Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Sacred Mirror"Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860"$

Robert Elder

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781469627564

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469627564.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of North Carolina Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in CSO for personal use (for details see http://www.northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 20 June 2018

Social Death and Everlasting Life

Social Death and Everlasting Life

Slave Identity, Honor, and Ritual

Chapter:
(p.114) Chapter Four Social Death and Everlasting Life
Source:
The Sacred Mirror
Author(s):

Robert Elder

Publisher:
University of North Carolina Press
DOI:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469627564.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that while enslaved people lived with the constant threat of social death and the shame of slavery, church membership offered an acknowledgment of their identity as part of the family of God. In contrast to the dehumanizing rituals of the slave trade, which were designed to separate slaves from the world of white honor, Christian rituals such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper recognized enslaved people as part of the church community, while church discipline of enslaved members involved an implicit but deeply significant acknowledgement of enslaved people as independent moral agents.

Keywords:   Slavery, Race, Social death, Ritual, Baptism, Honor, Shame, Discipline

“On my arrival to South Carolina,” wrote William Thomson, a Scottish weaver, “the first thing that particularly attracted my attention was negro slavery.” Only days after Thomson arrived on the Sea Islands near Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1840, he heard that the local Baptist church was going to baptize “sixteen or eighteen negro slaves.” Thomson decided to attend, arriving at the river early on a clear October Sunday morning to find “hundreds” of slaves and a few whites already gathered on the banks of the river. The Baptist preacher waded into the river wearing a white gown, while a large black deacon named Jacob stood by to make sure the river did not sweep away the new members of God’s family. As the slaves entered the river one by one, Thomson could clearly hear the preacher’s voice repeating the phrase, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost—Amen,” as he immersed each slave in succession. Then, when they had finished, “they came up from the river, in a body” singing, “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord/Or to defend his cause/Maintain the glory of his cross, And honour all his laws.”

Thomson was deeply affected by what he had seen. “I almost expected to see something ridiculous,” he wrote, “but, in reality, the whole affair had rather an imposing and solemn effect.” Thomson was most impressed by the weight the slaves seemed to attach to the entire scene. Later that morning, at a service at the Baptist church, which Thomson believed had “twelve or fourteen hundred negro members,” the preacher asked all those who had been baptized to stand up as he addressed them on their Christian duties “to God and to their master,” and urged them to hold fast to the faith they had professed. Then, in another scene that particularly impressed Thomson, the preacher asked each of the slaves baptized that morning to come forward and receive the “right hand of fellowship” from the preacher and the church elders. Thomson emphasized the unusual and genuine nature of the contact between the minister and the slaves. “I took particular notice of the shaking of the hands. It was a real transaction,” he wrote with surprise. That evening, with blacks and whites gathered together, the church took the Lord’s Supper, (p.115) where Thomson noted that “The white people did not use any of the cups that the slaves drank out of, but the cups that the whites had used were then used by some of the slaves.”1

Evangelical religion and rituals such as the one Thomson witnessed in South Carolina held great meaning for the South’s enslaved people. Biblical stories of Israel’s enslavement and exodus, of Christ’s humiliation, death, and resurrection, and the pronouncement of the Apostle Paul that within the family of God there were neither slave nor free were deeply meaningful to a people in bondage, often to a degree that made southern masters uncomfortable. Slaves found spiritual solace in the suffering of Christ, and they quietly used the medium of a shared religion to negotiate the boundaries of their enslavement. Slaves did not simply embrace evangelicalism as a set of intellectual tenets or emotional styles practiced by white itinerant preachers in rough wooden chapels or brush arbor churches, but became themselves powerful practitioners and interpreters of the religious force and meaning of evangelicalism.2

White evangelicals’ attitude toward slavery changed over time, often in response to developments in the North and to interactions with black church members. In the late eighteenth century, some evangelicals boldly preached against slaveholding as a sin, and the Methodists even attempted an ill-fated experiment requiring members to free slaves or leave the church. Over time, evangelicals moved to make their churches less threatening to southern masters by circumscribing the roles and freedoms of black members. Eventually, in the wake of slave rebellions led by Denmark Vesey (a onetime member of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church) in 1822 and erstwhile Baptist preacher Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, southern evangelicals would come to terms with slavery through efforts like the Mission to Slaves, which attempted to Christianize the institution of slavery and to instill in slaves and masters alike a sense of their mutual responsibilities and duties. In the antebellum period, as opposition to slavery became more pointed in the North, churchmen like Baptist Basil Manly and Presbyterian James Thornwell led the way in the development of a fully-orbed proslavery ideology that denied any contradiction between the gospel and human bondage and advocated slavery as the most humane and biblical relationship between the two races.3

The following chapter offers a more precise understanding of the extent and limits of evangelical radicalism in regard to race through a (p.116) comparison of the relative position of black southerners within the moral communities of honor and evangelicalism. Through the window of congregational records in South Carolina and Georgia such a comparison serves to diminish the distance between an early evangelical radicalism and a later accommodation and conservatism in regard to race. A comparison of these two communities reveals that evangelicalism did not simply evolve to reflect its social environment but continued to demand of white southerners throughout the period before the Civil War at least a limited acknowledgment of the common family of God. Likewise, such a comparison also reveals the extent to which the social realities of slavery shaped evangelical attitudes and practices from the movement’s earliest history in the Deep South. What ever radical potential evangelicalism held in regard to race sprang from an inclusive theology that ran counter to the rigid boundaries that separated white and black southerners. By claiming salvation for their own, an oppressed people forced white evangelicals to choose: would they acknowledge a common and free gospel or instead move to reinstate the racial boundaries of the material world on the immaterial geography of the kingdom of heaven? The history of evangelicalism and slavery in the South is largely the story of that negotiation.

The Institution of Slavery was intimately connected to honor in the South, as it has been in all cultures where the two have coexisted. Indeed, honor culture would not have been nearly as pervasive and powerful a force in the South without the presence of African slavery. The vital connection between honor and slavery is often obscured by the fact that slaves were clearly outside the circle of white honor in the South, neither entitled to honor nor able to defend it against the ravages of white power in a slave society. Nevertheless, in a broad sense the institution of slavery was essential to the depth and strength of honor culture in the South because it created the kind of undifferentiated economic landscape in which there were limited and easily identifiable pathways to success, nearly all of which involved slaveholding. Furthermore, in a narrower sense owning slaves also contributed directly to the personal honor of slaveholders since control over others bolstered the personal sense of self-worth that was the psychological foundation of honor. In many slave societies across history, slaves were sought solely for the honor conveyed by owning them, regardless of economic benefit.4

(p.117) According to Orlando Patterson, the central characteristic of slaves in most historical slave societies was their lack of honor and their status as marginal or excluded members of society. Patterson expressed the condition of slaves in regard to honor as a kind of “secular excommunication” that rendered them “socially dead.” Patterson described how in the worldview of honor, slaves were shameless: they could neither defend honor, incur shame, or much influence the honor of others. Some scholars have pointed out that Patterson’s description of social death is a sociological definition of slavery that does not fully capture everyday life under slavery, during which slaves loved, married, resisted, died, and were buried in communities where the social death of enslavement did not drain away meaning and texture from life itself. Indeed, we know that a vibrant culture of honor operated in the slave quarters, mirroring in many respects the tenets of white honor from which slaves were excluded. This means that it may be better to describe social death as an ever-present danger than as an actual lived reality in slave experience. Nevertheless, in relation to white society, part of the very definition of slavery was the slave’s lack of honor and his assimilation into and furthering of his master’s social personality in a way that made it possible to describe the “godlike manner” in which masters “mediated between the socially dead and the socially alive.”5

