Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 251-259
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 251
Religion in an Oppressive Society: The Antebellum Example
Kingsley N. Okoro
Department of Philosophy and Religion, E bonyi State University, Abakaliki, Nigeria
Email: Okoro_kin gsle
Received July 25th, 2012; revised August 30th, 2012; accepted September 10th, 2012
Religion: a socio-spiritual phenomenon that pervades and influences human actions in all realms of hu-
man existences plays diverse and divergent roles in the society. Therefore, it is difficult to define with a
simply and a single category. Hence, on the one hand, Karl Marx saw it as an instrument that supports the
status quo and oppresses the less privileged and the powerless and as such a vital force in the legitimiza-
tion of social ills in the society. On the other hand, Marx Webber and other functional theorists maintain
that religion as a social fact is a force in mobilizing social solidarity and unified actions against the social
order. In this direction religion therefore plays revolutionary roles in any given society. Against the back-
drop of the seeming contradicting and conflicting positions of these two main schools of thought in the
field of sociology of religion, this paper is poised to re-assess the divergent roles religion has played in
history among the oppressed people of the world, using the both Marxian and Webberian paradigms as a
matrix. This paper considers oppressive society as a society that maintains a social and economic classi-
fication of its members as a norm. It is also noted that it is through such classification of its members in
their nexus that social injustice, discriminations, dehumanization are maintained. This situation is the de-
fining paradigm of the global village (the new World Order), governed strictly by economic dictum. To
this end therefore, this paper re-invokes the roles religion played in the “Antebellum” America, with a
view of applying the same in the modern era, which has great resemblance with the Antebellum America,
in terms of oppression, though not in its magnitude.
Keywords: Religion; Oppressive; Society; Antebellum
Religion, more especially from the 19th country onwards,
has been suspected or rather alleged as having the tendency of
supporting the established social order. The idea was suspected
also to have been developed and forwarded by Karl Marx. Thus
a casual reading of Marx’s theory of religion may tend to jus-
tify the claim that religion is both a creation and apparatus of
the operators of a capitalistic oppressive economic system.
However, Marx never made religion the center of his discourse
but stumbled at it via the socio-economic analysis of his time
and discovered this to be sole purveyor of alienation to the
people—(The poor masses). Consequently, his theory of relig-
ion has become the benchmark for contemporary social or sci-
entific study of religion. It was Uchegbue (1997) that provided
an avid background of Marx theory of religion as he writes:
Reflecting on the situation of alienation provided by the
economic system of his day, the consequent Social conflict
produced by the conflicting economic interests of the groups
and classes and the inability of the proletariats to protest
against the marginalizing conditions of alienation, Marx forms
his theory of the origin, essence and role of region (286).
According to Marx, the workers in the exploitative capitalis-
tic society is told that he/she is a replaceable tool, alienated to
the point of discontent, in Marx eyes, religion enters this at
point. Capitalism, therefore utilizes our tendency towards re-
ligion as a tool or ideological apparatus to justify this alienation.
Religion (Christianity) teaches that those who gather up riches
and power in this life will almost certainly not be rewarded in
the next life, while those who suffer oppression and poverty in
this life, while cultivating their spiritual wealth certainly will be
rewarded in the kingdom of God (Christian, 2008: pp. 1-7) This
idea of the role of religion gave birth to Marx definition of re-
ligion thus, “Region is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the
heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless
situation. It is the opium of the people” (Shagor, 2005: pp. 1-2).
Accordingly, Marx maintains that it is the psychological state
of the oppressed poor in a capitalistic society that gave birth to
religion. Hence Townsley (2004) enunciates
This state, the society produces religion which is the in-
verted world consciousness because they are inverted world
consciousness Religion produces inverted illusion that the
world of religion (the heaven and the gods), are real and the
physical world we inhabit as human is a shadow of the real
Therefore religion produces an illusionary escape route to the
social realities. This spiritual escape though illusionary makes
the suffering masses adjust to heinous conditions in this world,
in hope of better life in the other world. In the words of Town-
sley (2005). “Religion makes the poor escape from something
that does not care for its people. From a system that dehuman-
izes workers, and structure that enslaves the people in cycle of
oppression” (2-3).
Against this backdrop, Marx maintains that the exploiting
classes foster religion in their own vested interest as a means of
binding and curbing the popular masses (Uchegbue, 1999: p.
288). Here again, Marx insists that religion is the supreme le-
gitimiztion of the structure of domination in an oppressive soci-
ety. Religion thus becomes the ideological tool for the domina nt
classes for the sanctioning and moralizing social evil and ex-
ploitations inflicted on the oppressed classes. Marx insists that
it was to achieve the aim of the oppressors in keeping the op-
pressed classes perpetually under subjection and persuading
them to accepting their conditions as profitable that religion
was invented by the bourgeoisies class. Accordingly, religion
further acquires a new definition as a body of myths which...
provides many of the deceptions which forms the basis of rul-
ing class ideology (Uchegbue, 1997: p. 289).
However, this docility to social and dehumanizing issues,
which religion inculcates to its adherents is only one side of the
coin. Thus contemporary knowledge as well as scholarship has
present to us revolutionary roles which religion played in sev-
eral oppressive society. The biblical religion of Moses was
what initiated the exodus experience of the Jew out of the
bondage of Egypt. This may be assigned to the remote history
and as such underscored as obsolete. In the more recent days
Marx Webber and Emile Durkhei m, who with Karl Marx fo rme d
the trio pillars of sociology of religion, have presented classical
works in which they depicted religion as the most viral institu-
tion in bringing about social change and revolution in the recent
days. Thus according to contemporary scholarship, religion is
an indispensable fact or rather social institution that can chal-
lenge the social order and bring about social change.
