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What Role Did Christianity Have In The Life Of Slaves?

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Slavery can be said to be as old as human civilisation itself. From antiquity, people often ‘owned’ fellow human beings for various reasons like sexual satisfaction and free labor. Ancient historical records and most early religious materials document the vastness of slavery and slave trade among the ancient civilisations. Despite its popularity, there were often those who opposed it or sought to set rules on how people should treat their slaves. Indeed, different societies had different ways of treating their slaves. This was meant to ensure some level of humane treatment was adhered to. Perhaps such concerns and rules emanated from the general conscientious feeling about slavery as an evil practice. Yet such concerns never fully abolished slavery, as people found slaves indispensable on their farms, workshops, homes and businesses. However, slavery gained more notoriety in the last six centuries when Europeans shipped millions of African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the farms, businesses and homes in the United States of America. Within this episode of inhuman treatment of African American slaves was the issue of Christianity. During different times, Christians developed alternating views about slavery: at times justifying it and other times condemning it. Christianity and slavery have had unique levels of interaction in the centuries when African American slaves labored in the American plantations and homes.

Most of the African slaves who landed on the American soil carried with them their traditional religions, however a few brought with them Islam and even Christian faith. Christian missionaries at the beginning found it challenging to convert them into Christian faith. Furthermore, most Christian denominations also feared spreading Christianity to these people who were regarded as pagans. They felt that slaves were sinful and hence justified to be enslaved by the Europeans who practiced Christianity (Meager 2007). This was in relation to the general belief that the Christian church represented the chosen people, just as the Israelites were God’s chosen nation. Since God ‘permitted’ Israelites to enslave the heathen communities like Canaanites, so were the Christians justified by God to enslave the pagan tribes from Africa. Thus converting the African slaves into Christianity amounted to making them equal to their masters, yet the American society depended on slaves for labor. It should however be noted that Christianity and its teachings of a Supreme God closely resembled most of the African slaves’ traditional religions (Sambol-Tosco 2004). It was not therefore quite hard to convert the African slaves into Christianity. Again, some of the slaves came from African regions where Portuguese missionaries had already visited and spread Christianity; hence they readily joined the available Christian churches in America. The African slaves also came to believe that the only way to earn freedom was to convert to Christianity. However, this exodus was short-lived, as the British North American colonies like Virginia passed laws that allowed conversion of the slaves into Christianity without changing their social statuses. Despite occasional resistance by planters and slaves against Christianity, missionaries still managed to spread their religion. Their effort was partly aided by the general belief among a section of the colonialists that Christian slaves could become better workers than their pagan brethren (Gilmer 2001). Still, some of the African American slaves who voluntarily converted into Christianity found the teachings in the Bible comforting (Gilmer 2001). As exemplified by their spirituals, these slaves often regarded themselves as the Israelites under the harsh Egyptian Pharaoh. Such songs like “Swing low, Swing chariot” revealed the kind of reality the slaves faced which could be juxtaposed with the Israelites’ predicament in Egypt. In stanza two, the song talks about the African slave looking over Jordan; expecting a band of angels coming after them (James). The African slaves could also easily see beyond their oppression by the whites and behold the true nature of God whom they admired. The God of Scripture provided hope and salvation from sins and reconciliation (Stewart 2010). This God disapproved of what the whites had been doing to them and offered the slaves hope of a better future, just like Jesus who suffered and resurrected (Stewart 2010). Thus the church offered most of the slaves the comfort and hope they needed during the hard times.

It is also worth noting that some slaves only adopted Christianity for convenience, like seeking to please their masters. In real sense, they did not abandon their traditional African beliefs, hence they “Africanised” Christianity (Sambol-Tosco 2004). Most of them incorporated their traditional beliefs like polygamy into the church. Still some saw Jesus Christ as a healer, the way they regarded traditional healers in their traditional religions. This gave rise to a distinct Christian worship among African slaves that was different from the European churches. Their songs, dances and symbols were reminiscent of their traditional African religions.

