As someone who teaches about American chattel slavery, I’m often asked a common question: Where were the Christian voices crying out against slavery?
It’s an understandable query. So often, we see Christian complicity in chattel slavery held up as an example of Christianity’s abysmal human rights track record. If we can overlook the crimes against humanity perpetuated under the system of chattel slavery, how can we be trusted to think rightly about contemporary issues of human rights?
There are some flimsy answers to that question. We can state that the Christians who endorsed chattel slavery were just men of their time – that we, too, have blind spots that our great-great-grandchildren can see more clearly. We can downplay the very barbaric and dehumanizing impact of chattel slavery to soften the blow of Christian complicity. We can try to erase the history of Christian complicity.
All of these are ways that I was taught to grapple with America’s damning legacy of white supremacy and chattel slavery. And, ultimately, they all fell short. But because I believe that God always has a remnant speaking the truth of his word to the powers that be, I kept looking. And, while there are many white, Christian abolitionists who spoke out against slavery – even pastors who refused to give the Lord’s supper to slaveholders – I found the most stirring expressions of Christian resistance came from the Christians who had been formerly enslaved.
Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative was a lightning rod of the abolitionist movement. It stirred the hearts and minds of many a northern reader as it detailed Douglass’s life of enslavement, his quest for freedom, and the ways in which he understood his place in the world. Douglass pulled no punches about the cruelty of his enslaver performed under the guise of loving Christian ownership:
The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other–devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
Douglass – who had joined the AME Zion Church in 1839 and became a licensed preacher in the church – was not alone in his protestations against slaveholders who professed the faith. Just two years later, when telling of his own escape from slavery, William Wells Brown declared:
But when I thought of slavery with its Democratic whips – its Republican chains – its evangelical bloodhounds, and its religious slave-holders – when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward, my heart was strengthened, and I forgot that I was tired or hungry.
Henry “Box” Brown – who famously escaped slavery by being shipped to freedom in a box – declared in his narrative:
I have no apology whatever to make for what I have said, in regard to the pretended Christianity under which I was trained, while a slave. I have felt it my duty to speak of it harshly, because I have felt its blasting influence, and seen it used as a cloak under which to conceal the most foul and wicked deeds.
Slavery’s contemporaries and its victims did see the hypocrisy of holding men in bondage while proclaiming the love of Christ. These “men of their times” saw both the professed Christianity of their enslavers and the fruit of their professions. And so often, they found that the fruit was lacking.
Brown had been raised with Christian values for which he credited his mother’s instilling, and, though critical in his autobiography of slavery institutionally, he referred to his specific former master as basically kind; it was the master’s exploitation of the superstitious reverence with which the slaves related to him to which Brown strenuously objected. He found the master’s conduct to embody a form of religious malpractice that required abolitionist reckoning.
Likewise, upon re-reading the words of his famous narrative, Douglass wrote an Appendix regarding his ideas about Christianity. He did not want his readers to mistake his distaste for the hypocritical Christianity of his former enslavers for the distaste of true faith.
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.
Again, this chasm of difference was not unique to Frederick Douglass. William Craft – who escaped from Georgia with his white-passing wife Ellen by pretending to be master and slave and would practice Anglicanism even after their escape to England – wrote:
This shameful conduct gave me a thorough hatred, not for true Christianity, but for slave-holding piety.
Time and again, we see that formerly enslaved Christians differentiated between the Gospel of Christ and the gospel of enslavers. In his narrative, Louis Hughes states that the enslaved “could discern the difference between the truths of the ‘word’ and the professed practice of those truths by their masters.”
In his autobiography’s chapter titled “Religious Meetings of the Slaves,” he embraced the superior spiritual discernment and anointed worship he attended among his fellow downtrodden chattel, who self-organized for sabbath. Hughes, with charity and humility, distinguished the “sincere” belief of their masters as limited “according to their [white-privileged] light,” and turned to Black religion as true faith:
Saturday evening on the farm was always hailed with delight. The air was filled with happy shouts from men and boys, so glad were they that Sunday, their only day of rest, was near. In the cabins the women were washing and fixing garments for Sunday, that they might honor the Lord in cleanliness and decency. It was astonishing how they utilized what they had, and with what skill and industry they performed these self-imposed tasks. Where the family was large it was often after midnight before this work was done. While this preparation for the Sabbath was in progress in most of the cabins, the old men would gather in one for a prayer-meeting. As they began to sing some familiar hymn, the air would ring with their voices, and it was not long before the cabin was filled with both old and young, who came in their simple yet sincere way to give praise to God. It was common to have one or two exhorters on the plantation who claimed to be called to do service for God, by teaching their fellow men the principles of religion. God certainly must have revealed himself to these poor souls, for they were very ignorant – they did not know a letter of the Bible. But when they opened their mouths they were filled, and the plan of Salvation was explained in a way that all could receive it. It was always a mystery to the white brethren how the slaves could line out hymns, preach Christ and redemption, yet have no knowledge even of how the name of Christ was spelled. They were illiterate to the last degree, so there is but one theory, they were inspired. God revealed unto them just what they should teach their flock, the same as he did to Moses. I remember very well that there was always a solemnity about the services – a certain harmony, which had a peculiar effect – a certain pathetic tone which quickened the emotions as they sang those old plantation hymns. It mattered not what their troubles had been during the week – how much they had been lashed, the prayer-meeting on Saturday evening never failed to be held. Their faith was tried and true. On Sunday afternoons, they would all congregate again to praise God, and the congregation was enthusiastic. It was pathetic to hear them pray, from the depths of their hearts, for them who “despitefully used them and persecuted them.” This injunction of our Saviour was strictly adhered to. The words that came from the minister were always of a consolatory kind. He knew the crosses of his fellow slaves and their hardships, for he had shared them himself.
Time and again, these enslaved Christians emphasized the difference between the corrupt, hypocritical Christianity practiced by their oppressors and the pure, compassionate teachings of Christ. They argued that the institution of slavery was a sin against God and humanity, and that true Christians could not support or justify it. By separating their faith from the morally bankrupt beliefs of their enslavers, they maintained their spiritual integrity and resisted the dehumanizing effects of slavery.
The legacy of American chattel slavery and its entanglement with Christianity continues to cast a shadow on the relationship between faith and social justice. By examining the lives and beliefs of enslaved Christians, we can better understand the distinction between the Gospel of Christ and the distorted gospel of enslavers. These historical figures provide valuable insight into how true Christian values can and should be applied in the pursuit of justice and equality.
The unwavering faith and courageous resistance of enslaved Christians left an indelible mark on American history. Their testimonies and perspectives helped to expose the immorality of slavery and contributed to the eventual abolition of the institution. Moreover, their ability to maintain their faith and differentiate between true Christianity and the twisted beliefs of their enslavers serves as a powerful example of spiritual resilience and moral fortitude.
We, too, can have this type of discernment as we look at the historical record. False professions that no one knew slavery was wrong, or that the enslaved blindly adopted the religion of their enslavers, or that the enslaved were happy and had no critiques for their enslavers, all go to die in the narratives of those who endured bondage.
There is so much to learn from their testimonies.