American slavery draws images to our minds of blacks whipped under the sweltering sun, heated abolitionist debates, train cars filled with fugitives traveling under a full moon, and the bloody the civil war. Honest Abe tips his top hat at us and says, “Thank God that institution of pure evil has ended.” We remember it as one of America’s greatest evils.
And yet, there’s a chapter of the story we often miss. I’ve found that chapter in a book entitled Slave Religion: the Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau. All the following quotes are from that book.
You see, the plantation was a breeding ground for heroes of the faith and a flavor of Christianity more pure, passionate, and lovely than anything else that existed in America at the time. Slavery is the story of oppression, but it’s also the story of those who overcame that oppression by the blood. Here’s an example, Praying Jacob:
Praying Jacob was a slave in the state of Maryland. His master was very cruel to his slaves. Jacob’s rule was to pray three times a day, at just such an hour of the day; no matter what his work was or where he might be, he would stop and go and pray. His master has been to him and pointed his gun at him, and told him if he did not cease praying he would blow out his brains. Jacob would finish his prayer and then tell his master to shoot in welcome—your loss will be my gain—I have two masters, one on earth and one in heaven—master Jesus in heaven, and master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, master Saunders, and the soul to Jesus. Jesus says men ought always to pray, but you will not pray, neither do you want to have me pray…. Sometimes Mr. S. would be in the field about half drunk, raging like a madman, whipping the other slaves; and when Jacob’s hour would come for prayer, he would … kneel down and pray, but Sanders could not strike the man of God.
In a sense, Praying Jacob was freer than his master. Sometimes, we think that we can only be free if our circumstances allow it. When things go bad at work, we complain and fret and take on a victim mentality: “Poor me! My boss screwed me over!” This book reminded me of God’s power to keep us from living in that victimization.
Controlled by their masters, Christian slaves found in Jesus a way to fight and resist:
Eli Johnson claimed that when he was threatened with five hundred lashes for holding prayer meetings, he stood up to his master and declared, “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’ll suffer the flesh to be dragged off my bones … for the sake of my blessed Redeemer.
Among a people seen as property, in Him they had something their masters could never take away.
When I worked at Amazon, I feared speaking up as a witness for Jesus. At worst, I may have lost my job, but most likely, coworkers would just have perceived me as dumb or intolerant (if even that). These uneducated heroes of the slave church remind me how much I have yet to grow in my faith.
Ultimately, our entire society is in as deep a bondage as the slaves. In the name of freedom, we’ve run deep into the arms of sexual immorality, greed, and apathy. Our vices hold us, and we cannot escape. Those in literal chains in the antebellum South had a freedom even they probably didn’t realize. Because their masters, through threat or torture, could not keep them from the Master. When these slaves met in the depths of night and found consolation in the Spirit, they were free.
Persecution is funny. It either strengthens or destroys the church. It seems to me that there is a point where persecution becomes so severe that Christians have nothing else to live for, and their faith blazes. Unfortunately, the persecution we endure in America is nothing like that. It’s the quiet condescending looks of people who think the Bible is a book of fairy tales. It’s the HR rep reminding us that religious conversations are not work-appropriate. It’s the continual mockery of Christians on television.
Modern American persecution is casual and occasional. Because of this, it’s perfectly easy to continue as a Christian and avoid that persecution: just keep quiet. After all, we still have relative freedom of religion. Unfortunately, when you have casual persecution, you tend to grow weaker, one measly inch at a time. The church sinks into the background of the culture with the tremendous speed of a glacier.
Strangely, sometimes it’s easier to walk across the sands of the arena into the maw of a lion than to share your faith at work.
Examples of faith
Slave Religion reminded me how blind we can be to the hypocrisy of our own faith. Behind the painted church walls and the veils of the southern ladies lay a world of sin. Many slaves preferred faithless masters, because Christian masters were often stricter (they’d just wait till Monday to flog you). White churches preached the slaves a meaningless message:
The preacher came and … He’d just say, ‘Serve your masters. Don’t steal your master’s turkey. Don’t steal your master’s chickens. Don’t steal your master’s hawgs. Don’t steal your master’s meat. Do whatsomever your master tells you to do.’ Same old thing all the time.
God pronounces blessing on the poor in spirit and tells us that He will use the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. I believe that’s why the slaves had such a strong faith. They lived with a sustained hunger for the things of God, a hunger that risked merciless torture and death. Here’s a white pastor’s reaction to a slave’s prayers:
I can never forget the prayers of Dembo …. There was a depth of humility, a conviction of sinfulness … an assurance of faith … a flowing out of love, a being swallowed up in God, which I never heard before nor since; and often when he closed his prayers, I felt as weak as water, and that I ought not to open my mouth in public, and indeed knew not what it was to pray.
The meetings of the slaves could look like this:
The old meeting house caught on fire. The spirit was there. Every heart was beating in unison as we turned our minds to God to tell Him of our sorrows here below. God saw our need and came to us. I used to wonder what made people shout, but now I don’t. There is a joy on the inside and it wells up so strong that we can’t keep still. It is fire in the bones. Any time that fire touches a man, he will jump.
They knew nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Most were illiterate. All they knew was that when they snuck away in the dead of night to some distant swamp to pray and sing and preach, they were alive.
Raboteau summed up the whole contrast of their faith to their masters’ at the end of his book.
By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.
I never realized this, but often slaves would serve as preachers to other slaves. Often, these preachers risked more persecution than anyone from the masters. Yet I honor them and wish I knew the power of God as they did. Here’s a very unusual account of a slave preacher:
One day while in the field plowing I heard a voice … I looked but saw no one … Everything got dark, and I was unable to stand any longer … With this I began to cry, Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! As I prayed an angel came and touched me, and I looked new … and there came a soft voice saying, ‘My little one, I have loved you with an everlasting love. You are a chosen vessel unto the Lord’… I must have been in this trance more than an hour.
I went on to the barn and found my master waiting for me … I began to tell him of my experiences … My master sat watching and listening to me, and then he began to cry. He turned from me and said in a broken voice, ‘Morte I believe you are a preacher. From now on you can preach to the people here on my place … But tomorrow morning. Sunday, I want you to preach to my family and my neighbors’… The next morning at the time appointed I stood up on two planks in front of the porch of the big house and, without a Bible or anything, I began to preach to my master and the people. My thoughts came so fast that I could hardly speak fast enough. My soul caught on fire, and soon I had them all in tears … I told them that they must be born again and that their souls must be freed from the shackles of hell.
When we think of great American revivals, we imagine the Great Awakenings, the Azusa street revival, or the Jesus people movement. But one of the greatest revivals in our nation’s history was hidden away in the grime and stench of southern plantations: God calling out His African-American bride.