Eric V. Snow



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The religion of the slaves--largely a mixture of very basic Christian doctrine and some African practices and rituals--served a number of valuable purposes to the bondsmen. It offered them hope for the future afterlife and helped comfort them during the trials of the present life, because their faith told them the oppression that they suffered under would not last forever. By providing them with social gatherings, which (allegedly) served transcendent purposes, it helped weld local slave communities together. It provided an offstage social site (at least when illicitly used) where the trials of being a slave were openly discussed with others suffering the same condition. It bestowed on them an independent source of authority above the master’s that they could appeal to--the Christian God’s--and also from the slave preachers, who they saw as His representatives on earth. Despite masters and mistresses selectively taught slaves a religion supposedly shorn of subversive tendencies, it still handed them another ideological resource to criticize their owners’ failures. It also encouraged them to practice what they supposedly believed morally. Although the slaves normally could not count on them, there were some limits to slaveholder hypocrisy. Christian teaching sometimes could restrain slaveholders, such as when one white man rebuked a slaveowner who had beaten his slave (tied to a tree) with a cat-o'-nine tails for a long time:
Old Deacon Sears stand it as long as he can and then he step up and grab Old Master's arm and say, "Time to stop, Brother! I'm speaking in the name of Jesus!" Old Master quit then, but he still powerful mad.241
In this case, in which one white restrained another, the slave received only some comfort. But in other instances the slaves received much more, such as those of Eli Johnson and Adam, in which the slaves themselves made implicit appeals to a Higher Power above their masters and/or overseers, and their superiors responded to their pleas. Because slaveowners sharply reduced or eliminated the slaves’ outlets for personal expression that were normally available to free people, such as in business and social clubs, the slaves poured additional passion into their religion. This was one of the few venues where the bondsmen had a degree of cultural and social autonomy which many masters (at least by the mid-nineteenth century) willingly tolerated, or even actively promoted. In the field of religion, from both the conjurers with their African-derived beliefs and the slave preachers with their syncretistic faith, the slaves received a source of authority besides that of the slaveholders, which was a development that helped them mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, to survive the oppression of bondage.
English Agricultural Workers and Christianity
While religion played a central role in the social lives of the slaves (when their masters permitted it), it mattered less to the English farmworkers. The slaves often were largely prohibited from any other organized group activities besides church services on a regular basis, outside of the holiday-related parties masters might hold during the Christmas season in late December. They poured their passion into what was permitted them, above and beyond the Africanisms expressed in highly emotional church services. In contrast, the farmworkers had other social outlets, such as benefit clubs, friendly societies, even the pub, which decreased the emphasis placed on church services when they lacked a strong religious motivation. Since they were not as oppressed as the slaves by the legal system, they could engage in more activities largely or completely organized by themselves, including (after Parliament repealed the Combination Acts) even unions for some in the 1860s and 1870s.
