Eric V. Snow



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This black preacher may have taught what pleased those wielding nearly absolute power over him. But his probable inability to read the Bible also handicapped him from bringing the full Christian message to his flock. For he could not teach what he did not know, and if he had not heard the message of equality in God's sight, he could not easily teach it knowledgeably to others, assuming he had enough bravery to do so. Lunsford Lane, a North Carolina freedman turned abolitionist speaker in the North, said he had heard certain New Testament texts about slaves obeying their masters routinely recited in sermons intended for audiences held in bondage. While observing these sermons telling the slaves to obey had "much that was excellent" mixed into them, the message of obedience still strongly remained present. Sometimes their propaganda paid off: A number found theft declined and discipline improved as slaves "got religion."221 At least for this life, the slaves benefited less clearly. They were told to obey without hearing much the corresponding message about their masters’ obligations to them or about master and slave having equality in Christ. This mangled form of Christianity also made the true experience of conversion more difficult. While many, perhaps most slaves may have received the general evangelical Protestant Christian message of "repent and accept Christ as Savior to gain eternal life," a minor point of the Christian religion--slaves must obey their masters--was artificially exalted into the pride of place to suit the slaveholders' interests. The time and effort spent teaching this point caused other, more important doctrines to be left gathering dust, either partly or completely pushed aside. Being an artificial construction that served the ruling class’s instrumental purposes, the Christianity that the white masters and mistresses and the preachers under their influence bequeathed to their slaves often lacked an essential authenticity and integrity.
The Slaves Add to the Religion Given Them by their Masters and Mistresses
The slaves clearly received a watered-down faith from their masters and mistresses, one which was transparently bent towards serving their obvious material interests. The slaves filled the vacuum in their religious lives by drawing upon their own cultural heritage from Africa. The Catholic Christianity of the Indians in Latin America was influenced by their ancestors' pre-Columbian religious practices; likewise, the Protestant Christianity of the slaves took on traditions and a character partly derived from the traditional animist religions of Africa, thus producing an analogous syncretistic combine.222 But because the slaves were a minority even in their region, and further imports of slaves directly from Africa had been cut off since 1808 (excepting those smuggled in), the Africanisms found in African-American religious beliefs were proportionately much fewer than those showing up in the Caribbean or Brazil.223 Nevertheless, such influences showed up in the United States. The beliefs of Charles Ball's African-born grandfather were full of Africanisms. His rather eccentric religious beliefs certainly look to be Islamic, perhaps in a Sufi-influenced version because formal doctrine was de-emphasized. A detectable strain of Deism seems to appear here also, which may point to the abolitionist editor's own beliefs influencing his interpretation of what he heard Ball say about his grandfather. His case was exceptional, because he expressed these beliefs without combining them with the faith of the slaveholders. The testimony of freedman William Adams of Texas exemplifies the much more usual syncretism, in which the Christian belief in casting out demons subsumes a voodoo-like belief in hexes and preventing them. When a child he
hear[d] them [his mother and other adults] talk about what happens to folks 'cause a spell was put on them. The old folks in them days knows more about the signs that the Lord uses to reveal His laws than the folks of today. It am also true of the colored folks in Africa, they native land. Some of the folks laughs at their beliefs and says it am superstition, but it am knowing how the Lord reveals His laws.