Notably, the works of the Latin America Catholic Bishop,
Don Camara and other Catholic Priests of the same stock, Gus-
tavo Gutierrez, James Cone in South America and in North
America, Martin Luther King Jnr, and Malcolm X, In South
Africa , we come in contact with Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu,
just to mention. Across the continents, we shall not undermine
the works Mahatma Gandhi, who was motivated to carrying out
his non violent fight for liberation as across Africa and Asia by
his religions convictions.
Though religion is noted to have created docility in the op-
pressed of any system but also it has also been an active har-
binger of revolution in any system. It is in recognition of revo-
lutionary works of religion that Willmore (1973) writes
The black theology is the theology of black liberation. It
seeks to plumb the black condition into the light of Gods reve-
lation in Jesus Christ, so that black community can see that the
gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black human-
ity The message of liberation is the revelation of God as
revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Freedom is the
gospel. Jesus is the liberator (263).
Against the background of this dual position of religion in
the society, the paper therefore betook itself to re-examine the
roles of religion in the contemporary oppressive society, using
the Antebellum America society as our paradigm.
Antebellum America and Slavery
The enslavement of an estimated ten million African over a
period of almost a century in the Atlantic slave was a tragedy
of such scope that it is difficult to imagine much less compre-
hend. when these African slaves were brought to slavery in the
mines, the plantations and household of the new world, they
were torn away from their political, social and cultural systems
that had ordered their lives. Tribal and linguistic group were
broken up either on the coast of Africa or in the slave pen
across the Atlantic. Most brutal of all, the experiences of the
slave trade did not allow the preservation of the kinship ties
(Raboteau, 1978: p. 4)
By 1830 slavery was primarily located in South of America,
where it existed in many different forms. African-Americans
were enslaved on the small farms, large plantations in the cities
and towns, inside homes, out in the field and in industry and
transportation. Though slavery had such a wide variety of faces,
the underlying concepts were always the same. Thus slaves
were considered property and they were property because they
were black. Notably, the status of a property was enforced by
violence—actual or threatened. Being property of their owners,
the slaves in the Antebellum America were assigned inferior
status. This assumption is sustained by Shade and Roy (1969)
as they write, “The generation of white historian writing before
1920 generally recognized the importance of slavery as a
causative factor in bringing about the civil war but they pre-
sented black men as inferior beings fit only for the most menial
tasks even when free” (3). It is against the backdrop of this
proposition that James Ford Rhodes, being sympathetic to the
right of the white slaveholders believes that modern slavery had
proved that the black is distinctly inferior to the white and as
such opposed with veracity the efforts of the radical Republi-
cans during Reconstruction. Ulrich Philip on his own, though
one of the foremost students of slavery during his years ac-
cepted that slavery in the Antebellum America is a system for
the social control of an inferior race. William A. Dunining pre-
sented his own assessment of the black slaves in South of
America thus:
Gradually, there emerged again the idea of Jefferson and
Clay and Lincoln, which had been rooted and hissed into ob-
scurity during the prevalence of abolitionist fever. This was
that the ultimate root of the trouble in the south has been, not
the institution of slavery but the co-existence in one society of
two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence
impossible, that slavery had been modus vivendi through which
social life was possible and that after its disappearance, it
place must be taken by some set of conditions which is more
humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express
the same fact of social inequality it seems most improbable
that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal
of the conditions which this process has established (Shade &
Roy, 1969: pp. 3-5).
Against this background, Elkin (nd) maintains that the status
of slaves in the Antebellum America can only be clearly de-
fined through four legal opsis. In his own words, “the four ma-
jor legal categorization which define the status of America
slaves may be roughly classified as”, term of servitude, mar-
riage and family, police and disciplinary powers over slaves
and property and civil rights (8). According to the Elkins cate-
gorization, the first from which, somehow all others followed,
has been in effect since the seventh century. In this situation the
Southern law provides that a slave remains a slave for the dura-
tion of his life and slavery was a status which he transmitted by
inheritance to his children and children’s children (Elkins, 1959:
p. 52).
The other three categorization belong to what could be noted
as jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. By the Nineteenth
century, treatment of slavery in the which south took the form
of s savagery had been cushioned. Thus we may consider it in
the most humane light and at the same time not that the charity
with which its basic outlines remained fixed and embodied with
modern jurisprudence, much as they had been laid down before
the middle of the eighteenth century (Munford, 1909: pp. 101-
102). Notably, the white Americans look upon a coloured man
not as human beings, responsible for the small talent entrusted
to him but as a chattel, personal, and as a mere property, no
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
better, except in value, than his mule or dog (Logsdon, 1969:
pp. 36-37).
However, the slavery law destroyed the institution of mar-
riage and family life and the law never showed any inclination
to rehabilitate it. Beecroft (1931) has given an apt description
of how the law destroyed the earliest institutional arrangement
of man somewhere in his paper thus, “…Here was an area in
which consideration of humanity might be expected most widely
to prevail and indeed on daily basis they did in the contempt in
which respectable society held the slave-trader, who separated
mother from child and husband from wife is proverbial in the
southern lore” (2.4)
On the surface, the ought to have been simple enough to
translate this strong social sentiment into the appropriate legal
enactment which might systemically have guaranteed the in-
violability of the family and the sanctity of the marriage bond,
such as governed Christian polity everywhere (Elkins, 1959: p.
289) However, the very nature of plantation economy and the
way in which the basic arrangement of the southern life radi-
ated from it, made it inconceivable that the law should tolerate
any ambiguity should the painful clash between humanity and
property interest ever occur. Any restriction on the separate sale
of slaves would have been reflected immediately in the market,
their price would have dropped considerably. Therefore, the
law could permit no aspect of the slave conjugal state to have
an independent legal existence outside the powers of the man,
who owned him. The relation of master and slave is wholly
incompatible with even the qualified relation of husband and
wife, as it is supposed to exist among slaves. Marriage for them
was denied any standing in law. Hence Cobb (1858) admits
later, “the contract of marriage not being recognized among
slaves and as such none of its consequences follows (246) El-
kins (1959) also o b s erves thus:
The relation between slaves, wrote a North Carolina Judge
in 1858, is essentially different from that of man and wife
joined in lawful wedlock for with salves, it may be dissolved
at the pleasure of either party, or by the sale of one or both,
depending on the caprice or necessity of the owners (10).