Such descriptions can sometimes seem too arcane, academic, or abstract to apply to the way real people experienced slavery, but in a speech given in 1846 in England, Frederick Douglass described the state of the slave in terms that perfectly mirror the scholarly description of social death. “The condition of the slave is simply that of the brute beast,” wrote Douglass. “He is a piece of property—a marketable commodity, in the language of the law, to be bought or sold at the will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave.”6

Elsewhere, Douglass described his “resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery.” By this, Douglass did not mean the moment he crossed a geographical boundary into freedom, but the moment he finally, violently resisted the dehumanization of slavery and the attacks of the slave driver Covey. Of that moment Douglass wrote, “It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence … A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity (p.118) him … I was no longer a servile coward.” The most important effects of slavery for Douglass had to do not with the physical oppression of slavery but with its social and psychological effects. Few slaves ever found the particular kind of redemption that Douglass described.7

Slaves were separated from the world of white honor in the South not only by the assumptions of a slave society about race and servitude, but also by active ritual and symbolic acts that slave societies throughout the world had always used to represent the social death and degraded status of the slave. The rituals of enslavement usually involved the symbolic erasure of the slave’s past and kinship ties, a change of name, a material marking of slave status, and finally the incorporation of the new slave into the house hold of the new master.8

The process is most clear in the experience of slaves brought to North America directly from Africa. The well-known story of Abd-al-Rahman Ibrahima, purchased by a farmer in Natchez in 1788, exhibits all these ritual stages. Ibrahima underwent not only a physical separation from his history and kin across the Atlantic but also a symbolic one, part of a process of “natal alienation.” Ibrahima’s new master, Thomas Foster, had his new slave’s long hair cut and gave him the cruelly ironic name “Prince,” a backhanded reference to Ibrahima’s royal lineage. Ibrahima himself understood these marks of his new position explicitly through the lens of honor and shame, one day appearing in the doorway of his master’s house and placing Foster’s wife’s foot on his neck in symbolic acceptance of his degraded role. That Foster and his wife instantly understood Ibrahima’s meaning in this act reveals the extent to which master and slave in the South shared a common understanding of the significance of honor and shame in their relationship.9

It was not only newly enslaved Africans who were ritually stripped of their honor and identity in this way. The rituals associated with the domestic slave trade also reinforced the status of social death. Describing the experience of slaves sold in the markets of antebellum New Orleans, one historian writes, “the dead, their bodies disjointed from the past and their identities evacuated, would walk to sale.” Slaves sold in New Orleans frequently came from the Upper South, and in their journey from one slavery to another they underwent a process of remaking in which slave traders forged new narratives about their histories and personalities, fed and fashioned their bodies to conform to the ideals of the marketplace, dressed slaves alike in an effort to obscure particularities, and presented them clothed and unclothed to potential buyers to (p.119) be felt and judged as merchandise. Part of this process of commodification was separating slaves anew from the circle of honor occupied by their prospective masters, making them available for use as symbolic instruments in the enactment of white honor.10

Understanding that a significant part of the experience of slavery was its ritualized separation of the slave from the moral community of honor helps to clarify what slaves found radically different and appealing about evangelical religion. In the evangelical community the rituals of spiritual life that marked members’ entry into the community and unity with Christ existed in marked contrast to the rituals of social death that surrounded slavery. Religious rituals such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper were perhaps the most important part of what historians have seen more generally as the radical social potential of evangelicalism for slaves. “Slaves in the African-American and biracial evangelical churches gained powerful symbols of humanity and spiritual equality,” wrote Randy Sparks in his study of evangelicalism in Mississippi. “They were ushered into a new community and given a social existence away from their masters.” By virtue of their spiritual rebirth slaves also gained a social identity as members of a church where they were acknowledged as moral actors with a will of their own who could be held accountable for their sins. Nevertheless, the authority of a master whose rights the church recognized often moderated slaves’ new existence.11

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the ritualized avenues through which black southerners gained a new and separate social existence. The most significant evangelical ritual for slaves was baptism, the ceremony that symbolized new life and entry into the church. Indeed, one historian of the African-American religious experience called baptism “perhaps the most dramatic ritual in the slave’s religious life.”12 Practiced differently by each denomination, the contrast between baptism and the rituals associated with slavery is most clear in the records of Baptist churches. There were important parts of the ritual that preceded the scene witnessed by William Thomson in Beaufort in 1840. To be baptized into the church as a new believer (rather than transferring membership, which required a letter certifying baptism and good standing from another congregation), prospective members of Baptist churches first had to relate their “experience” before the gathered congregation. Churches regularly made time to hear testimonies, and church record books regularly record “a door opened for experience.” Testimonies usually followed a narrative progression from the realization and conviction (p.120) of sin to the realization and release of God’s forgiveness. Those who told their stories were judged on their sincerity and on the degree to which their stories coincided to the accepted schema of conversion narratives. Within the broad outlines of the conversion narrative, each believer narrated a personal story of sin and salvation that was intended to convince the audience of the authenticity of their conversion. Those who came before the church testified that they were spiritually alive, that they had been grafted into the community of saints and the family of God. If the church deemed an experience satisfactory, baptism followed soon after as a sign and seal of a new spiritual life and a new social identity as part of the visible church.13

Black evangelicals expressed their experiences publicly in terms similar to those used by white evangelicals and were often heard alongside them in churches across South Carolina and Georgia. On a summer day in July 1818, the members of Liberty Baptist Church in Newton County, Georgia, heard the experience of two women. Rebecca English, a white woman, testified “that she found her self wretched and misrabel [sic] in conciquence [sic] of her sins but that she believd [sic] the Lord for Christ’s sake had pardoned them all.” Then the church heard Judy, a slave of John Wilckers, who “gave a relation of her lost condition by sin and deliverance for what Christ had done.” Accepting their experiences, the church received both women “by the wright [sic] hand of fellowship unto baptism.” Likewise, at the first official meeting of the Antioch Baptist Church in Georgia in 1829 two slaves, Moses and Judy, were “received by experience to Baptism” and listed as founding members of the congregation.14

Part of what attracted slaves to evangelical religion in the first place was its novel emphasis on personal experience. Rather than the rote memorization of catechesis and an emphasis on correct doctrinal positions, on which the earliest and mostly unsuccessful efforts to Christianize the slaves had depended, evangelicalism invested individual religious experiences with authority and gave slaves the opportunity to mold Christianity to their own sensibilities. When slaves testified of their rebirth alongside whites, they were not simply reshaping their religious and social identity, but creating it. Yet the identities these slaves embraced were not wholly of their own making, they were legitimated by and dependent on communal authority. Indeed, that was part of the attraction.15

There were other sorts of authority to reckon with, as well. For slaves, joining a church almost always involved the permission of their (p.121) master. Writing the history of the Brushy Creek Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, in 1904, G. B. Moore noted with surprise how many “servants” joined the church from 1819–1832. Writing in an era of segregated religion, Moore expressed amazement that slaves “were subject to the same discipline, heard the same preaching, enjoyed the same church privileges” as white church members, but he also noted that the black Baptists had to have “permits” in order to attend.16

It was much the same in other denominations. In a typical entry, the clerk of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston noted in 1829 that two slaves of Thomas Condy, Abram and Celia, had been admitted to membership “with permission in writing from their owner.” In 1821, Jack, a slave owned by South Carolina College, applied for membership at Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church. The clerk recorded “the importunate desire of Jack to become a member of this Church,” and noted that a committee had been formed to inquire of Jack’s character from representatives of the college. When a man named Rudolph at the college reported unfavorably on Jack, the session postponed his request indefinitely. Nevertheless, Jack’s insistence on joining the church hints at the importance that slaves attached to membership, while his failure to achieve his goal shows that even so abstract a master as a college could bar the way for slaves seeking the social embodiment of their spiritual selves.17

