See Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, Edited, with a Forward and Notes, by John Stauffer (New York: Random House, Inc., 2003), pp. 251-52.
Ex-slave Henry Bibbs, in writing to his former master, also did not mince words in describing Southern religion:
Again I ask you to feel, brother, with all of this guilt resting upon your head as an acceptable class
leader in the Methodist Episcopal Church south! Be not deceived by the long practice of your church;
you have an awful account to render to the great Judge of the Universe, slave holding religion is of
the devil, and your only chance for salvation lies in repentance before God and "faith in our Lord
See John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), p 55.
5. Berlin, Generations of Captivity, pp. 203-4.
6. Ibid., pp. 204-5.
7. See Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 114-28. Additionally, the planters themselves often opposed such "outside" evangelization, since the catechetical process included the teaching of literacy -- a "dangerous" activity in the eyes of many white Southerners. See Johnson and Smith, Africans in America, pp. 90-92.
8. For the development of Nat Turner's religious views, see Vincent Harding, "Symptoms of Liberty and Blackhead Signposts: David Walker and Nat Turner," in Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner, pp. 79-102. There were significant religious overtones to the Denmark Vesey Rebellion of 1822 as well. Thus, a favorite biblical passage of Vesey and his followers, who taught themselves to read, was Exodus 21:16: "He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death." See Johnson and Smith, Africans in America, pp. 287-88.
9. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001), p. 57. Berlin, Generations of Captivity, p 206, attributes the evangelical impulse on the part of some planters to genuine concern for the spiritual lives of their slaves. This may be true for some Southern planters, but the overwhelming concern of most appears to have been the "pacification" of black slaves through Christian evangelization, as noted by Harriet Jacobs. See Raboteau, Slave Religion, pp. 163-65.
10. See Mary Kemp Davis, "'What Happened in This Place?' In Search of the Female Slave in the Nat Turner Slave Insurrection," in Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner, p. 167. Thus, in the aftermath of the revolt, one black slave woman, an 18-20-year-old named "Lucy," stood trial and was hanged for the attempted murder of her mistress. Another female slave, a woman named "Charlotte," was summarily executed by the husband of her white mistress for threatening the latter with a "dirk." However, the accounts of the Nat Turner Rebellion indicate that many more black slave women attempted to protect their mistresses from the wrath of Nat Turner's men and even served as witnesses for the prosecution against their fellow slaves in the trials that followed the insurrection. See ibid., pp. 163-65.
11. Berlin, Generations of Captivity, p. 206. Historiographer John Sykes notes that many platation mistresses also were involved in such "plantation mission work." He cites the example of Louisa Harrison, the wife of a wealthy Episcopalian planter from Alabama, who conducted "regular Sunday services" for the plantation slave community as well as taught a catechism "class of slave children." Indeed, one contemporary writer "romantically recalled":
Every Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Harrison is in her place [i.e., plantation house], now teaching
the Bible lesson to her slaves, now playing the organ and leading in the singing of the hymns.
Her house may be filled with charming [white] guests, but she permitted nothing to interrupt
her in her religious service, she leaves them to go to her waiting black people.
See John Sykes, "'As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord': Slavery and the Episcopal Church in Alabama," The Historiographer (of the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists and the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church) XL1V No. 1 (Lent 2006), p. 12.
12. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Southern clergy found themselves in an unenviable position. On the one hand, their Northern counterparts "pushed their Southern co-religionists to acknowledge slavery as a sin and to excommunicate slaveholders." Plantation owners responded to this Northern "interference" by restricting the access of Southern preachers to their plantation slaves. In the aftermath of Nat Turner's Rebellion, however, many Southern clergymen united with the large planters in the defense of slavery as an institution and in the formulation of a distinctly "Southern" variety of Christianity to "pacify" black slaves. See John W. Blasingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 80.
Planters also influenced the selection of Southern pastors and priests to a great degree due to the polity of most Protestant denominations. In the latter, the congregations themselves normally selected their respective clergymen. In the Episcopal Church, for example, the vestry -- the lay administrative arm of the congregation -- hired (and thus could dismiss) the parish priest. Throughout the South, however, only prominent planters held key vestry positions -- Senior Warden, Junior Warden, Treasurer, etc. -- and thus selected only pro-slavery priests. Cf. Robert Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church, Revised Edition (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), pp. 9-11, 145-46.