The implication of this arrangement is that the offspring of
such “concubernal relationship”, had next to no guarantees
against discriminate separation from their parents, of additional
interest according to Elkins (nd) is the fact their children de-
rived their condition from the status of their mother. This was
not unique to American slavery but it should be noted that es-
pecially in a system conceived and evolved exclusively on the
grounds of property, there could be little doubt about how such
question would be resolved (12). Had the status been derived
from the father’s condition, as was the case in the seventeen
century Maryland, following the ancient common law, there
would instantly have risen the irksome question of what to do
with the numerous mulatto children born every year of white
planter fathers and slave mothers (Elkens, nd: pp. 12-13). It
would have meant that the creation of a free Mulatto class will
instantly relieve the master of many salves on the one hand,
while burdening him on the other hand with many coloured
children, who he could not own. Justifying this position Goo-
dell (1853) writes:
Such equivocal relationships were not permitted to vex the
law. That a father of a slave is unknown to our law was a uni-
versal understanding of southern jurists. It was thus that a father
among the slaves, was legally unknown, a husband without the
right of his bed, the state of marriage defined as only that of
“concubinage with which alone, perhaps, their condition is
compatible and motherhood clothed in scant dignity (106-107).
In fact African—America woman (slaves) had to endure not
only threat but also the actual practice of sexual exploitations.
They were no legal or otherwise, safeguard to protect them
from facing sexual stalked, harassed, or raped or even to be
used as along term concubines by their masters and overseers.
This abuse was widespread, as the slaveholders took the ad-
vantage of their slave situations. Even if a woman seems
agreeable to the situation, in reality she had no choice, since
slave men, on their own part were powerless to protect their
wives and daughter from such abuses. In fact the slaveholders
often raped wife and daughters of his slave in his presence to
demonstrate his authority over the slave man and to show his
powerless and humiliation. Bisssangame (1979) summarized
this matter thus:
slave marriages were illegal in Southern states and slave
couples were frequently separated by slave owners through
sales, slave owners did have control over the slave marriages.
They encouraged monogamous relationships to make it easier
to discipline their slaves a black man, they reasoned, who
loved his wife and children was less likely to be rebellious than
a single slave. When a slave couple resides on the plantation,
the husband witnessed the whipping and raping of his wife and
the sale of his children, remarks tha t, Nothing demonstrates his
powerlessness as much as the slaves inability to prevent the
forcible sale of his wife and children (1-7).
On the third category, the police and disciplinary matters, we
note that it is difficult not to consider the typical slave lots in
the nineteenth century as one of stripes and torture. We should
probably not stretch the truth greatly, were we to concede to
Ulrich Philip’s systematic picture of a just regime tampered
paternal indulgence on the majority of well run plantation.
Among decent southerners they remark; I was told that he does
not use his people well” was a pronouncement of a deep social
censure (Elkins, nd: p. 11). However, we notices not only the
laxity with which much of the daily disciplines are executed but
also the completeness with which such questions, regarding the
life and limbs were in fact under the masters control. Debow
explains the fact more succintly as he writes, ‘We dispenses
with whole machinery of public police and public court of jus-
tice, thus we try, decide and execute sentences in thousand of
cases which in other countries would go into the court’ (Elkin,
nd: p. 11).
The law noticeable deplored cruel and unusually punishment
but whenever, protection was on the one hand theoretically
extended, it was practically concealed on other hand by the
universal prohibition in the southern law, which enforces that
slave has no right whatsoever to testify in court, except against
each other and in any case, the courts generally accepted the
principle that the line between correction and cruelty was im-
possible to determine (Adams, 1855: p. 97).
Against this backdrop, a Virginia judge in 1827 faced with
an indictment against a master “for cruelly beating his slave”
felt bound to decline jurisdiction, with the rhetorical demand:
without any proofs that the common law did ever protect the
slave from the hand of the master… where are we to look for
the power which is not claimed for us. To the jurist, it seems
clear on principle that battery of a slave, without special enact-
ment, could not be prosecuted criminally. However, public
opinion itself should, since it was generally held, deter wanton
brutalities. But the final argument was that if self interest,
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“where the battery was committed by the master himself, there
would be no redress whatever. For the reason given in Exodus
21:21, for he is his money. Therefore, the powerful protection
of the masters private interest would itself go far to remedy this
evil (Cobb, 1855: p. 102).
Even the murder of a slave found the law straining all its re-
ources to avoid jurisdiction. Murder was indeed punishable, but
under circumstances peculiar to the state of slavery nor in the
way applying to white society and always under the disabilities
which barred the testimony of blacks in the court. Similarly, an
act of North Carolina in 1798 provided that the punishment for
maliciously killing a slave should be the same as a murder of a
free person but it did not apply to an outlawed slave or to a
slave in the act of resistance to his lawful owner or to slave
dying under moderate correction (Elkin, nd: p. 13). The south-
ern Carolina allowed that in the absence of competent witnesses
to the homicide of a slave, the affidavit of the accused was
admissible in his favour before a jury (Goodell, 1853: p. 180).
In the same direction, the criminal jurisprudence of Virginia
had never known before 1851 a case of more atrocious and
wicked cruelty than that of a man named Souther, who had
killed his slave Sam under the most gaudy circumstances, yet
the conviction was for murder in the second degree and Souther
escaped with five years in the penitentiary. In general the courts
primarily care not only in the killing of slave by persons other
that the master but in case where the slave himself had com-
mitted murder and was executed by the state was pecuniary
interest of the owner.