Even with a master’s approval, acceptance was not a foregone conclusion. In 1831, the records of Brushy Creek Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, noted that two black women were “heard” but not “received.” Likewise, in 1840 aftera spate of discipline cases involving black members of the Welsh Neck Baptist congregation, pastor James C. Furman recommended to the church “the propriety of being more guarded in future in the reception of members.” Nevertheless, on the whole it seems that prospective white members were refused entry as often as black members and for similar reasons, including reputations for misconduct and a failure to satisfactorily express the inner workings of the Spirit. Congregational scrutiny of a convert’s experience invested the acceptance of the church with a significance that uncritical acceptance could not bestow.18

Baptism followed soon after official acceptance at the nearest body of water where new members could be appropriately immersed according to Baptist doctrine. Frequently white and black were baptized together at the ceremony, although some churches with large black congregations (p.122) might hold separate ceremonies. The record book of the Mechanicsville Baptist Church in Darlington, South Carolina, noted of one such ceremony, “met at the water and received to the ordinance of Baptism May, Lizar & Calvin, belonging to Mr. J.w. Lide … after public preaching the right hand of fellowship was extended to them.” From such descriptions it is evident that baptism was not a single ritual but a group of closely connected rituals that together symbolized the rebirth and inclusion of the new member into the church. After narrating their experience of God’s grace new members were greeted with the “right hand of fellowship” as church members shook their hand or even embraced them. Closely following this came the baptism itself with its powerful symbolism of death and rebirth, followed at times by preaching, prayer, and another round of the right hand of fellowship.19

The spiritual symbolism of baptism, and especially of the full immersion practiced by Baptists, in which those baptized were understood to have been “buried” with Christ and reborn into the family of God held double significance for enslaved people. White southerners lived in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which desacralized whole swaths of life and delineated sharply between the secular and the sacred, the social and the spiritual. It was partly on the basis of this religious inheritance that whites were able to maintain a distinction between spiritual equality in Christ and the staggering social inequalities of slavery. Early Baptists and Methodists in the South pushed against these distinctions, seeing God and the Devil at work directly in the everyday affairs of men and thus testing the boundaries of the Protestant religious imagination. Not coincidentally, some early Methodists and Baptists also saw the distinction between spiritual and social equality that sustained slavery as a creation of man, not God, and originated genuine if faltering efforts against an institution they saw as an obvious contradiction of Christian brotherhood.20

Slave origins along the western coast of Africa meant that enslaved people inherited a religious worldview that, like pre-Reformation Christianity, made little distinction between sacred and secular areas of life. Thus, some masters noticed with discomfort that their slaves failed to grasp the fact that the religion offered to them was only to have its effect on their souls and not on their enslaved bodies, and an embarrassingly large part of the project of white missionary efforts to slaves in the antebellum period consisted of the attempt to inscribe on slaves’ minds this crucial distinction. Observers often noted with puzzlement the way (p.123) in which the figures of Christ and Moses melded together in slave religion. This commingling of religious figures was not a result of slaves’ lack of capacity to differentiate between the two but of their instinct to make earthly deliverance of a piece with otherworldly salvation. From this viewpoint, the idea of a religious ritual like baptism impinging not at all on the world of secular social relations would have made little sense to slaves, even if they duly acknowledged it for the benefit of white onlookers.21

Certainly the ritual of baptism left a deep impression in the minds of many freedmen. “I ain’t forgot dem baptizin’s,” recalled Anderson Furr, born in Hall County, Georgia. “Evvybody went in dem days. Dere warn’t no place inde church houses for to be ducked dem days, so de white folks had a pool dug out by de branch for de baptizin’s, and white folks and slaves was ducked inde same pool of water. White folks went in fust and den de Niggers.” Even though a few independent black churches existed, most slaves recalled churches where blacks and whites attended together and were baptized at the same ceremony. Slaves would travel for miles to attend a baptism. “If there was a baptizing inside of ten miles around from where us lived, us didn’t miss it,” recalled Charlie Hudson, born in Elbert County, Georgia.22 Those who had been baptized as children under slavery frequently recalled the ceremony with a level of detail and clarity that showed its importance. “I recollects, dey would march us right up to de front of de church en de preacher would come down to whe’ we was standin wid a basin of water in one hand en a towel inde other hand,” remembered Ryer Emmanuel of her baptism in Hopewell Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. “He would take one of us chillun en lay he wet hand on dey head en say, ‘I baptize dee inde name of, etc. Den dat one would have to get back en another one would step up for dey turn.”23

Anderson Furr’s recollection that “white folks went in fust and den de Niggers” suggests that the white members of his Georgia church were concerned that the performance of a religious ritual should reflect the appropriate social order. The impulse to reproduce the social order in sacred rituals becomes even more clear in the descriptions of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper was a religious ritual that contained a powerful symbolism of inclusion and spiritual life. Following Christ’s command at the Last Supper to remember him until he came again, the faithful used the elements of bread and wine to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice and look forward to his return. In (p.124) light of scriptural warnings against letting unbelievers participate in this sacred meal, all evangelical denominations employed mechanisms to ensure that only church members in good standing participated. Methodists allowed only society members to take Communion, which meant only those who had completed a prescribed trial period and under gone examination by the minister. Well into the nineteenth century the Elders of many Presbyterian congregations in South Carolina and Georgia would interview church members and distribute Communion tokens made of wood or lead to be handed in by members before they took the sacrament.24

In a description of the Lord’s Supper as practiced in the John’s Island Presbyterian Church in South Carolina in the late eighteenth century, one historian observed that the sacrament as performed there contained both “ideological” and “utopian” elements. In the service, the communion table with the elements stood near the front of the church. White church members came forward and presented their communion tokens and received the bread and wine, followed afterwards, but in a similar manner, by black church members. To a certain extent, the service reflected the social reality outside the church’s walls, while also serving to naturalize the inequalities between white and black by including them in the performance of the Lord’s Supper. But in another sense the eschatological implications of the Supper—the fact that it pointed forward to Christ’s coming and the remaking of the world without slavery, as blacks and most whites believed—were inescapably present for black and white alike. This meant that black Presbyterians were in a meaningful way included in the religious community and given a “distinct social identity.” If one of the central aspects of slavery involved severing links to the past that might allow enslaved people to form a coherent identity, then participation in rituals such as the Lord’s Supper allowed slaves to contemplate an identity that rested mainly on the future, even on eternity.25

In other denominations the performance of the Lord’s Supper presented a similarly potent mix of present reality and future promise. In 1808, Edward Hooker, a northern tutor at the recently established South Carolina College, described a Communion service at the local Methodist Church in Columbia to his sister in Connecticut. “Last Sunday was the quarterly meeting or Sacrament time at the Methodist C[hurch],” Hooker wrote. “Their mode of administering it is somewhat peculiar. The minister prefaces the ceremony with prayer and some remarks, and (p.125) then the communicants approach, and kneeling around the altar partake of the bread and wine in that posture while singing is at the same time going on.” Hooker especially noted the order in which those present took communion. “The ladies first approach, then the white men; after they are through, then the women slaves, and after that the men slaves. The slaves comport a considerable part of the Methodist Congregation and they occupy the gallery exclusively.” What Hooker witnessed was an elaborate representation of southern gender and racial hierarchies. The white women went before the white men, and the slaves, men and women, followed their masters in their own ordered fashion.26

