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Revisiting Slave Religion: Opiate or Exodus? Ben Wright

Religion has been an animating impulse in the African-American community from the first days of New World slavery to the present. The soil of the Americas proved rich for plantation agriculture as well as the growth of religious expression. Here Christianity merged with African spirituality. However, during the crucible of this religious exchange, the slaves who performed the task of syncretism struggled to find meaning amidst their suffering.

The influence of slave Christianity cannot be generalized into arguments of positive and negative, but rather should be understood in terms of maintaining dignity and developing coping strategies rather than resistance. Christianity offered a discourse which allowed the articulation of alternatives, but denied the slaves the means of actualizing that alternative. It provided fuel for external attacks on slavery which formed the heart of the abolitionist movement, but it denied those suffering in bondage the motivation for forceful resistance. It was the remnants of African spirituality that catalyzed the occasional direct rebellion against the oppression of New World slavery.

The Christianity which was sanctioned and often exuberantly taught to slaves espoused a call to obedience. While many slaves recognized the hypocrisy of this theology, evidence exists implying others internalized this message of submissive morality. The grandmother in Harriet Jacobs Narrative of a Slave Girl is a remarkable figure because of her religious devotion and can be seen as an allegory embodying the Christian slave perspective. She appealed to her son to, "Put your trust in God. Be humble, my child, and your master will forgive you." Here the proper behavior corresponding to having trust in God is humble obedience as opposed to pursuing justice under the authority of heaven. Her son would not accept her line of thought and went so far as to claim, "When a man is hunted like a wild beast he forgets there is a God, a heaven. He forgets every thing in his struggle to get beyond the reach of the bloodhounds." [1] This opposite reaction is equally interesting as we see how God could not fit into his resistance as Christianity meant submission to the oppressor.

Christianity gave slaves a language with which they could comment on injustice but did not provide the means to resist their oppressors. Christian language formed the foundation of the anti-slavery movement both in Britain and the United States, as the duplicity of Christian slavery provided ample ammunition for abolitionists. This is epitomized as Frederick Douglass concludes his famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by distinguishing between "the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ" and finding "the widest possible difference" between the two. [2] This is illustrative of the efficacy of religion as a tool for criticizing slavery from an external, abolitionist perspective. However, it is a mistake to interpret these condemnations of hypocrisy as evidence supporting the liberating impulse of Christianity as the rhetoric provides a means for condemnation but not for resistance.

Examples do exist of religion serving as a catalyst for revolt. In fact, most revolts began with some form of religious impetus. However, it is crucial to note that the motivation for revolt did not originate from the Christian religion but rather from remnants of African spirituality. The most discussed African religion in the New World is Voudoun. However, other examples include Ketu in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Winti Cults of Guinea, Obeah, and Myalism in Jamaica and the Leeward Islands.

In the forest of Bois Caiman on the 14th of August, 1791, while Toussaint L'Ouverture, himself a Catholic, was still minding the crops of his master, the Haitian revolution began as Boukman, a voodoo leader dipped his hands in pig blood and along with his followers swore to either kill or be killed. [3] One of the central figures of the Denmark Vesey incident was an old conjurer named Gullah Jack. In 1831, Nat Turner initiated his followers in a ceremony with remarkable similarities to that of Boukman as they enjoyed a late night pig feast deep in the woods of Virginia. Reconnecting to African rituals provided solidarity and transformed slaves into African warriors.

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Ben Wright is an M.A. candidate in American Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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