Essays on Slave Communities
From Sunrise to Sunset: Beneath the Underground Interns' Essays on Slave Life in Maryland
Part of the internship program at the Maryland State Archives was structured towards original research on how ex-slaves depicted their lives in Maryland before they became free. The following series of essays are the result of the interns' study.
- Childhood in Slavery
- Interratial Connections
- Slave Community
- Slaves and Religion
- Work and Leisure
- Masculinity and Feminity
- Slavery, Resistance and Flight
Slaves and Religion
by Desiree Lee
In antebellum Maryland, many enslaved persons looked to God as a source of comfort, and used religion as a spiritual foundation through which they based their life's purpose. The primary religion during the early 1900s was Methodism, which was formed in England by the creative devotion of Anglican priest, John Wesley, and his itinerants. They planed to reform the nation, mainly through the church, and to spread holiness over the land. This reform focused on avoiding evil, doing good works, and following the ordinances of the Church of England. Wesley outlined a guide to Christian ethics in the general rules. Methodists exemplified their salvation through refraining from drunkenness, slave trading, fighting, buying illegal goods, charging excessive interest, or enjoying self-indulgence. Wesleyans were expected to obey the Bible injunctions to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit the sick.1
The master's position on church was very simple, but internally inconsistent. Most slave owners separated their faith from slavery. The average slave owner carried out the rules of the church when it concerned their private family relationships. They loved and cherished the word of God within their household. On the other hand, outside the household was beyond the injunctions of the church. To most masters, slaves were property and therefore could be treated any way. In some circumstances, they were treated worse than the livestock. Slave owners often felt that the rules and obligations of being a good humanitarian did not apply to slaves, which in turn justified their cruelty. However, many masters had some sense that poor treatment of slaves was contradictory to their religion. When persons of the clergy would visit, slaves would be instructed to hide the fact that they had been abused, neglected, or treated unfairly.2 This allows one to think that the master's knew that their actions were not only unethical but also unchristian.
Slaves themselves did not have the opportunity to separate their religious beliefs between personal life and their work.. Slaves took the context of the Bible into everyday life and it supported their belief that slavery was unjust and inhuman. Slaves praised and worshiped the Lord throughout the good times and the. The power of the slave's religion was so strong that often masters despised their devotion to God and sometimes resulted in more brutal acts of hatred towards slaves known to have strong religions convictions. As described by Elizabeth, a black minister: "I lived in a place where there was no preaching, and no religious instruction; but every day I went out amongst the haystacks, where the presence of the Lord overshadowed me, and I was filled with sweetness and joy, and was as a vessel filled with holy oil. In this way I continued for about a year; many times while my hands were at my work, my spirit was carried away to spiritual things."3
For many slaves, the Church and reading of the bible was their first introduction to education. Many slaves began their quest for knowledge in the church or at private readings by elders in the community. Elizabeth recounted "Both my father and mother were religious people, and belonged to the Methodist Society. It was my father's practice to read in the Bible aloud to his children every Sabbath morning."4 Slaves heavily relied on this method of teaching, using the Lord's word to make literacy possible in the black community.
Most churches were local organizations where the pastors were the major figures of authority often aided by an assistant pastor. The rest of the congregational organization was subordinate to the pastor. Deacons generally assisted the pastor, and were charged with leading devotional services and taking up offerings. They were also in charge of the church building by keeping the keys and cleaning it. Church mothers were generally older women who were assigned to the "motherly" role. Their duty was to help the pastor, support church programs, and to keep the children and young women in line. Churches also had associated ministers who joined the church as members. They were not assistant pastors, but are ministers without churches of their own. They assisted the pastor and were assigned to preach, take up offerings, and take charge of the pulpit. There were also churches that had missionaries or evangelists. These were women who are not ordained ministers, although they possessed a missionary license and legally received ministers benefits, such as reduced fair on railroads. They were charged with visiting the sick and doing good will throughout the community. Another important position in the church was the position of the secretary. Usually held by women, they acted as bookkeeper, treasurer, and secretary all in one. The church secretary kept accounts of the money, minutes of church meetings, and church services. In addition, they were a number of secondary organizations within single congregations such as Sunday school, Junior Church, the Pastor's Aid Society.5 This organization not only strengthened the church but the community as well.