Despite efforts to turn sacred rituals into a tableau vivant of the southern social order, the participation of enslaved people in Christian rituals like baptism and the Lord’s Supper contained unavoidable symbolism. This was nothing new. The historical relationship between Christianity and slavery had frequently crystallized around ritual. Despite the directive of the Synod of Dort in 1618 that baptized slaves should be freed, baptism had rarely become an avenue to freedom in any of the Christian nations of Eu rope or the New World. Nevertheless, slaveholders throughout the Atlantic world continued to be wary of the implications of Christianizing their slaves in general, and of Christian rituals in particular. In 1667 the colony of Virginia found it necessary to assure slave owners that baptizing their slaves did not require manumission. Early Methodist and Baptist antipathy to slavery, along with a few celebrated (though rare) cases of manumission, encouraged some slaveholders to see evangelicalism in particular as a dangerous variant of Christianity, and their opposition frequently focused on religious rituals. Around 1790, Andrew Bryan’s famous First African Baptist Church in Savannah had 225 baptized members, but nearly 350 unbaptized converts, “many of whom have not permission from their owners to be baptized” despite their owners permitting them to attend.27

Whites sometimes showed a similar discomfort with Communion, particularly when it was offered to slaves in settings not so well ordered as the one Edward Hooker observed in Columbia. In South Carolina in 1808, the irascible Methodist James Jenkins found his inclusion of slaves in Communion opposed by a group of white onlookers. “I expected hot work,” he recalled, “for I was resolved to stand my ground.” Though the episode has been used to demonstrate hostility towards evangelicalism among a certain segment of the white population, Jenkins’ narrative clearly identifies the ritual of the Lord’s Supper as the particular point of conflict. (p.126) “While I was preaching, in they came, but took their seats,” he remembered. “I thought it was no time to be mealy mouthed, hence I poured out the law and the consequences of sin with unmeasured severity.” Still the men stayed seated. “After sermon I began to administer the sacrament,” Jenkins recalled, and it was at this point that the men came forward, one taking the loaf from Jenkins while he knelt at the front of the congregation. “He then forbid my giving the sacrament to the negroes,” wrote Jenkins. “I asked him, if any of them belonged to him? He replied, ‘No.’” Jenkins escaped without harm, but was evidently unsuccessful in administering Communion to the enslaved members of his audience.28

Much depended on context. At the turn of the century when Methodist James Jenkins offered the bread and the wine to enslaved Christians on his circuit in Manchester, the situation seemed to some white observers to have suspect implications that should be actively resisted. Jenkins himself took context into consideration when he connected the opposition of his white audience to the recent Methodist pronunciations against slavery. But in 1808 when Edward Hooker observed Communion in the Methodist Church in Columbia, he did not hint that the spectacle of white and black Christians partaking of the Supper together caused any discomfort among those present. On the contrary, the performance of the ritual in the proper official context and in the proper order, white before black, only reinforced for whites the organic nature of their institutions and the naturalness of their superiority.29

From a white point of view evangelical rituals properly administered could lend themselves to a paternalistic interpretation of slavery. With a rising tide of anti-slavery sentiment roiling the North as the century progressed, southern slave owners moved to Christianize and domesticate the peculiar institution, describing the Christian duties of masters and slaves and reinterpreting the social relations of slavery through the metaphor of the family. Thus, whites saw in the combined services at which white and black took Communion together but in succession a harmonious image of their society that reflected spiritual inclusion and equality alongside natural social distinctions.30

The same could be said of baptism. The same ritual that had such significance for some slaves could also, in other situations, be interpreted with a paternalistic slant. This was especially the case in churches that practiced infant baptism. In 1852, for instance, the record book of Hopewell Presbyterian Church lists infants baptized that year in the church. While entries for white children include parents, entries for (p.127) black children do so only rarely. More frequently, baptisms of black infants involved multiple infants at the same ceremony and only the master’s name is listed. In this context, the sacrament bolstered the master’s claim on the offspring of his slaves and enacted the paternalistic image of the master as the father of a family both black and white.31

Evangelical rituals ushered converts into the body of Christ represented by the local church and gave slaves a social identity and moral agency that were denied them within the community of honor. Nevertheless, the authority of earthly masters exerted itself even on this aspect of slaves’ identity. And while many southern whites were clearly discomfited by the very implications of evangelical ritual that slaves embraced, they also found ways of interpreting and performing these rituals that appropriately reflected the social relations of slavery and the important distinction in their minds between this world and the next. From this perspective, slave identity stands as another example of the way that evangelicalism in the Deep South represented an alternative strand of development in the history of the modern self. Slaves embraced an evangelical religion that offered them a new sense of identity and autonomy, but they also sought out the legitimating authority of the church over their newfound identities, and were subject to the authority of their masters through it all.

While Slaves were ritually deprived of honor in contrast to the white community, recent scholarship has begun to emphasize the extent to which a parallel culture of honor existed in the slave quarters. That slaves could possess honor in relation to one another but not in relation to their white masters may seem contradictory. Yet we should remember that even within the white population, the community of honor was riven by class distinctions. A man of honor would not accept a challenge by an inferior, and deference on the part of high and low alike served as the social grease that moved white society smoothly along. Just as elite southerners performed ritualized displays of valor on the dueling field, men from the lower echelons did their best to maim one another, believing that to disfigure an opponent’s body was to disprove his claims. Indeed, the spheres of upper and lower class honor rarely met except in the sense that their common whiteness set both off from the dishonor of the slave.

The stratification of honor in southern society makes it less surprising that scholars have unearthed an energetic parallel culture of honor (p.128) among enslaved people, especially men. Slaves fought for many of the same reasons as their white counter parts: love, money, and most importantly, honor. One recent historian found that slave men, “protected their women, settled scores with enemy bondmen, issued threats, boasted of their manhood, [and] brooked no insults.” Perhaps most significantly, slaves used the language of honor to describe their conflicts with one another. In one case before the court in Anderson District three slave witnesses testified that they “heard Bas give Joe the Dam lie” before a fight. The fighting that often followed an exchange of insults was nearly indistinguishable from the eye-gouging, ear-biting fracases that erupted among non-elite southern whites.32

A sampling from the records of evangelical churches in South Carolina and Georgia adds further dimensions to the ways slaves defined and accessed honor among themselves, as well as the way that slaves’ honor remained pointedly unacknowledged by the white community. For most of the period before 1860, evangelical communities exercised a rigorous discipline with regard to black members. The official records of evangelical churches have multiple layers of meaning when it comes to slaves and honor, none of them explicit. Records often preserve fleeting and unintended glimpses into the world of male honor in the quarters. The same records reveal the way in which slaves’ dishonored status in relation to the white community silently influenced the practice of discipline within the church, especially when it came to slaves’ sexual lives. Finally, records reveal the carefully bounded and precarious avenues to office and status that the church provided to some black evangelicals who served as deacons, watchmen, and preachers serving both the white and black communities.33

To judge from church records, black male evangelicals fought, swore, and drank at a pace equaling their white counter parts. Violence between male slave members was common in many churches with large black congregations, and most conflicts arose over women or sharp words. The Welsh Neck Baptist Church in Darlington County, South Carolina, regularly heard cases of conflicts between slaves over the years. In 1814, the church excommunicated a slave named Billy after an investigation revealed that he had “designed to commit adultery and fought with the woman’s husband.” In 1827, a slave member named Sam was found guilty “in violently opposing the marriage of old Mingo, an aged member of this church, with Peggy.” Sam might have been forgiven his impetuosity considering the circumstances. As the clerk observed, “some of the above (p.129) disorder occurred at a funeral sermon preached by Scipio [an elderly black deacon]. After which he [Scipio] was invited to marry Old Mingo, to Peggy the wife of the deceased.” Unfortunately, it is impossible to know whether Sam’s actions arose from an attachment to Peggy or from a sense of impropriety at the swift transition from burying to marrying. In 1836, the same congregation heard the case of a slave named Prince, who “engaged in a quarrel & made threats of injury to a fellow servant Titus.” Prince and Titus reconciled, but the clerk recorded that Prince “was unwilling to satisfy members who were grieved by his conduct,” evidently believing his behavior justified by Titus’ unnamed offense.34