Hence numerous enactments provided for compensation in
either event (Hurd, 1854: pp. 297-3007). It was precisely this
pecuniary interest, which was at the very heart of legal logic on
all such questions. Just as it was presumed to operate against
cruel and unusual punishment, so it became virtually a non-
sequitor that a man should kill his own slave. The principle has
been enunciated very early in this paper, it cannot be presumed
that prepensed malice (which alone makes murder felony)
should induce any man to destroy his own estate.
The forth and last category to be examined is with regard to
the property and all other civil rights of the slaves in that period.
With respect to the above named rights, were everywhere de-
nied the slave with a charity that left no doubt of the slaves
utter dependency upon his master. The general aphorism is that
the slave is in absolute bondage, he has no civil right whatso-
ever and could hold no property except at the will and pleasure
of his master (Ulrich, 1999: p. 115). A slave in Antebellum
America can nither give nor receive gifts, he would make no
will nor could hire himself out to make contracts for any pur-
pose—even including, as we have seen that of matrimony and
as such neither his word nor his bond had any standing in law
(Goodell, 1853: p. 32). The common law stipulates that a slave
could buy or sell nothing at all, except as his masters agent, He
could keep no cattle, horses, hogs, or sheep and in Mississippi,
at least could raise no cotton (Goodell, 1853: p. 324).
Notably, even the masters who permitted such transaction,
except under express arrangements were uniformly liable to
fine (Goodell, 1853: pp. 89-104). It was then obvious that the
case of slave who should presume to buy his own freedom, he
being unable to possess money would involve as a legal ab-
surdity”. Slaves have no legal rights in things real or personal
but whatever they may acquire belongs, in point of law to their
masters (Goodell, 1853: p. 88).
Such legal stipulations were extended not only over all civic
rights but even to the civic privileges of education and worship.
In fact every southern state with the exception of Maryland and
Kentucky had stringent laws forbidding anyone to teach the
slaves reading and writing and in some states, the penalties ap-
plied to educating free negroes (Blacks) and mulattoes as well.
Teaching of the Blacks both slaves and free is considered to
bring the distraction in their state and dissatisfaction in their
minds of the slaves and may generally result to slave revolt. In
North Carolina for instance, it was criminal to distribute among
the slave any pamphlet or book, not extending to bible and the
same order applies to the teaching of religion (Harry, 1910: p.
However, the Southern society was not disposed to with-
holding divine worship from its slaves but the conditions upon
which the slaves are to worship would have to be laid down by
the slave holder themselves. In the words of Elkins (nd), The
conscientious master no doubt welcomed having the gospel
preached to his slaves, provided that they should hear it as J. W.
Folwer of Coathoma country, Mississippi specified it its origin-
nal purity and simplicity (13). Folwer had written to his over-
seer that in view of the fanaticism of the age, it behooves the
master or overseer to be present on all such occasions, while
Alexander Telfeity of Savannah instructed his overseer that
there should be no night meetings or preaching allowed on the
place, except on Saturday night and Sunday morning (Auther,
1910: p. 27) Similar restrictions were dragged into the state
legal system. Typical examples were the acts of South Carolina,
which forbade religious meeting of the slaves or free Negroes
either or before the raising of the sun or after the setting of the
same and the Mississippi permitting slaves if authorized by
their masters, to attend the preaching of white ministers.
Generally, the antebellum America considers all slaves as
black and slaves are degraded and contemptible, therefore all
blacks are degraded and contemptible and should be keep in the
state of slavery. Slave status had been defined by the southern
jurisprudence as:
That condition of a natural person, in which by the opera-
tion of law, the application of physical and mental powers de-
pends, as far as possible upon the will of another, who is him-
self subject to the supreme power of the state and in which he is
incapable, in the view of the law, of acquiring or holding prop-
erty and of sustaining those relations out of what relative
rights proceed, excepted as the agent or instrument of an-
other (Goodell, 1852: p. 300).
This definition simply made a slave a property and as such
he and his fellow bond had long since become a chattel, per-
sonal to all intent construction and purposes whatsoever. It was
a horror living as a slave in the antebellum South America. The
society was the most oppressive of any human had experienced
in the enlightened age. It sounds like a myth but it is a true
story of human brutality and cruelty. However, the black sur-
vived the ordeal and finally gained their freedom, humanity and
personality. Where lies their strength?
Religion of the White in the Antebellum America
...From the very beginning of the Atlantic Slave trade con-
version of the slaves to Christianity was viewed by the emerg-
ing nations of the Western Christendom as a justification for
the enslavement of Africans (Raboteau, 1978: p. 96)
The Portuguese caravans, who first explored the African in-
teriors returned from the coast of West Africa with human
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
booty in the fifteen century. In the assessment of the enterprise,
Azurara, a chronicler observed that the enterprise brought
greater benefit to the captive Africans more than the adventur-
ers in this case the Portuguese. In his own commendation, he
retorted thus, …For through their bodies were brought into
some subjection that was a small matter in comparison of their
soul, which now possess true freedom for evermore (Wilmore,
1983: p. 71).
The pangs of guilt over the cruelty in enslaving fellow hu-
man beings were assuaged by emphasizing the grace of faith
made available to Africans, who otherwise would die as pagans.
Azurara’s pity was aroused by the tragic scene of a shipload of
captives being divided and parceled out to their owners. How-
ever, Azurara took consolation in the fact that the slaves must
benefit not only spiritually but also materially from contact
with Western civilization. In taking this solace Azurara further
...And so their lot was quite the contrary of what it had been
since before they had lived in perdition of soul and body: of
souls, in that they were yet pagans, without the clearness and
the light of the Holy faith and of their bodies, in that the lived
like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings—for they
had no knowledge of bread and wine and they were without
covering clothes or the lodgment of houses and worse than all,
they had no understanding of good but only know how to live in
bestial sloth (Raboteau, 1973: p. 97).
