Slaves and the burden of Religion: Assessing Christianity in the last 50 years of American Slavery


One of the most arduous things I had to do when I began constructing a research essay on Southern slavery, was not investigating or writing the thing, but reading through some of the slave accounts that depicted the violent, cruel and most heartless behaviours of slaveholders towards innocent blacks. White slaveholders were depicted playing psychological games as the slaves cried in confusion, laughing at their calls of desperation, lynching of the most heinous nature and whipping them senselessly as they cried for mercy. It was truly heart wrenching to read, and made my task of evaluating Christianity, a faith that they held so solemnly as helping them through slavery, objectively difficult. But I suppose this is just one of the many important roles of an historian, in sifting through the emotional wreckage, the feelings which paint a skewed truth, to somehow scratch away the surface of evidence and find a deeper unadulterated version of the truth: That religion did truly not help the slaves.

At first glance, it seems outrageous to suggest. But we must neglect our initial preconceptions of religion as well as the apparent barbarity of white slaveholders, and recognise the social, cultural and political influence it had at the time. Yes it gave them a sense of spiritual awareness, a feeling that they had something to live for as well as inspiring a critique of white preaching. But it also encouraged obedience, made them assimilate within the white culture and most importantly, it constrained them from forceful protest. As they became more spiritual, they slowly and unknowingly absorbed the white culture, accepting their racial-religious model and allowing the white slaveholders to use their Christian religion for greater control. For these reasons I was able to come to this conclusion, and in the short amount of space I am afforded here, I aim to reveal their significance and the ways they created disadvantages for slaves rather than bettering their experience, as some historians have lead people to believe.

The three main primary sources that I examined were the slave accounts of Henry Bibb, Thomas Anderson and Charles Ball, all of which wrote autobiographical accounts of their experiences as slaves (1815,1854 and 1859 respectively). From an historical standpoint they are problematic as they all exude an emotional and extremely subjective view of events and experiences. But while their testimonies are historically questionable, they however, do reveal something unique to an historian searching for answers to questions like: what they felt, how they coped, and how religion was experienced. It is something that an historian cannot pull from other conventional forms of research, such as looking at legislation, speeches, and press portrayals. I had to be careful however not to fall into the trap of connecting emotionally with these accounts which begged for sympathy and pity.

xxii1So what did religion do for them?

Many scholars will argue that it gave them spiritual support, a sense of unity, and a means by which the slaves could combat white ideology (fighting ideology with ideology). However I came to see a different truth with my engagement of the slave accounts. Religion instead created ‘moral slaves’, a concept championed by German philosopher Fredric Nietzsche. In other words as slaves became Christianised, they feared retaliating against white slaveholders and losing salvation after death. Coupled with this, was the works of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault who claimed that religion embodied another form of institution which made individual, autonomous humans into ‘Docile Bodies’. However, it is important not to construe my argument here with a critique of religion as a whole, instead my focus aims to assess the repressive, slanted, and overtly orthodox  form of Christianity that was employed at the time. Its very nature was severely repressive, predicated on black subservience, and while slaves formed their own independent religion, their engagement with Christianity invariably meant an inadvertent acceptance of the culture and system that enslaved them.

As slaves became Christianised they thought that they were bettering their life that seemed devoid of any meaning and value, however they did not account for the implications that it had. It inevitably meant that they were becoming more enmeshed within the system, more assimilated within the white culture and as a result they contributed to its renewal. Jonathon Bryant, an historian who examined the African Penfield church between 1848-1863, refutes what many people may feel about the positive nature of religion with a succinct outline of its inherent implications. He states:

”…As the slaves gained some control over their own religious lives, they also adopted the same forms and organization, the same rituals and ceremonies, as the whites. If slave theology emphasized the eschatological hopes of their faith, so too it emphasized righteous and sober conduct here on earth. If the Penfield slaves’ souls did not belong to their masters, their bodies did, and therein lay the tragedy”

