To African-Americans, what is the value of Christianity and the Bible it derives from? As it relates to the early experience of slaves in this country, it seems insufficient to suppose that the influence of Christianity was all positive or all negative. It has been both a stagnating and lethargic force, as well as a liberating and compelling one. In this first part of a two part series, taken largely from “The Talking Book: African-Americans and the Bible”, we begin to get a sense of what a double edged sword Christianity really was to black slaves.
1.) Most Africans who came to the New World had yet to read the Bible for themselves: “Catholic priests catechized illiterate African slaves in the Spanish colonies to accept their lot as God’s will.”
“No one on the place was taught to read or write,” recalled former slave Silas Jackson. “On Sunday the slaves who wanted to worship would gather at one of the large cabins with one of the overseers present and have their church, after which the overseer would talk. . . . No one read the Bible. Sandy Jasper, Mr. Ashbie’s coachman, was the preacher. He would go to the white Baptist church on Sunday with family and would be better informed because he heard the white preacher.”
2.) The desire to read the Bible did give rise to an accompanying desire among blacks for literacy.
“…..the slave Peter Randolph “became impressed that I was called of God to preach to the other slaves . . . but then I could not read the Bible, and I thought I could never preach unless I learned to read the Bible.”
3.) It also gave raise to a few slave rebellions:
The reaction that followed in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion in August 1831 was a veritable crackdown on African-American Christi- anity. Between 1830 and 1834 Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana all enacted legislation making the education of slaves punishable by fine or imprisonment and completely prohibiting unsupervised slave gatherings and slave preaching.
4.) Some white preachers gave slave preachers snippets that they could use while in the pulpit preaching to black churchgoers:
Slaves were rarely introduced to the Bible through the medium of the printed page. For many slaves biblical literacy began with sponta- neous aural memorization and oral recall. Slaves mimicked what they heard in sermons from white preachers and readers,
5.) Negro spirituals, such as “O Rock Don’t Fall on Me”, focused heavily on the Judgement Day.
6.) The Quakers were the only Christians to consistently and vehemently condemn slavery.
Quaker founder George Fox:
“Consider with yourselves if you were in the same condition as the blacks are, who came strangers to you and were sold to you as slaves; I say, if this should be the condition of you or yours, you would think it a hard measure, yea, and very great bondage and cruelty. And therefore consider seriously this, and do you for them as you would willingly have them do or any other do unto you were you in the like slavish condition, and bring them to know the Lord Christ.”
7.) “The African Church of Charleston, South Carolina, was a congrega-tion of black Methodists founded in 1818 after several thousand blacks had withdrawn their memberships from white Methodist churches in Charleston following a dispute over a segregated burial ground. It became the venue of another abortive revolt that received inspiration from the Bible.”
8.) Frederick Douglas wanted no parts of the Bible later in his life, as he saw that the Bible was used as a vindication for slavery:
“I have met many religious colored people, at the South,” Frederick Douglass wrote, “who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery and to wear chains with meekness and humility.”4 Bitter experience had taught Douglass and other slaves and former slaves that the master class of the United States bore a whip in one hand and a Bible in the other.
“Douglass anticipated that the Bibles sent to the South would become raw material for proslavery propaganda. The master, holding the Bible and the whip, would now wield each in the service of the other. This biblical Christianity would be the only religion of the book that the slaves might know.”
9.) “How much for this woman? She is a good cook, good washer, a good, obedient servant. She
has got religion!” was a refrain commonly used by slave traders to sell slaves.
Certain verses in the Bible condone slavery:
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. (Eph. 6:5)
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God. (Col. 3:22)
Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God be not blasphemed. (1 Tim. 6:1)
10.) Some blacks followed these teachings literally, as is evidenced by Jupiter Hammond, an eighteenth-century slave poet and essayist, who was the first African American to have his writings published in the United States. He who wrote, referring to slave references in the Bible, “Here is a plain command of God for us,” exhorts Hammond, “to obey our masters. It may seem hard for us, if we think our masters wrong in holding us slaves, to obey in all things, but who of us dare dispute with God!”