Just as white men sometimes described their actions as regrettable but unavoidable, so enslaved men sometimes justified their violence by an appeal to the logic of honor. In 1821, John, “a black man,” stood before the Brushy Creek Baptist congregation and “acknowledged that he was wrong for getting angry and stricking [sic] a black man.” Nevertheless, John insisted on including that his opponent had hit him first, “striking him two or three times without any provocation.” The church clerk recorded that this explanation was accepted, writing, “acknowledgment received as satisfactory.” As with white offenders, churches also usually accepted the carefully qualified repentance of black men. Thus, while slaves had no honor a white man was bound to respect, churches seem to have recognized that even slaves could feel the need to respond to an unjust attack on their person by another slave.35

Black men were often brought before the church for violence against slave women, but it is difficult to draw broader conclusions about the slave community and the prevalence of domestic violence from the narrow window afforded by church records. In 1821, for instance, a slave named Sam confessed to the congregation of Little River Baptist Church that he was guilty of “striking and choking a negro woman and continuing in a revengeful spirit.” The church forgave him. In 1847, Antioch Baptist Church in Georgia excommunicated a slave named Nelson, “for beating his wife.” What such cases illustrate is not that black men were more prone to such violence, but perhaps that they were more available to the discipline of the church for their actions.36

Church records also reveal that eye-gouging and ear-biting were not segregated pursuits. In 1802 in upcountry South Carolina, for instance, Benjamin Chamblee went on a spree that included “getting drunk, cursing and swearing and drawing a knife to stab a man and fighting a negro.” In 1837, Poplar Springs Baptist excluded a slave named Willis (p.130) who they were informed “has been rebilling [sic] and striking his Master.” Upon questioning Willis claimed only to have struck his master once, while his master, not a member of the church, claimed that Willis “struck him as often as twice and made the third attempt.” The church excluded Willis on his own confession as well as for lying.37

But if whites and blacks sometimes traded blows that brought them before the church, other instances of violence showed unmistakably that slaves’ degraded status influenced church disciplinary committees in their decisions. In 1837, Hopewell Presbyterian Church disciplined William Hindman for “getting in a passion & striking a negro man of Mr. Carlisles.” In such cases, it would seem the offense was more against Carlisle than his bondsman, an understanding mirrored by southern courts that viewed violence against blacks as primarily a transgression against an owner’s property rights and only secondarily, if at all, an assault on a slave’s person.38

Slaves’ legal status in the South reflected the symbolic power of the slave’s social death and dishonor. In 1854, Presbyterian Samuel Wells Leland recorded in his journal a particularly poignant example of the way that slaves were viewed as an extension of their master’s social personality. “I was astonished to see in the newspapers, a reward of 2000$ offered for the apprehension of Dr. Edwin Gunter and his brother Edward Gunter, charged with the murder of Jesse Scurry,” Leland wrote, also noting, “Scurry was the man who some time ago stabed [sic] Dr. Gunter in an affray.” The Gunters were soon apprehended, and Edwin Gunter stood trial for shooting Scurry as the doomed man rode in a buggy driven by a slave. A month later, Leland recorded that Gunter had been acquitted of the murder, which the jury perhaps saw as a justifiable killing in light of the earlier conflict between the two white men. But, Leland wrote, Gunter still had to stand trial for “killing the negro, who was sitting in the buggy with his master.” The jury soon acquitted Gunter of this death, as well. That Gunter would take the life not only of his enemy but also of Scurry’s slave to satisfy his honor seems gratuitous. That a jury could include the killing of the slave in its justification of Scurry’s murder seems incomprehensible until one considers the extent to which slaves embodied a master’s honor and thus served as a logical, even legitimate target for those who sought to recoup their own. Records of violence involving slaves reveal both an active regard on the part of enslaved men for their honor in relation to other slaves as well as a staggering vulnerability in relation to whites.39

(p.131) The same inverse symbolism in which a slave’s dishonor contributed to a master’s honor also demanded that a master’s authority be absolute. Early evangelical churches, especially the Baptists, struggled to square this aspect of slavery with equality in Christ and with what they saw as a responsibility to discipline disorderly, unjust, or cruel behavior on the part of masters who were also church members. There are scattered examples of masters being disciplined for mistreating their slaves. In 1799, for instance, Turkey Creek Baptist disciplined a woman named Niswanger for general cantankerousness, including mistreating a slave. “She is said to be a contentious person in her family and 2nd she hath impiously abusd [sic] her servant.”40

As the nineteenth century progressed and evangelical churches gathered in greater numbers of masters, some churches seemed reluctant to discipline masters even for the most flagrant crimes against their slaves. In 1828, the session of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia tried member Richard Sandley for the death of one of his slaves, finding “that some time during the past summer … but then residing on his plantation in the country [Sandley] was charged with the death of a negro man & that the same charge was fully acknowledged by Mr. Sandley himself.” After hearing Sandley’s version of his slave’s death, evidently from a case of overwrought punishment, the session “fully acquitted Mr. Sandley of all design to take the life of said negro,” resolving only “to Admonish Mr. Sandley in relation to his unhappy affair & caution him against giving way to passion when the life of a fellow creature is concerned.” In their verdict, the session walked a fine line between acknowledging Sandley’s authority and legitimacy as a master and demanding of him the behavior expected of a Christian.41

Churches also exercised rigorous discipline over slave members’ private lives, including marriage and sex. Paradoxically, a process that involved significant concessions on the part of white church members to slaves’ claims about their relationships may also have contributed to whites’ conviction of black shamelessness. While southern law did not recognize or prosecute fornication and adultery among slaves, churches such as Midway Congregational Church in Liberty County, Georgia, did so regularly. According to one historian, churches like Midway “performed the functions of a divorce and marriage counseling court for slave members.” Indeed, cases involving slave marriages, adultery, and fornication took up the majority of the time devoted to discipline among the black congregation in the antebellum period.42

(p.132) The case was much the same at Mechanicsville Baptist Church in Darlington County, South Carolina. From 1815 to 1860, Mechanicsville excluded sixty-two of its black members. Of thirty-five cases in which a reason for exclusion was given, twenty-four (nearly seventy percent) stated the cause as either adultery or bastardy. The examples of Midway and Mechanicsville illustrate the extent to which white evangelicals acknowledged black unions as legitimate and prosecuted perceived breaches in marital and sexual ethics among black congregants. Throughout the antebellum period, churches expressed their charges and decisions regarding black congregants using language that implicitly acknowledged the reality of the marriage bond that had been violated. For example, in 1830, Antioch Baptist Church in Georgia excommunicated a slave named Judy “for living in a state of adultry [sic].” And in 1863, the session of Hopewell Presbyterian Church charged a slave named Mariah with the “sin of violating the marriage bed,” a phrase that hints at the traditional lens through which the session viewed her transgression. Churches also excluded women for having children out of wedlock. In 1835, Turkey Creek Baptist excluded a slave named Elizabeth “for having a child without a husband.”43