Reasons for the Established Church's Unpopularity with the Laborers
Why many farmworkers lacked faith (as expressed by church attendance) in organized religion can also be explained politically. The Anglican church and its parsons personified the establishment in England, and its interests in keeping the laborers in line. They increasingly saw the Established Church as a tool of the gentry and farmers for controlling them. The message of obedience to the secular authorities as the powers-that-be which are ordained of God once again resonates, though perhaps less often than in American slave states.242 John Wesley, although the founder of Methodism, himself died a good Anglican. Upholding Toryism in politics, he repeatedly taught this doctrine.243 Emphasizing the next life as the cure for the present life’s material inequalities appears in English preaching, as does the implicitly subversive teaching that all persons are equal in God's sight.244 The farmers themselves resented the burdens of the tithing system that supported the church. Then the laborers, fairly or not, saw the tithes as yet another reason for their low wages.245 The farmers frequently used the burden of tithe-paying to justify cutting or not raising wages, thus helping mobilize the laborers’ resentment to serve their own agenda on occasion, such as in some areas during the Swing riots.246 The charity which the parsons and their wives dispensed came not freely, but at the cost of the laborers’ having to obey clerical demands. Since in many parishes pluralists held the livings, another problem arose. Supposedly attending to more than one parish, they often didn’t appear in "their" parishes for months or years on end. So if they did not care enough to live in a given laborer’s parish, why should he or she care about going to church to listen to some ill-paid curate preach?247 Parsons and other Establishment churchmen gave sermons sometimes as loaded as white preachers gave to slaves concerning the laborers’ God-ordained need to obey the secular authorities over them. Having recalled scenes where at least 500 "boys and men" would have left similar churches in the past, Cobbett commented on why he saw very few laborers leave a church at Goudhurst:

Here I have another to add to the many things that convinced me that the labouring classes have, in great part, ceased to go to church; that their way to thinking and feeling with regard to both church and clergy are totally changed; and that there is now very little moral hold which the latter possess.248


Hence, in many areas where the farmworkers especially resented the establishment (the power axis of gentry/farmers/parsons), Dissent and Non-conformity gained popularity, thus filling Methodist chapels while emptying Anglican churches.
The Church’s unpopularity with many laborers had many identifiable roots. One source was simply the unequal treatment they received at church services with the well-off, who were supposedly their equals before God and brothers in Christ. Cobbett--unrealistically--extolled the glories of making everyone in the medieval past stand or kneel for the entire church service because then: "There was no distinction; no high place and no low place; all were upon a level before God at any rate." He noted the favoritism shown to the rich at church by how and where they sat: "Some were not stuck into pews lined with green or red cloth, while others were crammed into corners to stand erect, or sit on the floor." In these situations, the laborers were necessarily treated with contempt by their alleged betters through social discrimination in an alleged "house of God." Arch mentioned similarly that, at the local Anglican services in Barford, Warwickshire, the laborers and others in poverty had "lowly places" where they had to "sit meekly and never dare to mingle with their betters in the social scale." Curtains were put up to shield the wealthier folks from the gaze of Hodge nearby. The parson's wife threw her weight around by ordering the laborers and their wives one day to sit on opposite sides of the aisle. Worst of all, as a mere seven year old eyeing through a keyhole what happened when his father took communion, Arch noticed the squire took it first, followed by the farmers, the tradesmen and artisans, and last and least in the local social hierarchy, the laborers:
Then, the very last of all, went the poor agricultural labourers in their smock frocks. They walked up by themselves; nobody else knelt with them; it was if they were unclean . . .  I wanted to know [asking his mother] why my father was not as good in the eyes of God as the squire, and why the poor should be forced to come up last of all to the table of the Lord.249
Similarly, American slaves received communion last in mixed congregations. At services conducted like this, James 2:1-4 was an unlikely text for the day!