Roman philosopher Seneca seemed to accurately summarise the powers of religion in such ways, when he so poignantly remarked:

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

Suggested  Reading:

Bryant, Jonathan M. ”My Soul Ain’t yours, Mas’r”:The Records of the African Church at Penfield 1848-1863. Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol75 No.2 (Georgia historical society 1991) pp.401-412

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish, The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books ed. (Random House Inc, New York 1995)

Harrill, J. Albert. The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate. Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Vol.10 No.2 (University of California Press, 2000) pp.149-186

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Dover Thrift Editions. (Dover Publications Inc, New York, 1997)

7 comments on “Slaves and the burden of Religion: Assessing Christianity in the last 50 years of American Slavery

  1. peterg says:

    Hi Hayden,
    It is amazing what is done in the name of religion but here religion was gained to help the enslaved to get through their internment (for want of a better word).
    An interesting read and, I’m sure, one your markers will also enjoy.
    Congrats on finishing your capstone project, too

  2. Hayden, you’ve offered a really unique perspective on the use of religion in the experience of slaves. I’m really convinced by your argument and I think your choice of source material has been used powerfully and in a way that supports your argument. I enjoyed your initial explanation and how you acknowledged the issues you were confronted with in your project. I’d be really interested to read any scholars who would argue contrary to your point that religion was a means of control… i’m curious as to how many people out there who would think so.

  3. Lang Reid says:

    I think that this is the perfect example of poststructuralism where new historical perspectives question the conventional and previous historical understanding. A very interesting and thought-provoking read indeed.

    However, assessment of religion is often problematic as it depends whether the writer is a believer or not and their understanding of the sincere faith that many profess and live by. This is no different in many respects to what we know as historians’ perspective and bias.

    Seneca’s assessment that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful” is clearly from a stance of unbelief. For those who have a deep and abiding faith in Christ (the basis of Christianity), and who profess and abide by their faith, it has given them a level of comfort, perseverance and hope throughout the centuries amidst any trial and persecution, including slavery.

    I think writers are in danger of being patronising to discount slaves’ first-hand accounts of how their faith sustained them throughout the atrocities and injustice they experienced. I also think it needs to be pointed out that there is a difference between false religiosity employed by those who do not have a sincere faith in order to maintain power and control over others, and true faith that informs every decision a Christian believer makes, as in the case of true Christianity.

    You may be right that religion was used to control the slaves and suppress uprising but how are we to understand the many professing Christians, alongside atheists, who also advocated for the end of slavery? Christianity itself does not suppress the fight for justice and compassion for fellow human beings.

    It would be an interesting study to trace the end of slavery and see who the main advocates were. I think I have some summer reading to do.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking article.

  4. stanleywu1 says:

    Hayden your project is really insightful. Your choice of sources must have been a difficult read as there is no doubt that it draws from our sympathies. What I see is a developed historical professionalism.

    Whilst reading your blog it made me think of the icy exchange between the Chinese and Japanese leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the reason for their cold and stolid attitudes to one another because of the Rape of Nanking.

    Regardless, excellent work Hayden!

  5. hayleymx says:

    Hi Hayden,
    first let me begin by saying, wow.
    The concept of the ‘moral slave’ is one which I have never before encountered and as a recent researcher of the slave trade myself, I must say with regret that I had never considered this angle of analysis. The fact that their adherence to Christian teachings and practices actually made them MORE passive and accepting of the very “culture and system” which advocated their enslavement is actually quite astounding and contrary to what myself and others, no doubt, would have initially thought.
    Original. Thoughful. Concise.

    • hayden699 says:

      Thanks for your lovely feedback Hayley, i have only this year dived into philosophy and ive found it to be uniquely insightful to studying history. Nietzsche is great, but Foucault in his book ‘discipline and punishment’ is excellent- the first few chapters are all about the evolution of punishment and torture. Its powerful stuff!

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