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Anthony Grullon Prof.

Elias Ortega AAS-201 3 November 2010

Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South

The enslavement of an estimated ten-million Africans over a period of almost four centuries is a tragedy of such scale, that is difficult to imagine, and even harder to comprehend. A dark time in American history whose influence is still felt today, nearly a century and a half later. The enslaved were abused and exploited with very few liberties, if any. In this very short list of freedoms, included the right to work, sleep, and follow Christianity. For slaves, Christianity was another form of imprisonment, forced to follow a skewed and altered version of the religion that read phrases such as You Slaves will go to heaven if you are good... (213). In the 1830s and 1840s some southern churchmen became increasingly concerned with the majority of slaves who remained outside the reach of the institutional church. Men like Charles Colcock Jones and the like took this neglect into their own hands, and embarked on their mission: to show from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, that slavery is not forbidden by the Divine Law: and at the same time to prove the necessity of giving religious instruction to our Negros (154). About twenty-five years later the efforts of Bible, Temperance and Tract, and other reform societies that these men belonged showed successful, when Christianity prevailed among the slave community. The vast majority of slaves were now American-born, and the cultural and

linguistic barriers which had impeded the evangelization of earlier generations of African-born were generally no longer a problem. From the perspective of slave owners such efforts were successful, unaware of the Invisible Institution erected under their noses. The religion of the slaves was institutional and non-institutional, visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted (212). Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illegal prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins and Hush Harbors. Christianity was fitted by the slave community to its own particular experience, adopting symbols myths and values. Slaves forbidden by masters to attend regular church or, in some cases, even pray risked floggings to attend secret gathering to worship God: willing to risk such threats at the hands of their earthly maters in order to worship their Divine Master as they saw fit (215). Into the night slaves would sing and pray, pouring their needs and sufferings; using several techniques to avoid detection of their meetings. Meeting in secluded places (known intimately as Hush Harbors) - woods, gullies, ravines, and thickets. Praying and singing while huddled behind quilts and rags, which had been wetted to keep the sound of their voices from penetrating the air; hung up in form of a little room. Despite the danger, slaves continued to hold their own meetings. Although physically restrained, these slaves experienced freedom that escaped the confines of any shackle. Their spirituality was something they were not willing to risk at any cost, including 100 lashes- which was the standard punishment for such rebellion. Meetings served as a medium, a connection to their culture and real home. This rebellion they consistently exhibited was an escape, a remedy to their Diaspora, but most importantly it

made them once again feel human.