How the Local Elite Can Use Charity to Control the Poor
At least when they were not absentee pluralists, the local clergy sometimes provided aid to local laborers. The rector of St. Giles, Wiltshire, at the seat of Lord Shaftsbury, gained great praise from his extensive charitable works. But his good deeds, as Somerville observed, wrought some bad results: the loss of habits of independence and the inclination of charity’s recipients to feel that they must have it and "were not previously as well provided for as they should be." In short, even non-government handouts still tend to breed dependency and discontent. Arch mentioned that his local parson and his wife served up soup and gave out coals to local laborers. Their charitable acts were little to their credit, however, because they used them to control the laborers receiving them. By threatening to withdraw these gifts for any laborers or their wives who disrespected or disobeyed them, they routinely received acts of obeisance from the otherwise reluctantly compliant. For example, the laborers' wives at church had to curtsey to the parson's wife. In one instance, when she suddenly ordered the hair of all the girl students in her parish "cut round like a basin, more like prison girls than anything else," Arch's mother battled this decree and won, but at a certain cost: "From that time my parents never received a farthing's-worth of charity in the way of soup, coals, or the like, which were given regularly, and as a matter of course, from the rectory to nearly every poor person in the village." As an adult, Arch successfully fought a similar crusade for his nine-year-old daughter. She wished to wear a hair net decorated with some white beads to school, which the parson's wife tried to stop because: "We don't allow poor people's children to wear hair-nets with beads." Obliquely extracting acts of deference by threatening to withdraw charity paled by comparison with the parson’s (and farmers’) direct threats to cut off aid from those daring to attend with some Dissenters who preached in a local back lane's old barn. Having already lost all access to handouts, Arch's mother without hesitation attended there--but the threats may have kept other laborers from doing likewise.250 These incidents illustrate how charity can be a tool of social control wielded by the elite against the poor. Although a potential donor does not use physical force by denying someone a handout, those directly owning the means of production produce a powerful incentive for obedience by threatening to withdraw aid from those largely or completely without productive private property. The subordinate class then may have little choice (besides migration) except to comply with the strings attached to such costly "gifts." By these machinations with charity, the Church gained the bodies of some people at weekly services but often lost their hearts.

The tithes were the leading reason for the Church’s unpopularity among the farmer and laborer alike. Two types of tithes existed generally, the great or rectorial tithe, and the small or vicarial tithe. The first entitled its owner (for it could be and was sold to non-clergymen) to one-tenth of the produce of the soil and forests, such as one-tenth of the wheat or hay grown in the parish. The second was given only to the highest resident clergyman, which may be the rector, the vicar, etc. Strongly sympathizing with the rioters, an anonymous pamphlet published during the Swing riots described how the tithes reduced "Swing" from a small farmer to a laborer whose services the parish auctioned off to another farmer at three shillings a week. “Swing” replied to the equally fictional parson who came to collect one-tenth of his crop when he was really entitled to two-thirds less because of two prior fallow years: "Why surely . . . your reverence will not rob my poor little children, by taking two-tenths more than you have a right to?" The pamphlet may be fictional, but the resentment expressed was real, and captured the flavor of much popular opinion in the countryside. These views were shared by the semi-literate laborer who wrote to the Rector of Freshwater (Isle of Wight) after some small act of arson had been committed against him: "For the last 20 year wee have been in a Starving Condition to maintain your D[---] Pride . . . As for you my Ould frend you dident hapen to be hear, if that you had been rosted I fear, and if it had a been so how the farmers would lagh to see the ould Pasen [Parson] rosted at last."251 Clearly the Church, by latching onto the state's power to gain it mammon, lost itself many hearts and minds because it forced people to support a particular organized religion that personified the local establishment. Had the Church adopted the early nineteenth-century American model of volunteerism, under which people only support and attend "the church of their choice," it would have held its parishioners much better than it did.



The Laborers’ Turn to Nonconformity and Its Mixed Results
Like other occupational groups in England, as the laborers' support for the Church waned, that for Methodism and other Nonconformist groups waxed. Depending on what its examiners emphasize, Methodism's effects on the laborers' (and other workers') willingness and ability to resist their superiors results in rather wildly disparate interpretations in the historiography. Undeniably, a peculiar correlation existed between annual peaks in radical activity (and/or its aftermath) and Methodist conversions in areas noted for working class unrest.252 On the one hand, E.P. Thompson sees this movement as producing cathartic effects on working class emotions by draining away energy, money, and time from the radical reformers in the early nineteenth century. By emphasizing discipline at work, such as through punctuality and steady attendance, Methodism has been called a tool of factory owners that served their requirements for work discipline over and above its general message that advocated submission to the state.253 On the other hand, by teaching its members practical ways to organize themselves (such as through the handling of money) into larger, more orderly groups and giving them (sometimes) managing and even preaching roles in the local chapels, Methodism helped lay some of the foundation for unionization of the work force. In the Established Church, the laborers came just to listen; in the Chapels, they came to participate. They had a real hand in administration, in trying to convert others, arguing doctrine, etc.254 Joseph Arch personifies effects like these. He was a Nonconformist and even an occasional lay preacher before founding the first national farmworkers union.255 George Loveless, one of the martyrs in the infamous Tolpuddle case was not only a Methodist, but had a "small theological library."256 Despite Wesley's personal conservatism and the mainline Methodist ministry’s, these cases show that Christianity's message of the equality of all persons in God's sight naturally did not stay corked up, in some workers and laborers' minds, in some bottle labeled "spiritual only," but it flowed out as they also applied it to the affairs of this world. Then a few who thought this way turned the incidental training in organization that Methodism gave to the working class back against their employers (including the farmers) through unions and friendly societies (which sometimes served as fronts for unions).257
Christianity: An Instigator of Laborers' Resistance?