Azurara’s inclination which he stated in the mid fifteenth
century was to repeat itself or over four centuries by the suc-
cessive generation of Christian apologist for slavery.
Notably, England, Spain, Portugu ese and other Western C hr i s -
tian Europe proclaimed missionary zeal as an important motive
for colonizing the new world. The duty of Christianizing slaves
as well as Indians was urged upon the Council of foreign plan-
tations by Charles II in 1660. His instruction to the Council,
read in part thus
And you are to consider how such of the natives or such as
are purchased by you from other parts to be servants or slaves
may best be invited to the Christian Faith. And made capable of
being baptized thereunto, it being to the honours of our crown
and of the protestant religion that all persons in our dominions
should be brought to the knowledge of God and be made ac-
quainted with the mysteries of Salvation. (Jernegan, 1916: p.
Despite the widely held justification of slavery as a means of
spreading the gospel and despite the proclamation of the duty of
the Christian colonists to evangelize the so called heathen, the
process of slave conversion was blocked by major obstacles,
not the least of which was the antipathy of the colonist them-
selves. The economic profitability of his slaves, not their Chris-
tianization held top priority for the colonial slaveholders. Ac-
cordingly Barbot observes this great roadblock to the conver-
sion of African captives thus
Christian in America, especially the protestant take very
little care to have their slaves instructed as if it were not a
positive duty incumbent on them by the precepts of Christianity.
These provided that the slaves can multiply and work hard for
the benefit of their masters, most men are well satisfied without
the least thought of using their authority and endeavours to
promote the good of the souls of those poor wretched (Rabo-
teau, 1895).
Against this background, Morgan Godwin an English Divine,
who spent several years in Virginia, decried the priorities of the
colonists in a sermon published in 1685 with title “Trade pre-
ferred before religion and Christ made to give place to man”
Notably, one of the major reasons for the refusal of the slave-
holders to allowing their slaves to receive religious instruction
was the fear that baptism would emancipate the slaves (Rabo-
teau, 1973: p. 98). This fear seems to have been predicated on the
fact that it is suspected that both the English legal system and
the canons of the church had both stipulated that if slaves were
baptized they were to be free, though the suspicion was un-
founded. Hence, missionaries to the slave had repeatedly com-
plained that the slave owners refused permission to catechize
their slaves because baptism made it necessary to free them.
Therefore it seemed that the Christian commission to preach
the gospel to all nations runs directly counter to the economic
interest of the Christian slave owners. Accordingly the colonial
legislation was forged to solve the dilemma. Hence in 1664, the
lower house of Maryland asked the upper house to draw an Act
obliging the Negroes to serve deveute vita for the preservation
of damage the master of such slaves must sustain by such
slaves pretending to be Christians. Then by 1706 at least six
colonial authorities had passed acts denying that baptism al-
tered the condition of a slave “as to the bondage or freedom”.
Even after the colonial authorities had declared baptism to be
no threat to the slaveholder’s legal right to hold Africans in
perpetual bondage, the process of religious instruction which
has to proceed baptism was seen by many slaveholders as an
economic detachment (Raboteau, 1973: p. 99). This is because
the adequate catechization of a slave takes some quality times.
Notably the plantation work schedules for the slave gave him
little or no leisure for religious instructions. Sunday was the
only feasible day for such instruction, yet one of the constant
complaints of missionaries was that slaves had to work on the
Sabbaths either for their master or when allotted individual
plots for themselves
In one occasion in North Carolina, one clergy—Missionary,
who was so frustrated had to do a letter to the London Secretary
of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, making offi-
cial complaint that many planters, who freed themselves from
the trouble of feeding and clothing their slaves allow them only
one day in a week to plant for themselves as much as will
clothe and subsist for them and their families. The one day in a
week allowed was usually Sunday. Even when slaves were not
forced to work on the Sabbath, finding time for religious in-
struction was quite difficult, since the ministers had “work
enough from the white folk on his hand”.
Nevertheless, owing to the segregated nature and selective
teaching of the white religion—Christianity—the slaves fre-
quently used whatsoever leisure time they had for visiting,
dancing and merriment activities, which seemed to the mis-
sionaries to be an act of profanation of the Lord’s Day. Conse-
quently, the missionaries working in South America, being
dissatisfied with the problem exhorts the London authority and
some governors who in turn made legislation preventing mas-
ters from working their slaves on Sunday’s or otherwise block-
ing their attendance at Sabbath (Miller, 1998: pp. 1-7).
However, by the eve of the Civil War, Christianity had per-
vaded the slave community. This time around, the vast majority
of the slaves were American-born. Therefore, the cultural and
linguistic behaviours, which seemed to have impeded the
evangelization of the earlier generation of African-born slaves,
were generally no longer a problem. The widespread opposition
of the planters to the religious instruction of the slave had been
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 255
largely dissipated by the efforts of the churches and the mis-
sionaries of the South. Nevertheless, it is not all slaves that
were Christians, not were all those who accepted Christianity
members of the churc h, yet t he do ctrines, symbols and vision of
life preached by Christianity were familiar to most of them
(Raboteau, 1973: p. 213) Noll (2006) gave an idea of the statis-
tics of the church and churchmanship within this period as he
At the start of the civil war, there were more than 53,000
churches in the United States. Although only about 40 percent
of the nations almost 32 million people were formal church
members of organized faith traditions, as many as 80 percent of
American visited Catholic or denominational protestant chur-
ches regularly (1-7).
