Slavery was practiced in the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. The first slaves were brought to American from Africa in the early 1600’s to provide cheaper labor to work on the southern plantations. The experiences and lives led by slaves in colonial America were very different than the lives they had in Africa. When they were forced to leave their African homeland, they brought to American many of their customs and traditions. Because they came from different parts of Africa, they brought a variety of tribal customs and traditions over to the colonies representing the different areas they came from. Religion was one of the many traditions they brought with them from Africa. Because slaves came from various parts of Africa, each region had their own religious practices.
However, what started out as religious practices and customs from the area they came from, merged together on the plantations and united into one religion practiced by the slaves on American soil.
For over four centuries, more than ten million slaves were brought to labor and work on colonial plantations. Whey they initially were brought over from Africa in the early 1600’s, they brought with them their own African styles of worship, forms of ritual, systems of belief and fundamental perspectives on religion. Because religion played a huge role in West African culture, which is where most of them came from, it became a huge component of the slave life in America. Olaudah Equiano describes the early slave religion brought from Africa as being similar to Judaism and Christianity. There were many forms of religion brought over from African including Akan, Eure, Yoruba, and others; however, the Ibo religion was one specific religion brought over from Nigeria. They all had influences on the Afro-American religion established by the slaves in America. Equiano gave a detailed description of early religious practices by the Ibo brought over to America. Those that were part of the Ibo religion believed in one creator of all things that lived in the sun. This creator governed all events, especially life and captivity. Many of the religions, including the Ibo’s, believed the spirits of their dead friends and family members are always with them and would help guard them from evil. Rituals were a big part of the religious customs they brought over with them. These rituals included things like before they would eat, putting meat and drink on the ground for the spirits protecting them, using rattles and dance when worshipping and using music to receive blessings from heaven. Part of their traditional religious customs they brought over also included purifications and washings. They were very superstitious and believed things like if you touched a dead person, you could not enter the dwelling until you had been washed and cleansed. In the early days of arriving to America, they did not always have places for public worship, but they had priests, magicians or wise men that were held in great reverence by the people. Even with different religious practices and beliefs, the majority believed in a high God that was the creator of the world and sky. Early on many of the believed, the high God was the parent of lesser Gods. They looked at the lesser Gods as mediators between God and the people making their prayer requests to them hoping they would present them to highest God.
Because slaves came from different areas and brought different religious practices with them, the new slave societies in America blended much of these practices to form their own on the plantations. After being in America, many of the traditional African religious customs and rituals began to fade into a more centralized religious practice representing all slaves. The African slaves reconstructed key elements of their traditional religious practices and configured Christianity according to their needs. Many of their traditional African religious rituals were destroyed by the havoc created when they were captured and brought over to the new world, so they had to come up religious beliefs and rituals that represented their life in the new world. The slave owners were not interested or worried about the spirituality of their slaves, they were much more concerned with the work and labor they could provide. Because of this, slave owners suppressed public religious practices of their slaves. Many of the slave owners believed that slaves would use religious meetings as a place to plan resistance and rebellion.
Because of this, laws were established on the plantations that kept slaves from being able to meet for religious purposes. Other slave owners felt that slaves converting to Christianity and being baptized would undermine the established concept of enslavement and encourage slaves to regard themselves as equals with their owners. Any church or religious meetings they were allowed to partake in were led by white men. In Excerpts from Slave Narratives, Peter Randolph, who grew up as a slave on a Virginia plantation, described the preaching slaves were exposed to by the white man. He describes the sermons by these slave-holding ministers as sermons on how “servants should obey their masters” and “Do not steal or lie for this is wrong and such conduct is sinning against the Holy Ghost and is showing ingratitude to the masters who clothe, feed, and protect.” Other of these slave-holding preachers would preach to the slaves that they were hard-hearted and ungrateful, but were loved by their masters anyway. They would also tell them if they lived good lives, they may not receive lashes from their masters. Henry Bibb, who was the son of a white man and black woman on a plantation in Kentucky, described this preaching as pro-slavery doctrine. They did not have anyone who could read the Bible or to preach except these slave- holding ministers because slaves were not allowed to learn how to read the Bible or receive any kind of religious instruction. So, any preaching the slaves did receive, came from this pro-slavery doctrine.
Because slaves were not being spiritually fed by the slave-holding ministers and they were not allowed to hold church meetings on plantations, they began to meet in the swamps for religious gatherings. They would figure out a time and place to sneak away at night to the swamps, so they could hold their religious meetings. Many of these places were called Hush-Harbors and were secret meeting places outside the plantation quarters. At night, the slaves would sneak off to the swamps to sing and pray. There was usually some kind of preaching by one of the breathern, and then they would sing and pray until they felt happy. Many times, the one bringing the message would start out speaking slowly and as soon as he would fill with the spirit, he would become louder and faster. The intensity and power of the prayers and preaching filled the slaves with the spirit and gave them meaning to own in the dreadful lives many of them faced on the plantations. For a short time while in the woods and swamps praying and singing, the slaves were able to forget about the suffering on the plantation.
The leader of the worship service either knew the Bible because they had learned to read or because they had memorized and interpreted what they had previously heard. Those religious leaders among the slaves were normally chosen by the community because of their Biblical knowledge. After preaching, the slaves would sing and do rhythmic dances to put themselves in communion with the spiritual world. The preaching, singing and dancing would go on for hours and hours. Many of the songs they sang were written by slaves that described the sufferings and hardships of the new world they had been brought to. When the morning star would start to twinkle, they knew their religious services would need to end so they could get home before their master missed them. If they were caught praying or worshipping, they were whipped as though they had committed a crime. If they called out to God while they were getting their whipping, they would be threatened with having their throats cut or brains blowed out.
After a while, Baptist and Methodist missionaries set out on a mission to bring Christianity, other than the slave-holding misters, to the slaves. These missionaries focused on the conversion to holiness for the slaves instead of preaching to them about obeying their masters. Slaves found hope and comfort in this religion brought to them by these missionaries. The slaves easily identified with the biblical teaching of the Old Testament and heroes whom God stood by through slavery and persecution. They also easily identified with the suffering of Jesus. They understood who Jesus was because of their own oppression. They believed the resurrection of Jesus from the grave became a symbol for their own freedom. The Bible became to the slaves the most sacred book of all. Christianity brought to them by these missionaries gave the slaves hope and salvation, giving them a personal and communal identity, moral values, theological beliefs and outward manifestations of those beliefs. The songs they sang told the religious attitude shared by the slaves, and how they related to the sorrows of the world, as well as, the joys anticipating a new home in heaven. There is nothing that tells more of a slaves life than the religious songs they sang, expressing their deepest religious thoughts and feelings. Slaves in American were enthusiastic about religion and developed sorrow for this world and a joyous longing for heaven.
Even though the slaves came from several different parts of Africa and brought several different religious beliefs and rituals with them to America, they were able to create a religious belief system that gave them hope through their sorrows and harshness of life in America. They were able to take bits and pieces of the religious practices they knew in Africa and put them with the Bible teachings they learned in the new world to create a religious belief system giving them hope and joy in a world full of darkness and sorrow. It was through this religious belief system most were able to endure the pain and sorrow of a slave life because they held on to the hope and joy that heaven would one day bring.
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