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Religion and Society in America Week 5 – Lecture 1 Slave Religion and “The Invisible Church”

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Presentation on theme: "Religion and Society in America Week 5 – Lecture 1 Slave Religion and “The Invisible Church”"— Presentation transcript:

1 Religion and Society in America Week 5 – Lecture 1 Slave Religion and “The Invisible Church”

2  Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  The Rule of Gospel Order  Slave Religion in the 19 th Century

3 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Charles II in 1660 urges the Council for Foreign Plantations to Christianize slaves  “And you are to consider how such of the Natives or such are purchased by you from other parts to be servants or slaves may best be invited to the Christian Faith, and be made capable of being baptized thereunto, it being to the honor of our Crowne and of the Protestant Religion that all person in any of our Dominions should be taught the knowledge of God, and be made acquainted with the misteries of Salvation.”

4 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Colonial planters in 1660s show an indifference toward Christianizing slaves  Profitability of slavery, not Christianization of them, is driving force  Baptism of slaves, many thought, equaled their freedom

5 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Freedom through act of baptism was legally vague, but widely believed  Citizenship tied to religious profession  1660 – 1700 pivotal years of transition for colonial slavery

6 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  1664 Lower House of Maryland asks the Upper House “to draw up an Act obliging negroes to serve durante vita…for the prevencion of the damage Masters of such Slaves must susteyne by such Slaves pretending to be Christened, And soe pleade the lawe of England.”

7 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Early 1700s, debate emerges between missionaries and slaveholders concerning the slave’s humanity  1706 – Cotton Mather writes The Negro Christianized  With scriptural verse and logic Mather argues on behalf of Africans to be seen as humans

8 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  “Show your selves Men, and let Rational Arguments have their Force upon you, to make you treat, not as Bruits but as Men, those Rational Creatures whom God has made your Servants…”

9 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  George Berkeley (1685–1753) pens A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations, and for converting the savage Americans to Christianity by a college to be erected in the Summer Islands, otherwise called the Isles of Bermuda (1725)

10 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  In 1728, Berkeley, a philosopher, lands in Newport Rhode Island taking up residence  1731 complains about the Colonialists’ “irrational contempt for Blacks, as creatures of another species, who had no right to be instructed or admitted to the sacraments…”

11 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Why were slaveholders so against converting slaves at this time?  Implicit egalitarianism of Christian message concerning “fellowship”  Threatening to slave-master hierarchy  Christian message, it was feared, would make slaves both proud and ungovernable

12 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  1720s – 1730s  As apologists for converting slaves, missionaries begin to argue to slaveholders that Christianity will actually produce better slaves  Missionaries begin to construct a stout wall between spiritual and temporal equality

13 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Argument: Every “man” abide in the condition wherein he is called, with great indifference of the mind, towards his outward circumstances  Issue of slavery grows increasingly divisive among Christian colonists

14 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  1773 – Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island begins to participate in colonizing scheme  1796 – Quaker yearly meeting in Philadelphia sees incorporation of rule guaranteeing the application of membership will be received “without respect of persons or color”

15 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  1785 – John Carroll, superior of American missions to the Catholic Church, estimates there are 15,800 Catholics in Maryland of which 3,000 are slaves. Pennsylvania, he estimates with 7,000 Catholics, “very few of whom are negroes.”

16 Catechesis and Conversion of African and African American Slaves  Paradigm of “the great commission” is inverted in the context of American society. “Pagans” were brought to American soil

17 The Rule of Gospel Order  Slave conspiracy theories are ever present in the South with the opening of the 19 th Century  Slaveholders, particularly on large plantations, are weary of those missionaries who would teach slaves to read and write

18 The Rule of Gospel Order  Those missionaries to slaves had to walk a delicate line between appeasing slaveholders and those with evangelical fervor  Missionaries posit the religious obligation of masters to their slaves  Late 1820 and 1830s – development of an argument concerning the benefits of slavery

19 The Rule of Gospel Order  A “judicious system of religious instruction” included: Regular Sabbath preaching to slaves Plantation meetings and pastoral visits Sabbath schools Oral, not written, instruction Stated reasons for gatherings with every meeting Expressed consent by owner or manager to be secured beforehand

20 The Rule of Gospel Order  Two events turned the tide concerning missionary efforts to slaves in the South  1822, Charleston, South Carolina – “Denmark Vesey” slave rebellion  Plot leader, Vesey, was said to have used biblical text to justify rebellion and gain support