Within this period, the church was not only a spiritual centre
but also a socio-cultural rendezvous. Affirming this position
Noll (2006) writes “In addition to inculcating personal faith
beliefs, the churches acted as important agent of culture, since
there were no televisions, no movies or telephones and certainly
no internet to inform Americans in their development as citi-
zens” (1-7). Within the period of Antebellum and Civil War,
Churches along with families and communities, were primarily,
means through which gender and racial roles were outlined and
civil knowledge delivered. The Civil war religiosity was not
confined to walls of the local meeting houses but permeated
Northern and Southern Secular Society. Thus Noll (2006) as-
serts further, “by 1860, religion had reached a higher point of
public influence than at any previous time in America history”
Religion within this period was an instrument to defend the
institution of slavery in the South. The defense was forged by
protestant clergyman and predicated on the biblical validity of
the institution. Southern slaveholders, moreover used biblical
catechism in their efforts to control the enslaved. The testimony
of a former slave, Charlie Dyke justifies this claim as he com-
plained openly thus.
Church was what they called it but all the preachers talked
about were for us to obey our masters and not to lie and steal.
Nothing about Jesus was ever said and the overseers stood
there to see the preacher talked as he wanted him to talk
Even the black preacher would get up to repeat everything that
the white preacher had said because he was afraid to say any-
thing different (Cade, 1935: p. 329).
Frank Rebertson also paraphrased the kind of sermon they
were subjected to listen to as slaves.
You slaves will go to heaven if you are good but do not ever
think that you will be close to your mistress and masters No!
No!, there will be a wall between you, but there will be holes in
it that will permit you to look out and see your mistress when
she passed by. If you want to sit behind this wall, you must do
the language of the text; obey your masters (Noll, 2006: pp. 1-7).
Lucretia Alexander explained what slaves did when they
grew tired of the white folks preachers.
The preachers came and had just say, serve yours master.
Dont steal your masters turkey, Dont steal your masters
Chickens Dont steal your masters hawks, Dont steal your
masters meat. Do whatsoever your master tells you to do. Same
old thing all the time, the fathers would have church in dwell-
ing houses and they had to whisper sometimes they would
have church at his house. That would be what they would want
a real meeting with some real preaching They used to sing
their songs in a whisper and pray in whisper. That was a
prayer meeting from house to house once or twice a week (Noll,
2006: pp. 1-6).
The slaves, notably, frequently were inundated to hold their
meetings out of the disgust for the vitiated Gospel preached by
their masters’ preachers, sermon urging them to be obedient
and docile were repeated and ad nauseam. This was the moti-
vation and origin of slave religion in Antebellum America.
The Religion of the Slaves in the Oppressive
Antebellum Society
Born in slavery, weaned in segregation and reared in dis-
crimination, the religion of the Negro folk was chosen to bear
the roles of both protest and relief. Thus, the uniqueness of
black religion is the racial bond which seeks to risk its life for
the elusive but ultimate goal of freedom and equality by means
of protest and action (Wilmore, 1973: p. 38).
Actually, the religion of the black people in the United States
within the period of our study is unquestionably predisposed to
the beliefs and practices associates with the Judeo-Christian
traditions. However, the Christianity which had developed for
more than four hundred years among the descendants of the
first African slaves brought to the New World is a different
version of the Christianity which was professed by the slave
masters. Raboteau (1978), gave a brief historical antecedent to
the origin, nature and essential influence of the black religion in
America as he write:
The Gods of Africa were carried in the memories of en-
slaved African across the Atlantic to be sure, they underwent a
sea of change. African liturgical seasons, prescribed rituals
traditions, myths and language of worship were attenuated,
replaced and altered or lost, still much remained and particu-
larly in Latin America, the Gods lived on in the beliefs and
rituals of the slave descendants (16).
Consequently, in many part of the South America, for in-
stance in Georgia, slave had a religion of their own based on
their own experience, the experience of God with them and
upon various visions and revelations. Though most of the
slaves, especially those who associated themselves with the
Western Christianity respected the Bible and learned to read it
before they would read anything else, however, among the
slaves there were general contempt for book “book religion”
not merely because they possessed a great self esteem and con-
fidence in their own manner of believing and worshiping God
(Reek, 1982: pp. 153-196), since for them, the spirit within was
superior to the Bible as a guide to religious knowledge.
In the light if this assumptions, the slaves as far back as 1774,
were declaring publicly and political that they thought that
Christianity and slavery were compatible. The slaves made
frantic attack on the slaves holding Christianity as they clamed
that slaves knew enough of the orthodox theology of the time to
consign all bad slaveholders to hell and on the same direction
maintain that heaven would not be heaven unless slaves would
be avenged on their enemies (Goodell, 1931: p. 5200).
However, the slaves did not reject Christianity out rightly;
they simply made adaptation to Christianity that rendered it
something more than a dispassionate system of belief and code
of pious behaviour. The slaves accepted on the one hand, the
spirited, revivalist interpretation of the impassionate Methodist
and Baptist Missionaries and imitated them but on the other
hand, went far beyond their understanding of Christianity to
fashion it to his own sense and recreational as well as personal
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
and spiritual needs.
The slaves were conscious of the fact that in the new world,
the major aim of slave control was to eradicate all forms of
African culture, which according to the African-American slave
has the capability to unify the slaves and empower them to
resist or rebel against their situation of slavery and its perpetra-
tors. Therefore, they expatiated all spiritual and moral energies
to keep African beliefs and customs a life and accordingly
transmitted them to their descendents.
The African culture in the New World underwent several
transmutations and as such having being shaped and modified
by the new environment, its basic elements of folklore, music,
language and religion were sustained in the New World by the
African in Diaspora. Influenced by the Colonial European and
indigenous Native American cultures, aspects of African heri-
tage have contributed immensely to the formation of various
Afro-American cultures in the New World. Notably, one of the
most durably and adaptable constituents of the slave culture
linking African past with American present, was his religion. It
is therefore important to realize that in the America, the relig-
ions of Africa have not been merely preserved as “static” Afri-
canism or as archaic “retentions”, but they have continued to
develop, putting new roots in the new soil, bearing new fruit as
unique hybrids of American origin.