It is interesting to note how some African American slaves readily accepted their condition. It is well documented how many Christian slaves believed that their slavery was God-sent, aimed to lift them from darkness into the light of Christianity (Amponsah 2013). They believed that their suffering was necessary so as they could eventually share the light with their people back in Africa at opportune time in future (Amponsah 2013, p. 438). Thus, most of these slaves endured suffering with the knowledge that their future is bright. The other explanation over the acceptance of Christianity by the African slaves is psychological in nature. Citing the psychology of colonialism, Amponsah states that colonialism “fosters the desire of the oppressed to valorise the culture of the colonizer” (p. 438). This is true, particularly with the crop of Christian slaves who ‘enjoyed’ their state in life. While they suffered under the white slave-holders, the slaves learnt to hate all that was African and embrace everything white (Amponsah 2013, p. 438). These people believed that by converting into Christianity, they would be ‘whiter’ and perhaps better individuals, regardless of their deplorable life as slaves. It is also possible that the slaves were exposed to the Slave Bible that was heavily-redacted to create harmony among the slave-holding colonies (Little 2018). The Bible often highlighted such areas like slaves obeying their masters while omitting that which showed Moses leading Israelites out of Egypt. However, some slaves criticised Christian slavery. They believed that Christianity and slavery were incompatible. To them, slavery was an invention of human beings and had no place to the Christian teachings.

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History also details how the slaves interacted with Christianity and their white masters. Some of the slaves often went to church occasionally – like monthly – and they sat in separate sections with their masters (Religious Practice of Enslaved African Americans 1936-1938). Some churches even restricted slaves from attending churches, for they feared that they could know the truth and possibly repel their masters (Religious Practice of Enslaved African Americans 1936-1938, p. 3). The publication also gives firsthand account by former slaves how they were treated by their Christian masters. One particular slave by the name William Moore ridiculed the manner which their masters could urge them to “’bey our masters and work hard and sing and when we die we go to Heaven” (Religious Practice of Enslaved African Americans 1936-1938, p. 7). The fact that the slaves could respond by praying earnestly after their master, moaning: “Some day, some day, this yoke gwine be lifted often our shoulders” (Religious Practice of Enslaved African Americans 1936-1938, p. 7) demonstrate their pain even as their masters appeared justified in their guidance. The African slaves thus suffered under the system that sanctioned their suffering, backed by their Christian faith.

Most slave owners in the south justified slavery. To them, slaves were permitted even in the Bible. They therefore argued that the Church had no authority to outlaw slavery, for the Bible never condemned it (Jankiewicz 2016). Since the Bible did not consider slavery sinful, those who sought to declare it thus did so out of their human volition and not the Church (Armstrong 1857). The slave-holders argued that God instead sanctioned slavery by citing such books like Genesis and Job in the Bible. In Genesis (9:25), the Bible says: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”. Since the verse does not reveal any resentment against slavery, white Christians also assumed that God encouraged owning of slaves. Similarly, they cited Job (1:3) in which God appears to be discussing Job’s wealth with Satan. In the verse, God talks about Job as a very wealthy man with many slaves. Furthermore, Abraham whom Christians refer to as the father of faith owned slaves who were purchased with his own money (Jankiewicz 2016; quoting Gen. 17: 13). The white slave owners also quoted several New Testament verses that justified or even supported slavery. For instance, when Jesus healed the Centurion’s slave, he did not speak against slavery but only commended his immense faith (Jankiewicz 2016). Also, while quoting 1st Corinthians (7: 17), Jankiewicz argues that each individual will retain their place in life that the Lord assigned to them. The book of Exodus also talks about slavery, specifically how people should treat slaves. Even though the book urges people to treat their slaves humanely, it also tends to condone cruelty against them. For instance, the Bible states: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money” (Exodus 21: 20-21). This means that the slave owner could brutalise their slave the way they wanted, as long as they did not kill them. This contrast with Paul’s teaching regarding the equality of all people, free or slave. This was meant to justify the fact that God allowed people to occupy different social classes in the society, including the slaves.

The white slave owners; support for slavery was also based on wrong Biblical assumptions. Most of them cited the story of Noah’s sons and how Ham was cursed by his father. To them, Ham’s descendants were Africans who were condemned to live as slaves, working for others (Meager 2007). Thus, God cursed the Africans and hence they were inferior, only useful as slaves in the society. Such allegations helped to reinforce the importance of keeping different social groups in the society, including slavery. Hence, the slaves were to accept their positions in life without questioning. Furthermore, such arguments were aimed to silence the other group of whites that opposed slavery, especially the northerners. This subjected the slaves to the ruthless hands of their white, Christian masters.

