I recently finished a book entitled Slave Religion: the Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau. It contains the story of the spread of Christianity among American slaves before the civil war. Against the hypocritical backdrop of slave-holding, Southern Christianity, waves of the Spirit crashed over the slaves and created America’s purest and most passionate believers.
I’m going to make a longer post in the next couple weeks (after Attempting Fusion has finished). Here’s a couple quotes to whet your appetite:
The religion of the slaves was both institutional and noninstitutional, visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted. Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins. Preachers licensed by the church and hired by the master were supplemented by slave preachers licensed only by the spirit. Texts from the Bible which most slaves could not read were explicated by verses from the spirituals. Slaves forbidden by masters to attend church or, in some cases, even to pray risked floggings to attend secret gatherings to worship God.
It is the tale of bold preacher-slaves:
Yer see I am a preacher. De Lord call me once when I was workin’. … He call me and told me, in imagination, you know, that he wanted me to preach. I told him I didn’t know enough—that I was ig’nant, and the folks would laugh at me. But he drew me on and I prayed. I prayed out in the woods, and every time I tried to get up from my knees He would draw me down again. An’ at last a great light came down sudden to me, a light as big as the moon, an’ struck me hard on the head and on each shoulder and on the bress, here and here and here… And den same time warm was in around my heart, and I felt that the Book was there. An’ my tongue was untied, and I preach ever since and is not afraid. I can’t read de Book, but I has it here, I has de text, and de meanin’, and I speaks as well as I can, and de congregation takes what the Lord gives me.
It is the tale of the spirituals:
Those who have never heard these songs in their native setting can have no conception of the influence they exert upon the people. I have sat in a gathering where everything was as quiet and placid as a lake on a summer day, where the preacher strove in vain to awaken an interest; I have heard a brother or a sister start one of these spirituals, slowly and monotonously; I have seen the congregation irresistibly drawn to take up the refrain; I have seen the entire body gradually worked up from one degree of emotion to another until, like a turbulent, angry sea, men and women, to the accompaniment of the singing, and with shouting, moaning, and clapping of hands, surged and swayed to and fro. I have seen men and women at these times look and express themselves as if they were conversing with their Lord and Master, with their hands in His…
And the tale of persecution:
“When I was a slave my master would sometimes whip me awful, specially when he knew I was praying. He was determined to whip the Spirit out of me, but he could never do it, for de more he whip the more the Spirit make me content to be whipt…”