13. Blasingame, The Slave Community, pp. 80-81. Former slave George Ross from Maryland testified to the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in 1863 that, "I have known instances where clergymen owned slaves -- Methodist preachers & Presbyterian preachers, I believe. We had one in our place that owned seven or eight, and also sold them." See Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p 407.
Filmmaker Katrina Browne, a member of the famed DeWolf family, dramatically revisited the issue of slaveholding among Southern Episcopalian planters in a recent film entitled Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Browne researched her family's long history in Bristol, R.I. and discovered that the DeWolfs were one of the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history! Additionally, the family had deep ties to the Protestant Episcopal Church. James DeWolf Perry, for example, was a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, while Mark Anthony deWolfe Howe was an Episcopal bishop in Rhode Island. In Traces of the Trade, the filmmaker accompanies nine DeWolf descendants as they accept her invitation in 2001 to travel together from Rhode Island to Ghana and Cuba, where DeWolfs owned large slave-holding plantations. See http://www.tracesofthetrade.org/
14. Quoted in William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: A Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 134-35.
15. Harriet Jacobs recorded one such lengthy sermon of the "pious" Mr. Pike, which closely mirrored that given by Bishop Meade:
Harken, ye servants! . . .You are rebellious sinners. . .Tis the devil that tempts you. God is angry
with you, and will surely punish you, if you don't forsake your wicked ways. . .Instead of serving
your masters faithfully, which is pleasing in the sight of your heavenly Master, you are idle, and
you shirk your work. God sees you. You tell lies. God hears you. Instead of being engaged in
worshipping him, you are hidden away somewhere, feasting on your masters' substance. . .Your
masters may not find you out, but God sees you, and will punish you. . .You must forsake your
sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master -- your old
mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly
See Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, pp. 57-58.
16. Blasingame, The Slave Community, p. 87.
17. Ibid., p. 88. The full text of another Episcopalian catechism dated 1862, A Catechism to be Taught Orally to Those Who Cannot Read; Designed Especially for the Instruction of the Slaves, can be found on the website of the Libraries of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at http://docsouth.unc.edu/catechisms/menu.html. However, historiographer John Sykes has commented that:
One author has suggested that use of such catechisms for teaching slaves was a form of mind control
in "which the Episcopal Church sought to transmit a culture that it viewed as dominant." While
these "simplified" catechisms were tailored specifically for slave congregations in language and
tone, memorization of the catechism contained in the Book of Common Prayer was required
until relatively recently of every catechumen who wished confirmation in the Episcopal Church.
The Catechism was the "outline of faith" and the way the Church taught all its members.
Nevertheless, as Sykes himself noted, planters expanded the slaves' version of the Catechism to include additional material to justify "the unique relationship of authority created by slavery" as well as to explain "the reward for such obedience." See John Sykes, "'As for me and my house," p. 5.
18. Blasingame, The Slave Community, p. 87.
19. Ibid., pp. 85-86. John Sykes, "'As for me and my house,'" p. 5, also notes that:
For most [Southern] clergy and laity, slavery as an institution was rarely challenged. The presence
of slavery in the Old Testament gave it acceptance in the laws of God, and since Jesus Christ had
not definitively argued to repeal it, the Church should accept its existence but work to make slaves'
lives better. It was a buty, a responsibility, and the Church began to teach the laity to remember the
salvation of those heathen not just "in far Afric's shores," but the familiar faces that lived and
worked beside them in bondage.
20. Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology: The Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond (New York: Random House, Inc., 1987), p. 4. A more expansive definition of "theology," from a Catholic perspective, is:
The methodical effort to understand and interpret the truth of [divine] revelation. As fides quaerens
intellectum (Lat. "faith seeking understanding"), theology uses the resources of reason, drawing in
particular on the disciplines of history and philosophy. In the face of the divine mystery, theology
is always "seeking" and never reaches final answers and definitive insights.
See Gerald O'Collins, S.J., and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J., A Concise Dictionary of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), p. 240. Based on these two scholarly definitions, "Southern religion" clearly does not qualify as a "genuine" Christian theology.
21. For the often "checkered" history of the Catholic Church's views concerning slavery during the past two thousand years, see Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Revised and Expanded Edition (New York: Doubleday, 2004), pp. 41-42, 56, 487-88. For a more in-depth examination of this issue, see Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery (N.Y.: Alba House, 1997).
22. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, pp. 96-97.
23. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 17.
24. Ibid., pp. 10-11. Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper), a freeborn black poet, also captured the horror of slave family separations in her 1858 poem "Bury Me in a Free Land:"
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Quoted in Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, eds., Major Problems in American Women's History, Third Edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003), p. 135.