Adams’s case demonstrates how the slave conjurors’ practices and powers coexisted with Christian beliefs within the same individuals. These conjurors’ gave the slaves an independent source of religious authority from what white preachers or their masters and mistresses believed. Berry and Blassingame see the frenzied yelling, "the ring shout, the call-and-response pattern of sermons, prayers and songs, the unrestrained joy, and [the] predilection for total immersion" as derived from African rituals and customs.224 The slaves combined beliefs from their own African religious tradition with the twisted Protestant faith of their owners to help explain or mentally cope with slavery’s privations.225
No Surprise: The Slaves' Lack of Religion Freedom
Turning from the content of the slaves' beliefs to how much freedom they had to practice them, often slaveholders and overseers restricted or even simply prohibited the slaves from expressing their faith.226 All the stories about the slaves’ receiving punishment for expressing their religious beliefs shows the master class was less interested in the souls of their bondsmen and more concerned about keeping control than their propaganda proclaimed. Planter Barrow, never one much for sending his slaves off plantation, once reluctantly let them leave for religious reasons: "gave the negros permission to go over to Robt. H. Barrows to preaching, . . . being near & leaving home but seldom, granted them permission."227 Barrow's slaves also might have had meetings without his permission. As a slave in Virginia, William Troy had been at many illict meetings of his church. Despite their precautions, such as holding gatherings at night, patrols sometimes did break them up. David West, from Virginia, reported a similar experience: Patrollers whipped those caught at or after night services. Eli Johnson was threatened with no less than 500 lashes for leading prayer meetings on Saturday nights. An eloquent plea before his master and mistress allowed him to evade punishment. Note how his request, which contains an apparent allusion to Ps. 22:17, implicitly appealed to an Authority above his owner's:
In the name of God why is it, that I can't after working hard all the week, have a meeting on Saturday evening? I am sent for to receive five hundred lashes for trying to serve God. I'll suffer the flesh to be dragged off my bones, until my bones stare my enemy in the face, for the sake of my blessed Redeemer.
Slaveholders opposed unsupervised meetings, held at suspicious hours, watched by no whites, because their slaves might be castigating them behind their backs--or planning something worse. At least, they thought, their slaves should be resting for work the next day if the meeting was otherwise innocuous. Even at meetings which slaveholders allowed, patrollers (or other white observers, such as the master or overseer) stood present. Indeed, throughout the South that was legally required. Mrs. Colman Freeman was born free, but witnessed patrollers whipping slaves who attended such meetings without passes when they did not escape first by running into a nearby river! "Uncle" Bob of South Carolina had a master who broke up meetings by using his whip. The slaves' solution? They went to a outlying cabin, turned up-side-down a washing kettle propped up off the floor by boards, and used it to muffle the sound of singing and praying as they gathered around it!228 Clearly, the master class had little interest in giving their bondsmen the freedom to meet for services, especially from those they or their representatives were absent.
But slaveholders restricted other religious activities by their slaves besides meetings. In an exchange reminiscent of Peter's with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19), one slave named Adam replied to the overseer threatening him with a hundred lashes when he was about to be baptized: "I have but two masters to serve, my earthly and my heavenly master, and I can mind nobody else." The Christian doctrine that obedience is owed to God above all earthly powers' contrary commands here definitely bears fruit! Kemble knew her husband’s overseer whipped one man for allowing his wife to be baptized. Illustrating how much the slaveholders denied their own Protestant heritage when attacking their slaves' right to read, Jacobs noted: "There are thousands, who, like good uncle Fred [she was illegally teaching him how to read], are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it. They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home."229 For after the slaves received knowledge of Christianity, what they decided to do with its content inevitably did not always please their owners, who frequently ended up restricting how their human chattels expressed their newfound faith.
The Slaves Try to Unbend a Bent Christianity
Although the slaveholders upheld Christianity at least nominally, they knew the full free exercise of religion by their bondsmen could threaten their material interests. They wanted the benefits of teaching the slaves to obey by using their religion’s tenets, but without the drawbacks. Unfortunately for their propaganda purposes, since Christianity was a "package deal," they could not go picking and choosing which doctrines they wished the slaves to hear when the latter had strong motives to seek those being withheld. Mary Reynolds of Louisiana never went to church when she was a slave. Prayer meetings had to be quietly conducted because her owner’s black driver threatened his fellow slaves with whippings when he heard them. Even under such restrictions, she still heard the Christian doctrine that all people are equal in God's sight, albeit in a somewhat mangled form: "But some the old niggers tell us we got to [still] pray to God [so] that He don't think different of the blacks and the whites." Some whites really did try to deny this truth, by saying the slaves were not even human! One white preached this to the slaves, as freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered:
Now I takes my text, which is, Nigger obey your master and your mistress, 'cause what you git from them here in this world am all you ever going to git, 'cause you just like the hogs and the other animals--when you dies you ain't no more, after you been throwed in that hole.