Over the years, the Mechanicsville congregation proved only a little less concerned about male slaves’ behavior. Of twenty-four exclusions of enslaved people for adultery or fornication from 1815 to 1860, nine were men. Other churches appear to have followed this pattern. In 1835, a slave named Billy stated before the congregation of the Bethabara Baptist Church of Laurens County, South Carolina, “that he was he supposed the father of a child by a woman, who was not his wife.” He was quickly excluded. In 1842, a committee reported to the congregation of Little River Baptist Church that a slave named Tom “deserves the highest censure of the church for attempting to seduce a woman of his colour.” A year earlier, the church excommunicated a slave named Willis after an investigation proved him guilty of “an attempt of rape.” Sometimes the evidence of misconduct was so clear that it was difficult to deny or misconstrue. In 1848, the Welsh Neck Baptist Church of Darlington County, South Carolina, excluded a slave named Anson, noting, “the principal charge against him is his being infected with a disease which is usually contracted from adulterous practices, & as he entirely exculpates his wife, the only conclusion to which we can come is that he is guilty of adultery.” Unsurprisingly, slave men appear to have been charged with sexual offenses more often than white men.44

(p.133) Although enslaved people prob ably saw the advantageous implications of whites’ willingness to hold them to traditional marital and sexual ethics, they also sometimes pushed back, showing an unwillingness to adopt wholesale the definitions and customs of the master class. In 1833, Lewis Ball informed his church that his slave Clarisa had “taken up with another womans husband.” Clarisa, being called upon to answer the charge, “denied the fact further than she washed his cloths and said she was determined to wash for him whether the church said she was right or rong [sic].” After some discussion over what exactly the case involved, the church decided that even if they could not accurately define Clarisa’s transgression they could not abide her defiance, and excluded her. Other slaves were excluded for transgressions that similarly offended white sensibility. In 1830, the Poplar Springs Baptist Church excluded a slave named Jack who sealed his fate in his trial for having an “unlawful wife” by defiantly declaring, “[h]e would hug the girls when he pleased.” Such declarations point to the existence of alternate definitions of marriage, partnership, and sexual propriety in the slave quarters, even as slaves in other situations sought the legitimacy and fragile security conferred by the acknowledgment of slave unions in the church.45

Surveying the records of churches that had significant or majority black membership, historians have sometimes asked why enslaved people would submit to increased oversight of their lives. Of the black members at Midway Congregational Church in Georgia, one historian asked, “Why did they remain in a church in which their private lives were so closely scrutinized?” Furthermore, black southerners seem disproportionately to have joined denominations that practiced rigorous discipline over all areas of members’ lives. In the South, only Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches regularly held disciplinary hearings for black members. Baptists, a denomination that in the South excommunicated nearly two percent of their membership annually in the antebellum period, far exceeding either Presbyterians or Methodists in their fervor for discipline, attracted more black converts than either of the other denominations.46

From one point of view, the discipline that evangelical churches exercised over even the most intimate details of members’ lives might seem like the price slaves paid for the solace of religion and a stronger claim on the obligations of Christian masters. However, the tenacity with which some slaves pursued membership and its obligation to submit to the discipline of the church suggests that other dynamics were at (p.134) work, as well. The stark contrast between the ritualized social death of slavery, with its accompanying attribution of moral insensitivity to honor and shame, and the clearly defined social identity in the form of church membership that accompanied evangelical conversion, helps to explain both why slaves sought membership and how even the rigors of church discipline contributed to a sense of identity for enslaved people. Church discipline, after all, was an acknowledgment of the moral agency of the individual, an acknowledgement that slaves were full members of the evangelical community who had crossed a boundary. How slaves reacted to discipline had direct bearing on their spiritual as well as social identity. If the sting of shame constituted negative evidence of honor, the pangs of guilt and the act of repentance proved the guilty sinner’s regenerate status within the evangelical community. The contrast with the social death and dishonor of slavery could not have been greater. Far from being a cost slaves bore for their religion, discipline may have had its own austere attractions.47

All this may help account for the fact that slaves excluded from evangelical churches often sought restoration. In the churches of Edgefield, South Carolina, one historian noted, slaves nearly always sought and often succeeded in obtaining restoration following excommunication. This pattern did not hold everywhere. Out of sixty-two enslaved people excluded from the Mechanicsville Baptist congregation from 1815 to 1860, twenty-four can be found rejoining the church, some after a period of several years. Others no doubt rejoined without leaving a record. Still, the high rate of slaves who rejoined the church even after exclusion is a measure of the depth of slaves’ religious commitment as well as the power of the social identity that church membership conveyed.48

More Than Giving Slaves a new social identity that contrasted with their lack of a distinct personality in the eyes of honor, evangelicalism provided slaves, especially men, limited paths to increased regard among their own people as well as the white community. The role of slave preachers, deacons, and watchmen in evangelical churches was complex. These figures mediated between their own people and the white population, often winning equal shares of admiration, trust, and suspicion from both groups for their actions. Slaves appointed to one of these stations usually enjoyed an increased importance and stature in the slave community, often serving as central figures for their communities. Nevertheless, even when whites venerated black preachers or deferred to the (p.135) decisions of black deacons regarding black church members, there remained a clear divide, a chasm between white honor and black dishonor.

W. E. B. Du Bois once called the black preacher “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.” The preacher combined a formidable array of functions and qualities. He was, Du Bois wrote, “A leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss’, an intriguer, an idealist,—all these he is, and ever, too, the centre of a group of men, now twenty, now a thousand in number. The combination of a certain adroitness with deep-seated earnestness, of tact with consummate ability, gave him his preeminence, and helps him maintain it.”49

Du Bois’s description, confirmed by historical accounts of slave preachers, echoes many of the qualities associated with honor in the white community. Black preaching in the South encompassed as wide an array of styles and personas as did white preaching, not surprisingly since blacks and whites so often preached in close proximity or even together. Black churchgoers in southern cities often heard black preachers who were as well or better educated than some of their rural white counterparts, while rural slaves meeting in rough brush arbor churches frequently heard extemporaneous sermons given by one of their own who had a talent for speaking and a familiarity with scripture.50

But what ever the style or location, black preachers were the rare figures in the slave community allowed to exhibit in some measure the qualities of natural authority, oratorical ability, and force of personality that the white community lauded in its leaders. And while separated from the world of white honor on account of their race, black preachers accumulated much of the admiration in the black community that accrued to talented preachers and orators among whites. In his travels through the South, Frederick Law Olmsted noticed that nearly every slave community had a revered religious figure. “On almost every large plantation, and in every neighborhood of small ones, there is one man who has come to be considered the head or pastor of the local church,” he wrote. “The office among the negroes, as among all other people, confers a certain importance and power. A part of the reverence attaching to the duties is given to the person; vanity and self-confidence are cultivated, and a higher ambition aroused than can usually enter the mind of a slave. The self-respect of the preacher is also often increased by the consideration in which he is held by his master, as well as by his fellows; thus, the preachers generally have an air of superiority to the other negroes.”51

(p.136) Nevertheless, even in cases where whites freely acknowledged the power of black preaching the line between white honor and black dishonor held fast. Indeed, this was for whites the key distinction. Whites could remain comfortable with the most extreme displays of ingenuity, intelligence, and forcefulness on the part of slaves provided it occurred in the proper context and with this vital distinction maintained. The most highly esteemed black preachers among whites were those who exercised their authority and eloquence from the pulpit in pursuit of souls, but who meekly acknowledged their place once they had left off preaching. Appropriate humility before whites was part of the job for slave preachers. A stubborn humility on the part of such figures reassured whites that the divide between sacred and secular, between white and black, and between honor and dishonor remained in place.