African styles of worship, forms of ritual, systems of belief
and fundamental perspectives, have remained vital on the New
World, not because they were preserved in a “pure” orthodoxy
but because they were transformed. Adaptability based upon
respect for spiritual powers, wherever it originated, accounted
for the openness of African religions to syncretism with other
religious traditions and for the continuity of distinctively Afri-
can religions consciousness. At least in some areas of the
Americas, the African Gods have continued to live in exile.
Reiterating this assumption Swatos (2011) writes:
Despite the presence of Africanism in African American re-
ligion, such as the call and response pattern characteristics of
black preaching, it is evident that no single African culture or
religion could have been diffused intact to North America. Af-
rican religions concepts and rituals such as ancestor worship,
initiation rituals, spirit possession, healing and formal rituals,
magical rituals for obtaining spiritual powers and ecstatic
ceremonies enshrined by rhythmic dancing, drumming and
singing are found in African American religion but generally in
syncretized ways, blended with diverse European—American
elements (1-17).
According to Swatos (2011), prior to the American Revolu-
tion very few slaves were genuine Christians, other than in a
nominal sense. Most slaveholders were reluctant to foster the
conversion of their slaves to Christianity because they feared
that it might provide than with notions of equality and freedom.
With the passage of time, the slaveholders became convinced
that a selective interpretation of the gospel would foster docility
in their slaves (Baer & Singer, 1992: p. 42).
However, the slaves took note that Christianity alone as pre-
sented to the slaves, adulterated, other worldly and disengaged
from its most radicals implications, could not have provide
them with the religion needed for revolt, it had to be enriched
with the volatile ingredients of African religious perspectives
and, most importantly, with the profound human yearning for
freedom that found a channel for expression in the survival of
African religions resident in the early black Churches in Latin
America. Concerning the origin of this black church which
adopted the elements of both Christianity and African religious
traditions, Scheiner (1969) maintains.
The Negro Church came into being in the history of the
United States… first as an invisible institution on the Southern
plantation, secondly as a reaction to discrimination in the white
churches. It was this latter practice which led many blacks in
the Northern Urban centers to organize their own houses of
worship (197).
Scheiner (1969) described the black church in two categories
as both invisible and visible institutions. It might seem strange
that an institution such as church would be described as invisi-
ble. However, this is a true and apt description of the black
church in the Southern America, noting that in independent
black churches with slave members in attendance never existed
in the South before the emancipation. In the racially mixed
churches, it was noted that slaves outnumbered masters in at-
tendance at every Sunday service. However, the religious ex-
periences of the slaves by no means were fully contained in the
visible structure of the institutional church. Therefore the slaves
had to find means of containing their spiritual needs, hidden
from the notice of their masters/Thus in the secrecy of their
quarters or seclusion of the bush or bars the slaves made Chris-
tianity their own.
Therefore, regular Sunday worship in local church was par-
alled by the seeming illicit or at least informal prayer meetings
on week night in the slave cabins. Preachers licensed and hired
by the masters were supplemented by slave preachers licensed
only by the spirit. Text from the Bible which slaves would not
read was explicated by verses from the spirituals. Often such
meetings were organized in the night and most often last all
through the night. It was in this all night singing and praying
that the slaves pour out their suffering and needs of the day.
Wilson (2011) writes, like “steal away” and the test for spiritu-
ality, Christianity has failed the slave community to satisfying
its own particular experience. At the same time, the symbols,
myths and values of Judeo-Christian traditions helped form the
slave community’s image of itself (214).
In the slave’s secret payers/religious meetings everybody’s
heart was in tune and when they called on God, the more
heaven rings, it was more than just Sunday meeting and then no
godliness for the week (Blassinegame, 1973: pp. 13-14). Ac-
cording to one ex-slave account, they would steal off to the
field and in the thickets and there they called on God out of
heavy hearts. It was truly communal, these meeting needed
often no preachers because, everyone was anxious to have a
word to say that preacher had no chance. All of them would
sing and pray (Blazssnyane, 1973: p. 15). A description of se-
cret meeting prayer meeting was recorded by Randolph, who
was a slave in Prentice George County, Virginia until he was
freed in 1847.
Not being allowed to hold meeting on the plantation, the
slaves assemble in swamp, out of reach of the patrols. They had
the understanding among themselves as to the time and place of
getting together. This is often done by the first one arriving
breaking boughs from tree and bending them in the direction of
the selected spot. Arrangement are made for conducting the
exercise. The first ask each other how they feel and the state of
their minds etc. The male members then select a certain space
in separate groups, for the division of the meeting, preach-
ing by the brethren, the praying and singing all around until
generally they feel quite happy. The speaker usually com-
mences by calling himself unworthy and talks very slowing until
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 257
feeling the spirit he grows excited and in short time, there fall
to the ground, twenty or thirty men and woman under its influ-
ence (Rabotaeu, 1963: p. 217).
This meeting had great impact on the life of the slave com-
munity. In such secret meetings the slaves forget their suffer-
ings except, however reminding others of the trials during the
past week, in which they often exclaimed, “Thank God, I shall
not live here always”. They then pass from one to another,
shaking hands and bidding each other farewell. As they sepa-
rate, they sing a parting hymn (Blassangnue, 1973: p. 20). No-
tably, prayer, preaching, song, communal support and espe-
cially, feeling the spirit refreshed the slaves and consoled them
in their time of distress. They imagining their lives in the con-
text of a different future, the slaves gained hope in the present.
Accordingly the context between present pain and future relief
formed the basic issue in the slave prayers and song. The slaves
sought consolation in the future but they also found it in the
present. Exhausted from a day of work that stretched from “day
clean” to sundown, the slaves sometimes found tangible relief
in prayers.