Attempts to shield the slaves from the implications of objectionable doctrines by teaching them a bastardized Christianity were inevitably doomed to failure. Once the genie is out of the bottle, stuffing him back in is impossible.230 The slaves could use Christian teachings their masters disliked hearing, such as by demanding recognition that they were brothers in Christ (i.e., fellow human beings). The master class’s attempts at religious censorship inevitably partially failed, undermined by literate slaves, idealistic whites, etc. When masters and mistresses revealed that a Higher Authority stood above their own, they made a righteous defiance available to the bondsmen which was based upon the very religion that their owners taught them, something which had potentially dangerous repercussions.


Despite the hazards, most masters and mistresses pressed forward with the project of evangelizing their slaves, especially in the generation or two before the Civil War (1800-60). They often consented to having their slaves join them at services, which demonstrates once again whites accepted a certain degree of integration under slavery, so long as they kept the blacks in utter subjection. This principle was perfectly illustrated by the slaves’ receiving communion last, after the whites had, at an integrated service. Freedwoman Nicey Kinney of Georgia saw her master and mistress as "sure believ[ing] in the church and in living for God." They all together routinely attended on different weeks three different churches. Mistress Sallie Chaney made sure her slaves did no work on Sunday, and that they went to church services, which were held on her Arkansas plantation. Bennet Barrow thought a planter neighbor of his "verry foolish in relation to religion among his negroes," evidently because he was always trying to convert them and so forth. The Bryans of colonial South Carolina were totally determined to preach to and teach to their slaves and those on neighboring plantations in large emotional meetings. As a result, a committee of the colonial legislature condemned the Bryans’ activities and a grand jury indicted them. Jonathan Bryan even wanted to build a "negro school"! Olmsted noted that Bishop Polk of Louisiana worked strenuously not just to convert all 400 of his slaves, but he performed their marriages and baptisms by the standard rites.231 At least some masters and mistresses saw converting their slaves to Christianity as a religious duty, without always having the ulterior instrumental purpose of using their faith as an ideology that taught obedience, since they went beyond the bare minimums required.
Slave Preachers: Their Role and Power
The white elites always eyed suspiciously the slave preachers, who made up for a general lack of education through lung power and sheer emotionalism when conducting meetings. They had about the highest position a slave in the eyes of fellow slaves could attain without gaining it based on his master's property or authority.232 Masters had good reasons for their mistrust. The preachers could start an outright revolt, like Nat Turner. Failing to do something that deadly and spectacular, they might serve as public questioners of the slaveholder regime.233 They could reveal and expound doctrines of Christianity the masters would prefer to be swept to some corner or under the rug. They could become an alternative source of power on the plantation, like the conjurers in their own sphere, because God was seen as authorizing their role. Because of the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, which allowed even poor, illiterate whites to preach, slaveholders knew that totally eliminating the slave preachers was not a realistic possibility granted the religious milieu they moved in. The general policy became more one of regulation than elimination, although their owners could censor them or sell them off. Barrow rued the day he let his slaves preach, writing he would opt for simple elimination: "Gave negros permission to preach shall never do it again too much rascallity carried on."234 Despite policies like Barrow's, slave preachers often led emotional services, full of singing, moving, and shouting in a call and response pattern. Since they were normally under suspicion and/or direct white supervision, excepting illicit night gatherings, they frequently had to preach "authorized" sermons about obeying their masters and stealing none of their property, or at least neutral ones not obviously susceptible to interpretations that readily undermined the slaveholders' regime ideologically. Some apparently even “sold out” completely for material benefits and respect from the white authorities, as Blassingame maintains, or they even honestly believed slaves had to obey their owners.235 Still, despite the compromises they often had to engage in, the slave preachers, as a group, were the most threatening among the slaves to the planter and master class's project of achieving hegemony over their human chattels, followed by the conjurers.
