Commentary | Chains and the church

An epistolary look at faith, religion, and enslavement

Where there has been slavery, religion has never been far behind. The rhetorical power of religion long justified and guided the process of enslavement, and this reality was no different in the transatlantic system of slavery. The Christianizing mission of African slavery is hardly a secret. Nor is Genesis 9:20, where one can find the Curse of Canaan, by now widely interpreted by historians as a biblical sanctioning of anti-Black racism and enslavement. Meanwhile, the Torah as well as the Quran and the Prophet’s Hadith contain passages that sanction slavery under various terms. Holy books aside, religious practices have long given concrete support to the institutions of slavery. Despite this, the experiences of enslaved peoples, as recounted in slave narratives from the American south, show that enslaved peoples drew their own conclusions from religious teachings and shaped them for their own ends.


“After the alarm caused by Nat Turner’s insurrection had subsided, the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters. The Episcopal clergyman offered to hold a separate service on Sundays for their benefit. […] Pious Mr. Pike brushed up his hair till it stood upright, and, in deep, solemn tones, began: ‘Hearken, ye servants! Give strict heed unto my words. You are rebellious sinners. Your hearts are filled with all manner of evil. ‘Tis the devil who tempts you. God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways […] God sees you. You tell lies. God hears you. […] Your masters may not find you out, but God sees you, and will punish you. O, the depravity of your hearts!”

—Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


“The fact that the church of our country (with fractional exceptions) does not esteem ‘the Fugitive Slave Law’ as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love, and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. […] But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. […] For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!”

—Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro


“Whilst I thus struggled, there seemed a light from heaven to fall upon me, which banished all my desponding fears, and I was enabled to form a new resolution to go on to prison and to death, if it might be my portion: and the Lord showed me that it was His will I should be resigned to die any death that might be my lot, in carrying his message, and be entirely crucified to the world, and sacrifice all to His glory that was then in my possession, which His witnesses, the holy Apostles, had done before me. It was then revealed to me that the Lord had given me the evidence of a clean heart, in which I could rejoice day and night, and I walked and talked with God, and my soul was illuminated with heavenly light, and I knew nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

—Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman


“‘Did any of the black people on his place believe in the teachings of their master?’
No, my child; none of us listened to him about singing and praying. I tell you we used to have some good times together praying and singing. He did not want us to pray, but we would have our little prayer-meeting anyhow. Sometimes when we met to hold our meetings we would put a big wash-tub full of water in the middle of the floor to catch the sound of our voices when we sung. When we all sung we would march around and shake each other’s hands, and we would sing easy and low, so marster could not hear us. O, how happy I used to be in those meetings, although I was a slave! I thank the Lord Aunt Jane Lee lived by me. She helped me to make my peace with the Lord. O, the day I was converted! It seemed to me it was a paradise here below! It looked like I wanted nothing any more. Jesus was so sweet to my soul! Aunt Jane used to sing, ‘Jesus! the name that charms our fears.’ That hymn just suited my case. Sometimes I felt like preaching myself. It seemed I wanted to ask every body if they loved Jesus when I first got converted.”

—Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage


“When the glad tidings came that we were freed, and the war was over, such rejoicing and weeping and shouting among the slaves was never heard before, unless it was the time that the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to the children of Israel. Great numbers of the slaves left their masters immediately. They had no shelter, but they dug holes in the ground, made dug-outs, brush houses, with a piece of board here and there, whenever they could find one, until finally they had a little village called ‘Dink-town,’ looking more like an Indian village than anything else. There they sang and prayed and rejoiced. Later on, the soldiers began to come through, returning from the war. They brought many negroes with them who were searching for members of their families. I remember my mother, with me holding on to her skirts, standing watching the soldiers as they passed in their blue suits, and the colored people all shouting ‘Hurrah for Marse Abe,’ and cheering the Union boys as they passed. That was a glad day. That certainly was a year of jubilee for the poor black slave. They had heard about the Liberation from Bondage of the Children of Israel from the Egyptians and their prayers were always to the Almighty God, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they too some day might be delivered, and now it had actually come. Oh! What joy!”

—Emma J. Smith, Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed


God and religion were crucial to the experiences of enslaved people in the Atlantic World, whether as targets for anti-abolitionist discourse or as a genuine means to make sense of an unbearable reality. Yet unlike the unbridled political, economic, and legal forces defending slavery, religious rhetoric assumed a more personal voice, authoritatively appealing to people’s deep-seated beliefs and fears of the world. All the while, enslaved people found their own way of negotiating faith to serve their own needs, resisting the very ideas and practices that daily sought to subjugate them. Indeed, the distance between the pulpit and the plantation was never great.

Shadows of Slavery is a column that seeks to remember the history of slavery in the Americas and to examine how this history manifests itself today. Nadir Khan can be reached at