Of the coffle-gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not rest if I heard the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast
Like trembling doves from their parents nest. . .
If I saw young girls, from their mothers' arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheeks grow red with shame.
25. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 53.
26. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 12.
27. Indeed, this inquisitorial instruction in the Christian Faith exhorts its reader to affirm "to keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity." For the full text of The 1786 U.S. Book of Common Prayer, see the website of The Society of Archbishop Justus at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1789/BCP_1789.htm
28. See Catherine Clinton, "Sexuality in Black and White," in Norton and Alexander, eds., Major Problems in American Women's History, p. 142.
29. The extent to which slave "breeding" occurred on Southern plantations is unclear from the existing evidence. Some masters and mistresses did attempt to control the mating habits of their slaves, often by matching up "appropriate" couples. See Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, From Slavery to the Present (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 34-35. Additionally, black slave women were expected to bear children early and as frequently as possible to augment their masters' slave force. Those who failed to do so were beaten or sold. Thus, one historian notes:
Slaveholders, both men and women, manipulated Black women to have children early and
frequently. First, they used verbal prodding, then subtle practices such as giving pregnant
women more food and less work. Some slaveholders used an outright system of rewards
such as a new dress, or silver dollars, or Saturdays off. For women who resisted these
"positive" incentives, coercion always existed -- the threat of whipping, sale, or both.
See Deborah Gray White, "Slavery," in Wilma Mankiller (et al), eds., The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998), p. 544.
Other slave owners appear to have kept particularly virile black males for "stud service," who were referred to as "stockmen," "travelin' niggers," or "breedin' niggers." See Clinton, "Sexuality in Black and White," p. 141. Yet, there are few references to the latter in the slave narratives and interviews written before and after the Civil War. Thus, in John W. Blassingame's massive collection of slave testimonies, only one contains a vague reference to the practice of stud service. "I have often heard of slaves being kept for the purpose of breeding," ex-slave George Ross of Maryland testified in 1863, "but I have never seen it." Quoted in Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 406. Nevertheless, as historian Paul Escott argues, "mere numbers cannot suggest the suffering and degradation they caused" to the slave men and women involved in such a practice. Quoted in Clinton, "Sexuality in Black and White," p. 141. (Paul Escott also notes that "it is likely that reticence caused some underreporting.")
30. Quoted in Clinton, Sexuality in Black and White, p. 142.
31. Quoted in ibid., p. 139.
32. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, pp. 15-16, 26-33.
32. Quoted in Clinton, "Sexuality in Black and White," p. 141
33. Ibid., p. 143.
34. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 16. Jacobs herself was continually hounded by Mrs. Flint, her master's wife, due to Mr. Flint's obvious interest in the slave girl. See ibid., pp. 28-33.
35. Clinton, "Sexuality in Black and White," p. 144. Former slave J. W. Lindsay of Tennessee recalled in 1863, "Sometimes white mistresses will surmise that there is an intimacy between a slave woman & the master, and perhaps she will make a great fuss & have her whipped, & perhaps there will be no peace until she is sold." See Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 401.
36. Quoted in Norton and Alexander, eds., Major Problems in American Women's History, p. 136. Harriet Jacobs notes that:
Though this bad institution [of slavery] deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a fearful
extent, it is not altogether extinct. I have heard southern ladies say of Mr. Such a one, "He not only
thinks it no disgrace to be the father of those little niggers, but he is not ashamed to call himself
their master. I declare, such things ought not to be tolerated in any decent society!"
See Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 33.
37. Ibid., p. 16.
38. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 420.
39. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 43.
40. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 411. Harriet Jacobs also noted that she endured her "worst persecutions" from her master, Dr. Flint, after the latter became a communicant with the Episcopal Church. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 63.
41. Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 167.
42. Quoted in ibid.
43. Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 192. Indeed, many slaves believed that "there existed somewhere a real Bible from God, 'but they frequently say the Bible now used is master's Bible,' since all that they heard from it was 'Servants, obey your masters.'" Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 295.
