Slave religion is the beliefs, religious faith, and practices of Africans brought to the New World beginning in 1619 and that African Americans kept until they were emancipated. West Africans believe that there is a high god, who created all things and they believe on lesser gods who follow the high god. Having these lesser gods meant that they would pray to different gods when dealing with rain, fertility, and crops. They also believed that a status with the lesser gods was occupied by the spirits of their ancestors. Africans thought that their ancestors were the living dead because they were both close to the living as well as the ultimate beings. The purpose of them living was to honor the ancestors, recognize the lesser gods, and give all power and admiration to the high god.
Christianity became alive as slaves began to combine their African religious beliefs with Christian beliefs in order to make up what is called slave religion. At the beginning, between 1619 and the early 1700s, slave owners were not really trying to convert their slaves into Christians. Then, slave owners began to have different thoughts between each other as well. Some believed that slaves were more than inferior so this meant that they should try to acquire Christian redemption. Others believed that converting slaves into Christians would cause many problems because they could start thinking that they were equal to whites since they were sharing the same beliefs. To them, a converted slave would become lazy or even resistant to their white masters.
Then, in 1701, this all began to change when white missionaries and slave masters realized that slaves should be converted into Christians. The formation in London of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was how this all began. The number of slaves that they converted was limited due to the lack of ministers that were sent to North America and because some slave owners objected for their slaves to be taught Christian beliefs. The SPG was converting slaves as they demanded control of their body instead of African beliefs in which they emphasize on physical movement caused by spirit possession.
This society was fairly effective but it was not until the Great Awakenings (1740 and the early 1800s) that black slaves began to turn towards Christianity in large numbers. Preachers that were related with the Great Awakening emphasized conversion of the heart, encouraged overjoyed body expressions, and required a simple confession of Jesus Christs lordship. These ideas were obviously accepted by slaves because they converted throughout the South, but there were some that still resisted some of the theology and religious practices of the Great Awakenings. White preachers taught the slaves that they had to obey their masters as a sign of being faithful to God. In the other hand, white churches still thought that slaves were not equal because they held segregated religious services and controlled the free worship by slaves. Plantation owners went one step further as they established segregated seating by placing the slaves in the rear, in the balcony, or even outside the church windows.
Slaves prayed secretly to God as their only master and asked for them to be liberated from their owners. They reinterpreted Christianity by adding some of their African religion. Slaves identified themselves with the Old Testament Hebrew slaves as they were liberated by God. If God was able to liberate the Hebrew slaves that meant that if the slaves would pray enough to him; the same thing could take place for them. To them, faith was now a belief in and commitment to a God that helped the poor and judged the arrogant and the strong, their owners. Now, God instead of the plantation owner was the actual master of the slaves. Slaves believed that if God had sided against religious and political powers in the Bible, then he could also help them become free. They believed that Jesus was powerful enough to do anything.
Through their arrangement of God and Jesus, slaves were able to obtain a new meaning in their everyday life. They created things like "discourse of solidarity" in which one slave would never give information about another and even went to the extreme of religious resistance. Rebellion was now taking place. "Invisible Institution" was now clearly shown as slaves were conducting secret worship and prayer far away from the eyes of their masters. They would meet in the woods where they would get ready to receive a visit from the spirit who made them sing, pray, preach, shout, and enjoy their own free religious space in such an enthusiastic manner. In the Invisible Institution slaves learned things as oratorical skill and started to become leaders. Some received food and clothing but also counseling in order to keep in the right stage of mind.
In 1830s during the religious awakening in the South the slave owners were now bringing the Gospel to the quarters and this served as social control and as a way to convert the slaves. By 1860, about 15 percent of the slaves were members of either the Baptist or Methodist church. There they heard the same sermons, had the same discipline, and shared the communion table with whites. In the other hand, slaves still did not only follow these formal proceedings. Slaves would still listen to their own black preachers and they would also try to translate the Bible in a way in which it showed that they were Gods chosen people and that Judgment Day would castigate their masters. Slaves turned Christianity into their own terms. If their masters did not follow common Christian behavior then the slaves felt a great superiority over their masters.
Now, in the lower Gulf area, around Louisiana, some slaves followed VOODOO. In other places where slaves were imported illegally from Africa, they practiced Islam. Others did not have a religion at all.
African-American slave religion was very varied and was beyond the masters
observation and knowledge, which was why rebellion began to take place. Slave religion was
proven to be dangerous by Nat Turners Rebellion of 1831, which was the most
important revolt in the 19th century. Nat Turner was a slave in Southampton
County, Va., who believed God had called him in a religious vision to deliver his people
from enslavement. He used his literacy, articulation, and impulsiveness to preach and
gather others who would join him as he planned to strike one night after an eclipse of the
sun. He started with six followers but ended with eighty who marched to Jerusalem, in
Southampton County, and they killed fifty-seven men, women, and children until white
authorities ended the revolt. Turner avoided to be captured for two months before he was
caught and was finally executed in November 1831. Some white Southerners saw rebellion
starting everywhere and killed as many as two hundred slaves because of fear. They began
to be stricter and they showed a closer supervision and religious instruction. The Turner
revolt and the aftermath only proved that whites still did not know the slaves.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. 2452-2454 and 2465.
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll. New York: Random House, Inc., 1972. 232-255.