Many of the slaves' leisure activities centered around religious rituals. The Dorseys, who owned Charles Coles, conducted regular Catholic Church services in a chapel, erected on the farm for that sole purpose. Slaves were taught the catechism, and some were taught to read and write by the priests. Baptisms and Christenings were special occasions. On the Dorsey plantation, children were baptized and their names recorded in the Bible when they were born. When slaves died, their funerals were conducted by priests, but when the slaves were buried, they had plain stones to mark their graves, as opposed to the Dorsey's marble headstones. The graves were surrounded by cedar trees and well cared for.6
James V. Deane witnessed many slave weddings. Often, the Master acted as Reverend and held the broom, which the groom and bride would jump over to complete the marriage ceremony. Deane also attended the White Methodist Church, which had a slave gallery. The slaves participated in singing with the white church members. However, on some plantations slaves were involved in the church but did not receive the same consideration as the white members. Deane saw many colored funerals that had no service. There would only be a grave built and a wooden post to show where the slave was buried.7
Richard Macks attended church regularly, though he claims not to have been a member of the church. Slaves went to the white church, sat in the rear and if there were no room, many would either sit on the floor or stand. There was a colored preacher, but slaves were either baptized or christened by the white preacher. A graveyard was present on the property, and the slaves would have headstones and cedar post to show where they were buried. Parson Williams recalls that when a death occurred, rough box would be made of heavy slabs and the dead slave would be buried on the same day they had died. The ceremony was brief, if there was any. Grieving slaves sang a few spirituals and then return to their cabins. Some of the spirituals that were sung were "Roll de stones away", "You'll rise in the skies", and "Ezekiel, he's comin' home."8
Slaves found hope and the escape form the brutalities of life in the daily practices of religion. The slaves gained most of their knowledge about religion at camp meetings which they attended with their masters. Slaves enjoyed these social gatherings, and often sold food and whisky to both the black and white communities. Many slaves imitated their master's shouting at both the camp meetings and at their own religious services. Slave preachers could often reproduce the emotional sermons delivered by the white ministers. The slave's services were similar to the whites in many ways. They served as a meeting place for friends and sweethearts, furnished ways for exercising power and leadership, and were times for socializing. Most slaves recognized the brand of religion their masters taught included racial inequalities. Constrained by those limitations, the bondsman formulated new religious ideas and practices in the relative privacy of their own quarters.9
The "shepard" of the black flock was the slave preacher. Intelligent and resourceful, they were some of the few who could read. They were remarkable men of character and personality. They were able to unify the blacks, consoled the sick, the weak, and the fearful, and were able to uplift and inspire slaves. Suffering with their flocks, they understood their troubles and the pain in their hearts. The slave preacher often acted as a counselor and arbiter in the quarters. "10
In his sermons the slaves often saw the invisible hand of God working for their freedom and retribution against the whites."11 The slave preacher had special verbal skills and his sermons excited the emotions of the slave people. Josiah Henson recalled "When I arrived at the place of meeting, the services were so far advanced that the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text, Hebrews chapter 9; 'That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.' This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it."12 The sermons of the black preacher were singular performances, marked by call and response. His allusions to earthy trials and heavenly rewards were followed by groans and acceptance phases. Since the black preacher himself was enslaved he had to make some painful compromises in order to minister to all the needs of his people.13
While often in a position to aid slaves, black preachers sometimes ended up supporting the institution of slavery. Black ministers were often trained by white clergy who were continually suspicious of insurrection Under the surveillance of whites, black ministers often joined their masters in preaching obedience and submissiveness to slaves, because they did not want to get flogged themselves. Others did so because whites rewarded them with money, relief from labor, or with manumission. Most black ministers believed that they were giving real advice on how to avoid the lash in their world. Other black preachers valued the rewards and the respect white masters gave them for voluntarily advising the slaves to be obedient.14
The slaves' religious principles were colored by their own longings for freedom. They were often based on half-understood sermons in the white churches, passages from the Old Testament describing the struggles of the Jews, beautiful dreams of a future life of freedom, enchantment and fear, and condemnation of sin. The deepest emphasis in the slave's religion was on change in their earthly situation and divine retribution for the cruelty of their masters. James Penningotn explained "the only harm I wish to slaveholders is, that they may be speedily delivered from the guilt of a sin, which, if not repented of, must bring down the judgment of Almighty God upon their devoted heads. The least I desire for the slave is, that he may be speedily released from the pain of drinking a cup whose bitterness I have sufficiently tasted, to know that it is insufferable.15
Slaves believed they had a special relationship with the Lord both individually and universally. They often expressed their love for the lord through music, church sermons and private sessions of prayer. Slaves had a emotional involvement with God every week. In contrast to most white churches, a meeting in the quarters was the scene of constant motion and singing. While singing, the congregation and the choir kept to the time of the music by swaying their bodies or by patting their hand or tapping their feet. Their singing was accompanied by a certain ecstasy of motion, clapping of the hands and the tossing of the heads, which would continue without interruption for about thirty minutes. One would lead off in a recitative style, others joining in the chorus.16
The emotions of the slaves often appeared in the spirituals. Spirituals were songs of sorrow and hope, of agony and joy of resignation and rebellion. They were the unique creations of the black slaves. The spirituals were derivations from Biblical lore and served as a means of intra-group expression in a hostile environment. Because of this subversive quality, they naturally contained few explicit references to slavery.17
Often combining secular and sacred themes, narrating personal experiences and uplifting the personal spirit, spirituals often served as accompaniments to labor or with the details of life. Spirituals also developed from the search of loved ones that were either sold or killed, and could also be a secret form of communication. Whenever the slaves would decide to meet for a dance, prayer meeting, or any unauthorized social event they would sing songs with hidden meanings that the average white man would not understand.18 For example:
I take my text in Matthew, and by Revelation,
I know you by your garment.
Dere's a meeting here tonight.
Dere's a meeting here tonight.19
Religious services and recreational activities provided the slave with welcome respites from incessant labor. They not only gave slaves joy and companionship, but also allowed them to gain some status in the quarters, as well as a measure of hope. By engaging in religious activities slaves could, for a while, take their minds off of the misery, and hopeless condition in which they lived. Despite their weakness as individuals, religion helped slaves feel stronger and safer as a group, and protected under the eyes of God.20