Joseph Arch’s own life provides excellent examples of how Christianity's teachings could be turned against the elite nominally upholding them. At a meeting gathering together union delegates from all over England, while they sang a stirring pro-union hymn, he thought: "Joseph Arch, you have not lived in vain, and of a surety the Lord God of Hosts is with us this day." In his version of Christianity, God clearly supported his efforts to unionize the farmworkers. Later, sounding like an Old Testament prophet, in a long speech given to his fellow laborers, he thundered:
I have heard that, in various parts of the country, the farmers have threatened to pinch their labourers this winter, and to reduce their wages to ten shillings a week. . . . Will that stop foreign competition? No! and God will avenge the oppressor. I believe that the succession of bad harvests are a visitation of the Almighty upon the farmers for their treatment of their labourers, and upon a luxurious and dissipated aristocracy. I believe in a God of Providence, and as sure as the sun rises and sets, He will avenge Himself on the oppressor. The farmer must not be too confident.
He employed similar Old Testament allusions when recalling how and where he led the founding of the agricultural laborers' union in 1872:
I know that it was the hand of the Lord of Hosts which led me that day; that the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth raised me up to do this particular thing; that in the counsel of His wisdom He singled me out, and . . . sent me forth as a messenger of the Lord God of Battles. . . . Only through warfare could we attain to freedom and peace and prosperity; only through the storm and stress of battle could we reach the haven where we would be. I was but a humble instrument in the Lord's hands, and now my work is over, my warfare is accomplished.258
Plainly invoking a religious sanction, even calling, for his work as a union leader, he condemned his enemies in the elite with language reminiscent of Ezekiel’s or Jeremiah’s. The bent Christianity which the elite emphasized--which taught obedience to the state and its sundry representatives–-Arch upends here. The subversive side of Christianity--the part emphasizing the rich should not oppress the poor, and that spiritual salvation is harder for them than for the poor–-Arch wielded against the farmers and aristocracy. As a general procedure, the subordinate class can condemn the elite by using the latter’s own ideology whenever they are hypocrites or fail to live up to the paternalistic Christian model they supposedly uphold. The elite naturally finds it harder to parry the poor’s points when couched in the elite’s own ideology. (Whether or not the poor really believe in the elite’s ideology (i.e., “false consciousness”) is another issue). Hence, Christianity, in certain hands, can become a fountainhead of resistance and action rather than a source of passivity and resignation in the affairs of this life. Being a package deal, and a double-edged sword, Christianity’s upper class promulgators could not always count on evangelization producing “useful” results.