Northern visitors sometimes failed to understand this vital distinction. When Frederick Law Olmsted tried to question a particularly “distinguished” slave preacher on one plantation about his unofficial office and its prominence in the local community, he met only with laughing answers that deflected his questions. The preacher, Olmsted thought, assumed that the northern visitor was trying to make fun of him, in spite of Olmsted’s best efforts to convince him other wise. “I found it impossible to get a serious reply,” wrote a frustrated Olmsted, without realizing that the slave’s impenetrable light heartedness had its roots in the grave reality that to be acknowledged by a white man violated the strict divide that separated slave from free, dishonor from honor.52

Slaves who felt the calling to preach could apply to their churches for permission just like white church members. After hearing and considering a request, churches would decide whether the would-be preacher could “exercise” his gift. Churches were not in the habit of granting such licenses indiscriminately to white or black applicants, but the barriers that faced black hopefuls were more substantial. Most churches made a distinction, as well, between “exhorting” and “taking a text,” the former entailing urging religious considerations of a general nature on an audience while the latter included actual biblical exposition, a much more serious matter. In 1809, the members of Big Creek Baptist in Anderson County, South Carolina, reconsidered the gift of “Black Peter,” a slave preacher. The church clerk recorded, “concluded that he is derected [sic] to desist from taking a publick text and aiming to preach or advise on purticular [sic] head of doctrine from such like the church beleaving [sic] him not quallified [sic] at this time to go farther than exhortation.” (p.137) Whether or not Peter followed the church’s restrictions on his gift we cannot know. It likely depended on his audience.53

A church’s response to aspiring preachers, like their response to black religiosity in general, depended on the political environment as well as the personality of the slave himself. Religiously tinged slave rebels like Nat Turner and the alleged insurrectionist Denmark Vesey inspired many churches to restrict the sphere of action granted to slave preachers, or at least to attach more preconditions to their work in the 1820s and 1830s. After the Denmark Vesey scare in Charleston in 1822, Richard Furman and other evangelicals argued that it was not evangelical religion that had sparked the alleged rebellion, but unsupervised black Christianity as evidenced by the African church in Charleston. In 1838, “Brother Charles a colloured member … made application to Exercise a publick gift” at Brushy Creek Baptist in Greenville County, South Carolina. The church “agreed that he might preach in the daytime in the bounds of the church with the concent [sic] of his master.” One Sunday a year later, the church clerk recorded, “Preaching by Charles a Coloured member of this church.” But less than a year after that, the church appeared abruptly to reverse their course. On receiving a request from a slave named Hampton to preach, the church gathered to hear him exercise his gift before the church, but afterwards decided “that they would withhold from colored members the liberty of preaching.” Seven years later, in 1848, Hampton tried again, applying for “admitance [sic] to preach.” The church again frustrated his request, “being a ware that the laws of the land for bid large grops of negros convineing togather with out some white person to se to ther Good behaviour.”54

In churches with large black congregations, white members frequently appointed black deacons to look after the needs and discipline of black members. In many Baptist churches, black deacons served as preachers, as well. In 1854 Mechanicsville Baptist mourned the passing of Adam, a black deacon of long standing in the church. “He had been preaching the Gospel for more than fifty years,” wrote the church’s clerk. Indeed, Adam had served as a mediator for Mechanicsville’s significant black congregation for decades, first appearing in the church’s records in 1830, when the church agreed at its next meeting to “take up the subject of appointing one or more black members as help to Bro. Adam to act as deacon.” In addition to carrying out the duties of administering aid and discipline, Adam often preached to separate meetings of the black congregation, as well. In the frenzied wake of Nat Turner’s (p.138) failed rebellion in Virginia in 1831, the white members of Mechanicsville moved to increase their oversight of the black congregation, declaring in October 1831, “that our black brethren Adam & Joe do not be at liberty to make any appointment for preaching or other exercise of a religious nature except at the meeting house and that on our regular preaching days.” Nevertheless, the white church leaders continued to defer to Adam in matters regarding the care and discipline of the black congregation, and when J. M. Sanders petitioned the church for a letter of dismissal for his slave Wherry in 1835, the church granted his request, “provided bro. Adam was satisfied with the same, which enquiry he was.” In 1848, the church appointed a committee of black members to assist Adam in his duties, effectively acknowledging his central role and creating a mirror image of the white diaconate to assist him.55

Leadership within the church frequently followed already established patterns of leadership within the slave community. In Liberty County, Georgia, Midway Congregational Church formed the epicenter of the Reverend Charles C. Jones’ efforts to evangelize the South’s slaves. In the antebellum period, Midway employed four “selectmen” and nearly thirty “watchmen” to oversee the spiritual needs of black church members. Toney Stevens, a slave, served as a full-time selectman and preacher for the slave community at Midway. Cornelius also found that many of the selectmen and watchmen at Midway were overseers and foremen on the surrounding plantations, positions that betokened white trust and established them as mediators between the white and black communities in both spiritual and temporal affairs. One historian who studied the same community and described in detail the formation of official black leadership in Liberty County wrote that black selectmen and watchmen “carved out visible, public space within Liberty County for black leadership.”56

There is a Tendency among historians to lament that the meanings implicit in evangelical rituals and religion were never fully realized, and indeed that slaveholders—with full support from evangelicals—coopted evangelical religion to support the edifice of racial slavery in the antebellum period. Implicit in such a view is an instrumental view of religion as a possible means of resistance to the totalizing effects of slavery. We would do better to look closely at what evangelicalism actually meant to enslaved people who no doubt had few illusions about its power to effect a material change in their condition. One way of understanding (p.139) what evangelicalism represented in relation to slavery is to evaluate enslaved people’s position in the evangelical community in relation to their position in the moral community of honor in areas such as ritual, church discipline, and the space that existed in the evangelical church for black leadership. In a very real way, enslaved people experienced the evangelical community as a contradiction of their status as slaves in an honor culture. Even as southern whites carefully arranged their rituals to mirror their racially stratified society, slaves’ participation in rituals like baptism and the Lord’s Supper had inescapable symbolic implications for those who had eyes to see. And even if slaves’ dishonored status influenced the discipline of the church, discipline itself remained a striking acknowledgement of the moral agency that slaves possessed as Christians. In a critique of the idea of social death, Vincent Brown encourages scholars to see social death not as an actual description of the experience of slavery, but instead as a “compelling metaphysical threat” that slaves constantly worked to forestall through actions as various as funeral ceremonies and outright rebellion. From this point of view the various institutional elements of evangelicalism, church membership, church discipline, official office, held out something that was denied slaves in nearly every other area of life under slavery, namely a recognition of their authenticity as individuals and a space where they could communally and individually articulate an identity that held the threat of social death at bay.57

While evangelical religion did not free the South’s slaves, and in fact became complicit in their enslavement, it paradoxically also established important limits and counterweights to the social death and dishonor of slavery. As qualified as it was, the acknowledgment of slaves as legitimate members of the evangelical community stood in marked contrast to other areas of southern life. According to the logic of honor and social death, the demands of church membership made little sense when applied to a slave. White evangelicals struggled with this contradiction throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, while black evangelicals embraced it. From a broader perspective, the paternalistic and proslavery ideology espoused by southern white evangelicals in the antebellum period can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the contradictions between these two understandings of slaves’ status. Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that proslavery Christianity emerged from the close interaction between whites and blacks in evangelical churches. Paternalism, with its familial metaphor for slavery, matured alongside (p.140) evangelicalism in the South and served, if not totally to reconcile, at least to contain and describe this apparent contradiction in a way that matched and made sense of white southerners’ experience. The ideology of paternalism allowed white southern evangelicals to acknowledge slaves’ humanity and individuality while at the same time asserting their dependence and subjugation. The metaphor of the family served to blunt both the force of slaves’ dishonor and the potential of their religious identity.58