44. Quoted in Raboteau, Slave Religion., p. 294.
45. Quoted in ibid.
46. Berlin, Favreau, and Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery, p. 18.
47. Quoted in Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 295.
48. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 58. Nevertheless, freedom did not always guarantee acceptance of former slaves in Northern churches, as Frederick Douglass discovered in New Bedford, Massachusetts:
The white members [at the Methodist Church] went forward to the altar by the bench full; and
when it was evident that all whites had been served with the bread and wine, Brother Bonney --
pious brother Bonney -- after a long pause, as if inquiring whether all the white members had
been served, and fully assuring himself on that important point, then raised his voice to an un-
natural pitch, and looking to the corner where his black sheep seemed pinned, beckoned with his
hand, exclaiming, "Come forward, colored friends! -- come forward! You, too, have an interest
in the blood of Christ. God is no respecter of persons. Come forward, and take this holy sacrament
to your comfort." The colored members -- poor, slavish souls -- went forward, as invited. I went out,
and have never been in that church since, although I honestly went there with a view to joining that
body. I found it impossible to respect the religious profession of any who were under the denomination
of this wicked prejudice, and I could not, therefore, feel that in joining them, I was joining a christian
See Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, p. 210.
48. Berlin, Favreau, and Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery, p. 193
49. Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 295
50. Quoted in ibid.
51. Quoted in ibid.
53. Ibid., p. 212. See also William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South 1865-1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), pp. 33-34.
54. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 58.
55. Sources for these black spirituals included "the Bible, Protestant hymns, sermons, and African styles of singing and dancing."' See Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 243.
56. For the teaching of literacy for purposes of reading the Bible, see Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 61. The articulate former slave Henry Bibb was fond of quoting liberating biblical verses in his letters to his former master, the Rev. Albert G. Sibley: "Listen to the language of inspirations: 'Feed the hungry, and clothe the naked;' 'Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free;' and 'All things, whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them, for this is the law and the prophets.'" See Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 50.
57. Berlin, Favreau, and Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery, p. 191.
58. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, pp. 116-17. Ex-slave Tom Holland of Georgia also remembered with great trepidation the nightly patrols:
If we went off without a pass we allus went two at a time. We slipped off when we got a chance to
see young folks on some other place. The patterrollers cotched me one night, and Lawd have mercy
me, they stretches me over a log and hits thirty-nine licks with a rawhide loaded with rock, and every
time they hit me the blood and hide done fly. They drove me home to massa and told him and he called a old mammy to doctor my back, and I couldn't work for four days.
See Berlin, Favreau, and Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery, p. 173. See also the detailed testimony of former slave Lewis Clarke of Kentucky concerning the atrocities committed by these patrollers -- "the worst fellows that can be found" -- in Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, pp. 156-58.
59. Berlin, Generations of Captivity, pp. 203-4.
60. Ibid., p. 201.
61. Historian Deborah Gray White notes:
If resistance in the United States [after 1831] was seldom politically oriented, consciously collective,
or violently revolutionary, it was generally individualistic and aimed at maintaining what the
slaves, master, and overseer had, in the course of their relationships, perceived as an acceptable
level of work, shelter, food, punishment, and free time. Slaves may have thought about overthrowing
the system of slavery but the odds against them were so overwhelming that the best most could hope
for was survival with a modicum of dignity. Slaver resistance was aimed at maintaining what seemed
to all concerned to be the status quo.
See Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Revised and with a New Introduction (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), p. 77.
62. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 23.
63. Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I a Woman?, p. 7.
64. The plantation masters and mistresses often attributed this "erratic" behavior of their black slave women to inherent "rascality" or event "imbecility." See ibid., pp. 77-78. Former slave Josiah Henson recalled the erratic behavior of one enslaved female named Dinah, who in reality was "clear witted, as sharp and cunning as a fox." Yet, Dinah would purposely act like an imbecile "in order to take advantage of her mistress." Henson stated that,
When the [mistress] said, "Dinah, go and do your work," she would reply with a laugh, "Yes, yes;
whenI get ready," or "Go do it yourself." Sometimes she would scream out, "I won't; that's a lie
catch me if you can!" And she would take to her heels and run away.
Dinah only escaped severe punishment because her mistress assumed that she was "an idiot." Quoted in ibid.
65. Many enslaved black women feigned illness in order to be relieved of their duties or to be transferred to a different line of work. "This strategy was feasible," notes Deborah Grey White, "precisely because child bearing was a primary expectation that slave owners had of slave women." See White, "Slavery," in Mankiller, et al., eds., The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, p. 546.
66. See White, Ar'n't I a Woman?, pp. 77-79.
67. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, p. 55.
68. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree, pp. 333-51. Archivist John Sykes notes that "for most of the former slave community, the Episcopal Church [in the South] remained linked with slavery." Indeed, many freed slaves "remembered the Church more as master than mother." See John Sykes, "'As for me and my family,'" p. 13.