21 The Rule of Gospel Order  Vesey, one conspirator confessed, “read in the Bible where God commanded, that all should be cut off, both men, women, and children, and said…it was no sin for us to do so, for the Lord commanded us to do it.”  Vesey, an ex-slave who purchased his freedom, read the bible and attended an African Methodist Church

22 The Rule of Gospel Order  1831, Southampton, Virginia – the Nat Turner rebellion  Turner contended he was a seer, a prophet, and a preacher  He was commanded by God to take up arms against his oppressor

23 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  What role did religion, Christianity in particular, play in the everyday lives of slaves?  Did it act simply to perpetuate the system of unremitting toil and capricious cruelty faced by African Americans?  Did it help them to endure the horrors of the South’s “peculiar institution”?

24 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Religious life of slaves was both institutional and non-institutional, visible and invisible, organized and spontaneous  Sunday worship in a local church was paralleled by informal prayer meetings on weekdays in slave cabins

25 Slave Cabins in Georgetown County, South Carolina

26 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Spirituals helped illiterate slaves learn and recite biblical verses  Slaves blend Christianity with folk beliefs and practices to become a formidable force in the lives of slaves

27 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Central example – “conjure”  The concept of suffering for the guilt of the father is biblical; the concept of being victimized by a “fix” is conjure. Both attempt to locate the cause of irrational suffering.

28 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Conjure gave slaves a means to cure their unexplainable suffering  Charms placed near persecutor, tricks played on victims  Conjures also given to slaves for protection  Conjurers retained powers because their stated effects of conjure worked to a great degree

29 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Conjure, it is argued, was primarily a method of control Explanatory power for everyday phenomenon (illness, misfortune, etc.) Assumed capacity to affect situation Control of the future by reading “signs” of conjure Forum in which conflict could be aired

30 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Two conflicting tendencies in the biracial religious context of slave religion: one encouraged, within limits, black independence; the other, white control  Plantation missions bring slaves into direct contact with denominational expressions of religion

31 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians increase missions to plantations  Black Christians take up the cause of missionary work  Example Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society appoints two members for missionary work in Liberia

32 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Blacks participate in other benevolent missions of America’s “Benevolent Empire”  Black preachers, some slave and some free, continued to be licensed despite periodic harassment by civil and ecclesiastical authorities  Independent black churches in the South during the antebellum also continue to grow

33 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Many slaveholders granted their slaves permission to attend church  Baptisms, marriages, and funerals were performed on some plantations as whites observed/participated in ceremonies  Revival meetings were social occasions for blacks and whites

34 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  1846 to 1861  Methodist Episcopal Church, South increases black membership from 118,904 to 209,836  Baptist Church increased black membership from 200,000 to 400,000 in this same period

35 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Tensions could arise within issues of Christian fellowship  “Un-Christian conduct” was problematic because the accusation of misconduct against a white member of the church was to contradict the civil order where slave testimony against whites was not permitted

36 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Private elements of slave religion  “Invisible Institution” – religious experience of slaves by no means was fully contained in institutional church  Techniques devised to preserve privacy  “Hush arbors” – brush arbors providing slaves privacy for gathering

37 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Over-turned kettles to dampen sound  Private sphere of religious experience was at the core of slaves’ religious life  “Frenzy” or “shouting” of congregations

38 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Slaves were frequently moved to hold their own religious services out of disgust for the vitiated Gospel preached by their master’s preachers  Slaves faced severe punishment (flogging) if they were caught attending secret prayer meetings

39 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  Two prominent poles of behavior development among Christianized slaves – accommodation and rebellion  Egalitarian tendencies of Christianity could led to a sympathy among some whites

40 Slave Religion in the 19 th Century  What role did religion, Christianity in particular, play in the everyday lives of slaves?  Did it act simply to perpetuate the system of unremitting toil and capricious cruelty faced by African Americans?  Did it help them to endure the horrors of the South’s “peculiar institution”?

41 Drawing Some Conclusions about Slave Religion and the Invisible Church  Christian faith could lead to an acquiescence concerning human suffering for both slave and free  Potential to reinforce status quo  Obeying the laws of God, particularly when they contradicted the laws of humans, gave slaves a sense of moral superiority

42 Drawing Some Conclusions about Slave Religion and the Invisible Church  Conversion experience placed a high premium on selfhood helping individuals to see their own value  Religious practices could temporarily transformed individuals sorrows  Provided an active sense/form of rebellion against slave system  Religion was a space of meaning, freedom, and transcendence


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