Emancipation severed the tangled knot of paternalistic ideology, shattering its central metaphor, but it did not entirely free black southerners from the consequences of bondage. No longer were they forced to find the antithesis to slavery’s shame in the water of southern rivers, the bread and wine of a second-class communion, or the right hand of friendship offered by white hands. And yet, as the later history of the nineteenth century shows with terrible clarity, many white southerners and white Christians did not accept the verdict of emancipation when it came to the deeper meanings of race that had been constructed by slavery. The interplay of social death, white honor, and religion all came terribly together at the end of the nineteenth century in what one historian has called “the southern rite of human sacrifice.” For white southerners, lynching served to maintain the sacred boundaries of the community, including those of honor, that emancipation had thrown into doubt. They understood lynching through the lens of religion, a fact that journalist Wilbur J. Cash echoed when he called lynching a “blood sacrifice.” For their part, black southerners also understood lynching through the lens of religion and honor, but they drew a very different meaning from the lynching tree. For black southerners, the central meaning of lynching was to be found in the person of Christ who, like them, had endured dishonor, exclusion, and even death, but who despised the shame of the cross and transformed it into an instrument of life.59

Notes:

(3.) Heyrman, Southern Cross, 206–252. Charles Irons has described how the presence of slaves in evangelical churches shaped proslavery arguments and attitudes developed by white evangelicals in Virginia. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity. The most complete recent account of proslavery ideology is Ford’s Deliver Us from Evil.

(4.) On honor cultures and slavery, see Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, esp. 79.

(5.) Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 5, 46. David Brion Davis refers to dehumanization or “animalization” as the defining characteristic of slavery. See Davis, Inhuman Bondage, 31–32. For a recent critique of Patterson, see Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery.” For honor in the slave population, see Forret, “Conflict and the ‘Slave Community’: Violence Among Slaves in Upcountry South Carolina.”

(13.) See, for example, Turkey Creek Baptist Church Records (Abbeville County, S.C.), April 8, 1797, BHC.

(14.) Liberty Baptist Church Records (Newton County, Ga.), July 25, 1818, MU; Antioch Baptist Church Records, January 28, 1829, MU. See also Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, 63–64; Wills, Democratic Religion, 62–63.

(15.) On the hybrid nature of evangelical identity, see Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, 135–139, 152.

(16.) Brushy Creek Baptist Church Records (Greenville County, S.C.), 1904, 366, SCL.

(17.) Second Presbyterian Church Records (Charleston, S.C.), Session Minutes, Oct. 9, 1829, SCHS.

(18.) Brushy Creek Baptist Church Records (Greenville County. S.C.), May 14, 1831, SCL; Welsh Neck Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), June 14, 1840, SCL.

(19.) Mechanicsville Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), August 4, 1855, SCL.

(20.) See Berger, The Sacred Canopy; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic; Heyrman, Southern Cross, 28–76. Carla Gardina Pestana, for instance, argues that before the Reformation the Atlantic world, including Eu rope, West Africa, and the North American continent, was characterized by a common, sacralized view of the world. Pestana, Protestant Empire, esp. introduction and first chapter.

(22.) Religion is one of the most frequent subjects of the interviews, and memories of baptism are often included, showing both its importance in the lives of these ex-slaves and perhaps their recognition that it was a shared and safe topic of conversation with their white interviewers. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 12a 349; 12b: 227.

(25.) Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 66–67. Orlando Patterson argued that the erasure of the past, including tradition and geneology, was key to social death. See Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 5–6.

(26.) Edward Hooker (Columbia, S.C.) to Sally Hooker (Farmington, Conn.), March 27, 1808, Edward Hooker Papers, SCL.

(30.) Charles Irons has noted the influence of black Christians and a commonly shared religion, including rituals, on the rise of proslavery Christianity. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity.

(31.) Hopewell ARP Church Record Book (Chester County, S.C.), 1852, SCL.

(33.) Forret cites church records in a couple of instances, but focuses mainly on court records.

(34.) Welsh Neck Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), [n.d.] 1814, 61; [n.d.]1827, 119; January 10, 1836, 194, SCL.

(35.) Brushy Creek Baptist Church Records (Greenville County, S.C.), November [n.d.], 1821, 23, SCL.

(36.) Little River Baptist Church Records (Abbeville County, S.C.), June 20, 1829, BHC; Antioch Baptist Church Records (Talbot [now Taylor] County, Ga.), August 13, 1847, MU. Jeff Forret portrays sexual honor as a major source of conflict in the slave community. See Forret, “Conflict and the ‘Slave Community,’” 568–575.

(37.) Mountain Creek Church Records (Anderson County, S.C.), January [n.d.], 1802, SCL; Poplar Springs Baptist Church Records (Laurens County, S.C.), August, September, 1837, SCL.

(38.) Hopewell ARP Church Session Records (Chester County, S.C.), April 29, 1837, SCL.

(39.) Samuel Wells Leland Journal, September 22, September 26, October 24, December 1, 1854, SCL.

(40.) Turkey Creek Baptist Church Records (Abbeville County, S.C.), October 11, 1799, BHC.

(41.) First Presbyterian Church Records (Columbia, S.C.), December 20, 1828, SCL. Also Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.

(42.) Cornelius, “Slave Marriages in a Georgia Congregation,” in Burton and McMath, Class, Conflict, and Consensus,131, 136. In an article based on the records of twenty-three Baptist churches in Georgia, Jeff Forret found that black church members were charged with adultery five times more often than whites. Forret, “Slaves, Sex, and Sin,” 4–5.

(43.) Mechanicsville Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), SCL; Antioch Baptist Church Records (Talbot [now Taylor] County, Ga.), July 17, 1830, MU; Hopewell ARP Church Records (Chester County, S.C.), March 28, 1863, SCL; Turkey Creek Baptist Church Records (Abbeville County, S.C.), July 11, 1835, BHC.

(44.) Mechanicsville Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), SCL; Bethabara Baptist Church Records (Laurens County, S.C.), November 21, 1835, SCL; Little River Baptist Church Records (Abbeville County, S.C.), April 17, 1841, January 15, 1842, BHC; Welsh Neck Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), July 23, 1848, SCL.

(45.) Bethabara Baptist Church Records (Laurens County, S.C.), August 17, 1833, SCL; Poplar Springs Baptist Church Records (Laurens County, S.C.), September [n.d.], 1830, SCL.

(46.) Cornelius, “Slave Marriages in a Georgia Congregation,” in Burton and McMath, Class, Conflict, and Consensus, 135; Wills, Democratic Religion, 22–23.

(48.) Burton, In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions, 155; Mechanicsville Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), SCL.

(52.) Ibid., 261.

(53.) Big Creek Baptist Church Records (Anderson County, S.C.), August 1, 1809, SCL.

(54.) Brushy Creek Baptist Church Records (Greenville County, S.C.), March 17, 1838, June 22, 1839, May 23, 1840, September 23, 1848, SCL. For a similar case, see Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, 66. For reactions to slave revolts and scares, see Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, 206–268; Scully, Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia, 192–232.

(55.) Mechanicsville Baptist Church Records (Darlington County, S.C.), September 25, 1854; October 1, 1831; October 17, 1835; June 25, 1848, SCL.

(56.) Cornelius, “Slave Marriages in a Georgia Congregation,” in Burton and McMath, Class, Conflict, and Consensus, 134; Clarke, Dwelling Place, 208–212 (quote on 209). Clarke notes that much of the work of this body involved hearing cases relating to slave marriages. See also Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, 65–67.

(58.) See Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity. For a recent argument on the important evangelical role in shaping paternalism, see Ford, Deliver Us from Evil.

(59.) Mathews, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice”; see also, “Lynching is Part of the Religion of Our People,” in Mathews and Schweiger, Religion in the American South.