Equal Before God

NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY

Like the martyrs in the early church or the Christians who were persecuted under communism, slaves "are the primary example in American history of Christians who suffered for their faith."

Perched on the side of a lush green hill, 100 yards from the banks of the Ashley River, is a small white chapel. Built in 1850 as the second floor of a "spring house" (which used cool streams to keep food chilled), the one-room sanctuary was the center of religious life at the Middleton Place plantation, for both masters and slaves.

The religious life of slaves? The concept seems peculiar, to say the least. Why would plantation owners deem people whom they treated as subhuman from Monday through Saturday sufficiently worthy of co-worship on Sundays? And why would slaves embrace the faith of a people who were so cruel to them?

In 1978, scholar Albert Raboteau published Slave Religion, a groundbreaking book that set out to explain "the invisible institution in the Antebellum South."

"From the very beginning of the Atlantic slave trade," Mr. Raboteau writes, "conversion of the slaves to Christianity was viewed by the emerging nations of Western Christendom as a justification for the enslavement of Africans." But there was also a recognition of the danger that could accompany such transformations. "Masters understood," Mr. Raboteau told me in a recent interview, "that there was something subversive about the whole notion of fellowship, brotherhood and sisterhood [in Christianity] that would lead slaves to think more highly of themselves."

In some instances, the slaves who attended the same churches as their owners would complain to the religious authorities about the treatment to which they were subjected during the week. In one instance, in the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kentucky, a Brother Palmer accused the Stephens family of improperly treating their slave Nancy, by putting her in irons and forbidding her to see her child. "Apparently she had reason to hope," Mr. Raboteau writes, "that the church would intervene on her behalf or at least serve as a forum for her complaint."

Slaves also gained power through religion in more spiritual ways. One slave, Andrew Bryan, actually preached in the streets of Savannah to both whites and blacks. In the early 1780s, he was punished because it was thought that his words had provoked the escape of some local slaves. Bryan reportedly "told his prosecutors that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ." As historian Eugene Genovese explains in his work on slave life, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1972): "The black preachers . . . had to speak a language defiant enough to hold the high-spirited among their flock but neither so inflammatory as to rouse them to battles they could not win nor so ominous as to rouse the ire of the ruling powers."

It is easy to see why the plantation owners would not want sentiments like Bryan's to spread. Not only does punishment become less effective when martyrdom is a possibility, but the notion that Christianity would "relativize the master's will in terms of God's will," as Mr. Raboteau puts it, was a dangerous one.



Whatever the logic of the masters who encouraged slave religion, it is clear that many slaves were sincere Christians. It could be argued that the legacy of such belief is one reason that blacks are among the most fervently religious groups in America today.


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, missionaries tried to convince masters that they should allow their slaves to practice Christianity, often arguing that Christian slaves would be better slaves. There were some churches, like the Quakers', that refused to condone slavery or to preach to slaves (such preaching, they felt, would confer a legitimacy on the institution). But many preachers chose, as Mr. Genovese writes, "to place the souls of the slaves above all material considerations."

For their sermons to slaves, preachers chose their Bible passages carefully. Ephesians 6:5 was a favorite, according to the tour guide at the Middleton Place plantation: "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." But, as Mr. Raboteau observes, there was "no way of controlling the way that slaves would interpret biblical stories. . . . The masters might interpret the story of Exodus as being freed from sin, but the slaves would interpret it as being freed from physical bondage."

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a slave who had purchased his own freedom, plotted the rebellion of a few thousand slaves here. According to the contemporary accounts, Vesey invoked the Bible to justify his belief that slavery should be eradicated. And most of the slaves executed for participating in the plot were members of the African Methodist Church.

After such incidents, masters would often prevent their slaves from practicing Christianity, at least for a while. But slave religion eventually returned, partly to assuage the masters' guilt. "Not only was Christianization of slaves a rationale for slavery," Mr. Raboteau writes, "but it was . . . a balm for the occasional eruptions of Christian conscience disturbed by the notion that maybe slavery was wrong."

White slaveholders even worried, from time to time, whether they were preventing their slaves from carrying out their Christian duties. At the urging of their churches, masters sometimes kept married slaves on the same plantation instead of allowing them to be separated. In cases where a spouse was sold to another plantation far away, the church would declare the marriage void so that each slave could find another partner without committing adultery.

Whatever the logic of the masters who encouraged slave religion, it is clear that many slaves were sincere Christians. It could be argued that the legacy of such belief is one reason that blacks are among the most fervently religious groups in America today. But Mr. Raboteau sees the narrative of slave religion as a more universal story. Like the martyrs in the early church or the Christians who were persecuted under communism, slaves "are the primary example in American history of Christians who suffered for their faith."

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Naomi Schaefer Riley. "Equal Before God." The Wall Street Journal (June 2, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

THE AUTHOR

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste-page editor and the author of God on the Quad; How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.

Copyright 2006 Wall Street Journal


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