Similarities in Southern White American and English Lower-Class Religion
The laborers enlisting in Methodism or another Nonconformist sect ultimately desired greater meaning out of their lives than the material world could provide, because of its oppression and disappointments. This religion told them they could achieve happiness without wealth by changing their outlook on life. But then what made its message any different from Anglicanism’s? The evangelical nonconformists stressed the need for a personal conversion event called becoming "born again," i.e., a highly emotional, even ecstatic, experience of oneness with God stemming from accepting Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and Savior for their sins through His sacrifice. Since this experience does not come willy-nilly, but takes a high level of personal conviction and emotional upset over one's past life, Methodist preachers notoriously fomented emotional church services in order to help produce it. Cobbett looked down upon them with contempt for the evident irrationality and disorder involved, singling out the congregational singing as the only positive feature:
His hands [the Methodist minister's] were clenched together and held up, his face turned up and back so as to be nearly parallel with the ceiling, and he was bawling away, with his "do thou," and "mayest thou," and "may we," enough to stun one. Noisy, however, as he was, he was unable to fix the attention of a parcel of girls in the gallery, whose eyes were all over the place, while his eyes were so devoutly shut up. After a deal of this rigmarole called prayer, came the preachy, as the negroes call it; and a preachy it really was. Such a mixture of whining cant and of foppish affectation I scarcely ever heard in my life. . . . After as neat a dish of nonsense and of impertinences as one could wish to have served up, came the distinction between the ungodly and the sinner. . . . Monstrous it is to think that the Clergy of the Church really encourage these roving fanatics.259
Now compare Cobbett's contemptuous description of a Methodist service in Kent, England, to Olmsted's more objective but still somewhat skeptical observations of a spiritual meeting in the American South, held mostly for the whites, although the blacks present outnumbered them. The similarities show that lower-class Southern whites did not mainly derive an emotional style of religion from the slaves. In the American situation, a greater level of chaos prevailed: While the minister strived to win souls in a rather rude building, people kept coming and leaving, children crawled in the aisles (one even got into the pulpit a few times), and some dogs accompanied their masters. The preaching style was a twin of the Methodist service’s that Cobbett witnessed:
The preliminary devotional exercises--a Scripture reading, singing, and painfully irreverential and meaningless harangues nominally addressed to the Deity, but really to the audience--being concluded, the sermon was commenced by reading a text, with which, however, it had, so far as I could discover, no further association. Without often being violent in his manner, the speaker nearly all the time cried aloud at the utmost stretch of his voice, as if calling to some one a long distance off; as his discourse was extemporaneous, however, he sometimes returned with curious effect to his natural conversational tone; and as he was gifted with a strong imagination, and possess of a good deal of dramatic power, he kept the attention of the people very well.
Tumult accompanied the altar call as crying and groaning men and women stepped forward to kneel before the "howling preacher," who cried "aloud, with a mournful, distressed, beseeching shriek, as if he were himself suffering torture." The blacks watching it all, confidently awaiting their turn later with the same preacher, generally had "a self-satisfied smile upon their faces; and I have no doubt they felt that they could do it with a good deal more energy and abandon, if they were called upon." Although the African heritage of the slaves predisposed them towards energetic, emotional religious exercises, the parallels between the American and English cases demonstrate the poorer whites in the South or in England's industrial areas were likewise inclined towards a religion requiring their active participation. All three groups had a desire for an expressive faith that required their input and energy, whether it be through emotional church services, an active personal sense of having become converted as an adult, or getting involved in the organization of believers that supported the ministers. (After all, any religion downplaying emotion and/or rituals in favor of reason is a poor candidate for popularity with people of little or no education a priori). The blacks, drawing upon their own heritage, simply took advantage of the opening lower-class evangelical religion gave for expressing their emotions. They built upon it, adding ceremonies, such as the call-and-response singing and preaching, and the ring shout/dance, or simply did more energetically what the whites did. The emotionalism of Methodist services in England, among a people whose national temperament was traditionally described as including a "stiff upper lip," fatally undermines W.E.B. Dubois' claim that Southern whites merely had a "plain copy" of slave worship services.260 The blacks’ example may have encouraged some lower-class whites to express their emotions at religious services more strongly than their white Methodist kinsmen in industrial England's working class did, but their basic pattern of worship would have remained the same even if no slaves had been brought to the New World.
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