Although American slaves generally failed to develop a religious millennialist tradition like subjugated peoples elsewhere, African-American slave religion could still, under unusual circumstances, subvert work discipline on the plantations. For example, the proclamations of the whites’ own millennialist movement spilled over, affecting the slaves' own beliefs. William Miller, a Baptist layman turned preacher, predicted the world would end in 1843, later emending that prophecy to 1844, based upon his interpretation of Daniel 7:25's "2,300 evenings and mornings." Bennet Barrow, never much of a church-goer, complained that one-fourth of the white population "are run crazy on the subject of Miller prophosey, that the world would come to an End some time this year." But for him, the real problems began when Miller’s predictions began to terrify his slaves. He noted, in his diary entry for April 11, 1843: "Negros are much frighed [frightened] the thoughts of the world coming to an end any day." Some kind of trouble, although it remains unspecified, must have inspired him to later sermonize against such a belief: "Gave my negros a Lecture 'to day' upon the folly of their belief that the world would End to day, & their superstitious belief in Dreams &c." As the prophesied Judgment Day passed without happenstance, the slaves evidently fell back into their normal routines. A more dramatic showdown erupted on Kemble's husband's rice-island estate years earlier, when a black prophetess named Sinda predicted a soon-to-come Judgment Day. Her fellow slaves became so frightened that they stopped all work in a virtual strike. The overseer found no combination of argument, criticisms, or flogging got them to work before the predicted day would come. He patiently waited it out, warning her before the rest that she would be "severely punished" if her prediction was false.
Her day of judgment came indeed, and a severe one it proved, for Mr. K---- [the overseer] had her tremendously flogged . . . the spirit of false prophecy was mercilessly scourged out of her, and the faith of her people of course reverted from her to the omnipotent lash again.236
The unanimous passive rebellion here made this a remarkable incident, for it briefly placed the lone white overseer in a nearly helpless situation while avoiding the terrible “kill or be killed” violence that normally characterized slave revolts. But since the slaves were told, "Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord" (Ex. 14:13), they passively awaited the outcome of a false prophecy. They just fell back into their old ways of relating to the white overseer when it all came to nought. Since their "strike" relied on direct supernatural deliverance, unlike millennialist movements where a dynamic prophet incites the masses into taking things into their own hands, when the expected prophesied event did not take place, they had no practical alternative but to return to their old patterns of submission to white authority, since they were not following Franklin's not-always-Biblical dictum that the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Did Slaveholders Achieve Religious and Ideological Hegemony Over Their Slaves?
Were the slaveholders and planters successful in establishing an ideological hegemony over the slaves through religious teaching? This question will have to returned to below in order to analyze it more than is possible here. Now Genovese makes hegemony the cornerstone of historical interpretation in Roll, Jordan, Roll. He borrowed this framework from Gramsci, who developed it to explain why the workers in advanced industrialized countries had failed to overthrow their capitalist elites despite the absence of continuous and massive coercion. Genovese fits religion's role in creating hegemony into his overall framework of paternalism, which created a system of reciprocal obligations between the masters and the enslaved, allowing the latter sometimes to reproach and restrict the former’s actions by asserting they had (customary) rights in return for an (outward) acceptance of their enslaved condition. They focused on improving their conditions from "within the system" rather than by unrealistically seeking liberation from it. In religious matters, it is necessary to account for why African-American slaves mostly lacked a violent, millennial faith that sought to revolt and turn the world up-side down compared to (say) Caribbean slaves influenced by Voodoo. The bloody revolt in Virginia led by Nat Turner, a literate slave preacher, merely rises up as the great exception to the American experience. Genovese attributes the difference to the non-millennial faith of black preachers and their congregations. This happened for four basic reasons. First, they accepted the practical realities of being out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-organized by the whites and their governmental/social order. Second, because African religion had a strong this-world emphasis that denied an ultimate end-time ultimate consumation, the slaves tended to infuse such a sensibility into their form of Christianity. Third, the preachers pointed to God Himself as the deliverer through someone He would call like Moses rather than a charismatic political black preacher-prophet among themselves. Lincoln, i.e., the leader of the (Northern) white establishment politically, ultimately filled this role when liberation finally came. Fourth, millennial movements developed in cases in which the underclass and superiors both had a fully developed civilization and culture. But