The Christian abolitionists took a different stance from their European counterparts living in the southern states. The northern Christians believed that all people, regardless of their racial differences, were equal. They also quoted the Bible in their campaigns. To them, all people were created in the image of God and were precious in his sight (The Abolition of the Slave trade n.d: Quoting; Genesis 1: 26-27). Citing the New Testament, the abolitionists also argued that God was the “Father of all mankind, all nations were his ‘offspring’, ‘of one blood’” (The Abolition of the Slave trade n.d., Quoting Acts 17: 26). Hence it did not make sense for people who were created equal to turn against each other with such immense brutality witnessed among slaves. The abolitionists also preached Jesus’ teachings concerning love, where all were expected to love their neighbor the way they love themselves (The Abolition of the Slave trade n.d.). Similarly, they referred to the doctrines of creation, fall and redemption to underscore the fact that all humans were equal in the eyes of God. Furthermore, the abolitionists argued that it was not their role to judge fellow human beings, regarding who was cursed and who was blessed (The Abolition of the Slave trade n.d.). Instead, they were to live in harmony. This group of Christians also looked beyond the literal Biblical reference of slavery. Even though slavery was widely accepted in the Old Testament, the abolitionists argued that Christians should see slavery as sin, where every sinner was living in bondage (The Abolition of the Slave trade n.d.). Thus, they waged a campaign against slavery in the USA, urging the society to discard it as it went against God’s teachings.

Christianity meant a lot of things to African American slaves during different times. To some, it was a means by which they were redeemed from darkness into the light and civilisation. Yet to some, Christianity acted as an oppressing tool with which their masters used to control them and justify their brutality. However, it also offered solace and hope for many Christian slaves. The converts also used the Christian teachings to condemn slavery and justify their agitation for freedom. It is hard, therefore, to tell whether Christianity worked for the African slaves or against them. As summarised by historian Davidson (2018), white preachers used Christianity as a tool to justify their actions and further make the enslaved more ‘complacent to their status’.

Bibliography

  1. Amponsah D K 2013, ‘Christian slavery, colonialism, and violence: The life and writings of an African ex-slave,’ 1717-1747, Journal of Africana Religions, 1(4), pp. 431-457.
  2. Armstrong G D 1857, Christian doctrine of slavery, Charles Scribner, 377 & 379 Broadway, New York, NY.
  3. Exodus 2016, The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Text Edition. Crossway Bibles, a Publishing Ministry of Good News Publishers.
  4. Davidson, R. Jack 2018, ‘American Slavery and the Immediate Duty of Southern Slaveholders’, A Transcription of Eli Washington Caruthers’s Unpublished Manuscript against Slavery’, Pickwick Publications.
  5. Genesis 2016, The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Text Edition. Crossway Bibles, a Publishing Ministry of Good News Publishers.
  6. Gilmer C n.d., The truth about Jesus: looking at African American history, is Jesus still relevant for African Americans today? every student.
  7. James, Etta, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, n.d., LyricFind. (Primary Source).
  8. Jankiewicz D 2016, Hermeneutics of slavery: a “Bible-alone” faith and the problem of human enslavement, Faculty Publications 135.
  9. Little B 2018, Why Bibles given to slaves omitted most of the old testament. History, Retrieved from http:// www.history.com/news/slave-bible-redacted-old-testament
  10. Meager D 2007, ‘Why Did Christians Justify African Slavery?’ Reprinted from Cross Way 104.
  11. Religious Practice of enslaved African Americans in the southern United States: Selections from the WPA interviews, 1936-1938, National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox.

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What Role Did Christianity Have In The Life Of Slaves? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/what-role-did-christianity-have-in-the-life-of-slaves/> [Accessed 7 Oct. 2022].
What Role Did Christianity Have In The Life Of Slaves? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 24 [cited 2022 Oct 7]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/what-role-did-christianity-have-in-the-life-of-slaves/
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