an equality of cultural integrity and heritage did not exist in the South between whites and blacks. Illiterate African-American slaves, through the brutal shock of being torn from their homeland, dumped into a subordinate condition under the rule of a majority alien European culture, cut off from substantial continuing contact with their old culture, joined by a mixture of fellow slaves descended from different tribes who spoke different languages (assuming these had not been already forgotten by those born into slavery), had to accept substantial assimilation to the dominant culture even to be able to communicate and work with one another, let alone their white owners.237 Importantly, in a brilliant but overreaching counter-attack, James Anderson takes Genovese to task for maintaining the slaves had basically accepted ideologically their condition of slavery, as part of his onslaught against the view the slaveholders had successfully established hegemony over their bondsmen. Anderson observes that Genovese discounts alternative sources of authority for the slaves, such as the conjurors or skilled artisans among them. Resistance to hegemony is composed only of a formal counter-ideology, "organized effort, and political ingenuity.” Summarizing his opponent’s views, Anderson writes: “Resistance rests upon sound and conscious mental activity; in other words, it is political brilliance."238 But a subordinate class need not have a highly developed counter-ideology in order to reject the superordinate class’s ideology. Genovese, according to Anderson, fails to document that most slaves really accepted the evil social system into which they were born. Running away to the North still manifested black opposition to slavery; large, collective, armed revolts need not erupt routinely to prove the slaves rejected slavery as a good way of life. Anderson's polemic clearly calls into question how successfully the slaveholders achieved hegemony over the slaves through a paternalistic ethos.
How can the conflict about the reality of hegemony over the slaves, religious and otherwise, be disentangled? This dispute depends on how someone defines "resistance" and where--what social sites--that resistance appeared. If the only “resistance” that counts is composed of large, organized campaigns formed around a coherent counter-ideology, then American slaves obviously never achieved this level of political activity. But successful hegemonic incorporation becomes hard to prove after it is realized that resistance occurs in different ways at different social sites. Subordinates can act one way before the dominant class, and another among themselves alone, alternatively putting on and dropping off a mask that conceals their true beliefs. James Scott uses the terms "onstage" to refer to social situations in which the dominant class or group interacts with their subordinates. By contrast, when both are "offstage," and the dominant and the subordinate classes part company, each side can speak more freely about the other than when together, especially the latter. The record of writings, conversations, speeches, etc., produced when both interacted together is the "public transcript”; what each group produced when out of the other’s presence is its “hidden transcript.” Genovese's concept of hegemony suffers a limited understanding of the public transcript’s limitations for proving what the slaves really believed: What the slaves said may not be what they really did believe, since the elite largely controls the public transcript. The ruling class’s coercive power, real or imagined, intimidates the subordinate’s class’s willingness to speak out, thus constantly muddying the accuracy of the public transcript’s record of the latter’s real beliefs. The slaves could have used the ideology of paternalism, and even some of the religious doctrines of Christianity, to restrain their owner’s actions as instrumentally as some masters used Christianity to teach their slaves to obey them. But when off by themselves, at a social site of their own choosing, such as a late-night church service in the woods, their slave preachers may have preached of a day when all blacks would be free. Maybe they even proclaimed a classic millennial upside-down world where the bondsmen were the rulers and the masters the slaves. (Of course, the beliefs expressed at illicit activities are almost unknown, because little documentation about them exists, which is the usual nature of the hidden transcript).239 If there were such social sites, like a plantation’s quarters at night, largely or completely beyond the ability of the slaveholders to destroy or watch, then the slaves may have developed a crude counter-ideology that would sustain their spirits to resist their owners’ continuous oppression. While a lack of documentation makes the hidden transcript mostly irretrievable, especially for a mostly illiterate group as utterly subjugated as the slaves, occasional peeks at it are possible, such as through the slave narrative collection. The hidden transcript also increasingly slips into the public transcript as the chaos of the Civil War's last two years totally undermines the entire social system of slavery in the South, and the level of fear slaves have about speaking out plummets. Scott's conception of a hidden transcript generated by a subordinate group offstage likely inflicts a mortal wound on Genovese's theory of hegemony generally, including its implications for the slaves’ religious beliefs specifically.240
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