Freedom was frequently the object of prayer. According to
Laura an Ex-slave, “some believed they’d get freedom and
others didn’t (Blessingmane, 1973: p. 22). Actually, in every
prayer meeting, they always prayed for freedom some of them
believed it would come in their life time here on earth, while
others believed that freedom had simply, an eschatological
dimension , while the skeptics even among the slaves believed
it was foolishness expecting such freedom on the context of
present circumstances .
The religion of the black from invisible nature grew to be-
come a visible institution that affected the American society of
the Antebellum period radically. Swatos (2011) gave a histori-
cal antecedent that gave birth to the emergence of black church
as he writes:
Although black people in the North America never enjoyed
complete religions autonomy during the antebellum period,
relatively independent African America congregation and reli-
gious associations emerged at this time. Early modern Baptist
churches such as the Joy Street Baptist Church in Boston (es-
tablished in 1805) and the Abyssinian Baptist church in New
York (established in 1808) appear to have emerged as a protest
to discrimination in racially mixed church (1-7).
Scheiner (1969) explicated more the on protest against dis-
crimination by the Negroes in the mixed congregation as he
writes further
it was the practice of discrimination in white churches that
led many blacks in Northern urban centers to organize their
own houses of worship. For example a group of Philadelphia
Negroes had attended a predominantly white Methodist church
without incident until November, 1897. On a Sunday in that
month, the churchs leaders attempted to seat the blacks in the
rear or the gallery, refusing to abide by the practice, the blacks
led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left the church and
organized the free African Society (23).
This was the emergence of black church that was until then
an invisible institution into the public sphere. The two leaders
Richard and Jones soon parted ways. Jones established the first
independent Northern Negro Church—St. Thomas Protestant
Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, while Richard founded the
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia,
dedicated in 1794. Other Negro Methodist followed Richard’s
example and organized A.M.E churches in other cities and in
1816, they joined together in a National African Methodist
Episcopal Church (Scheiner 1969: 98)
However, the independent Negro church movement ex-
panded beyond the Methodist church. Among the separated
Negro churches were; Abyssinian Baptist and St. Phillip’s
Protestant Episcopal Churches in New York City, Africa Bap-
tist Church in Philadelphia and African Congregational Church,
New Haven. were all founded within this period While some
blacks still retained their membership in predominantly White
churches, a majority affiliated with Negro houses of worship.
Born in protest, the black church, prior to the civil war rep-
resented the initial stirring of black rebellion among both the
secret religions congregations of the slave community and the
openly organized independent black churches and the religious
mutual aid societies of Freeman in the North, consequently
moving between the two poles of immediate survival and future
liberation (Charles, 1998: p. 72) The Religion of the blacks,
whether in the “invisible” or “visible” forms cultivated the
spirit of upliftment and self expression and laying the founda-
tion of black powers and self determination.
Through their Religion, these slaves understood that the
Christian Gospel was a gospel of liberation and this under-
standing caused them to refuse to accept an interpretation of
Christianity that was unrelated to their civil freedom. This fun-
damental religious faith brought strength and encouragement—
to each of them. Regardless of denomination, the black church
was the centre of community, hope and solace for the faithful.
It spoke out on the issue of slavery without fear and supported
the fight for freedom, equality and justice. At the beginning of
the civil war, Black churches had no hesitation bearing wit-
nesses against slavery. “They were sanctuaries for fugitives
from slavery and played important role in establishing channels
of communication between anti-slavery groups and the en-
slaved African-Americans (Billingsley, 1999: pp. 24-34).
As black congregation grew, the continued to serve as meet-
ing houses for anti-slavery rallies. They became powerful in-
strument in helping the enslaved make their way to freedom
through a network of escape routes and secret flight strategies,
known as the “underground railroad”. Although a complex and
dangerous undertaking the black church, along with the anti-
slavery party lent support by providing physical, material and
financial aid to achieve their goal.
The black church not only provided the survival and libera-
tion strategies that allowed freemen and the enslaved to sustain
the slaves escape but also supported the recruitment of black
soldiers in the face of intense racial prejudice. Notably, during
the civil war black soldiers were anxious to join the fight
against slavery. In doing so, they hoped that their military ser-
vice would gain them freedom, voting right and the right to full
citizenship (Billingsley, 1999: p. 17). Arguing that military
service would prove their right to citizenship and guarantee the
right to vote, Douglas Frederick was a strong advocate of al-
lowing black men to fight in the civil war. Douglas believed
that it would be a matter of survival for freed Blacks in the
South and he along with other black abolitionists often used the
black church to delivers their freedom messages. There they
challenged Christians to confront an institution that violated the
central tenet of the Christian faith, including the principle of
equality before God.
The black church has along history of anti-slavery and other
political activities, undergirded by collective faith, it was fertile
ground during the American civil war for the freedom move-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 259
ment among both the enslaved and the freemen. Despite the
brutality and dehumanization of the slaves, it was in their
church that the blacks sought to exercise their powers and to
control their own affairs (Jone, 1970: p. 49). In the church, the
blacks had a sense of individual values that contradicted the
devaluing and dehumanizing forces of slavery. As the hub of
increasing economic powers, the black church was a reservoir
of strength and purposes for those engaged in the struggle for
emancipation and civil equality. The emancipation proclama-
tion signed by Abraham Lincoln on January, 1 1863, seemed to
re-enact the exodus story of the ancient Israelites. God had
intervened once more in human history to liberate his chosen
people just as in the time at Moses and the Egyptian slaves. The
exodus was about a collective faith—a collective deliverance—
the exodus was also about freedom. The enslaved survived
because they had believed in the eventual justice of a benevo-
lent God.
We have taken some time out to re-examine the role or re-
ligion in any oppressive society, and discovered that religion is
a strong social instrument that could be manipulated for what-
ever purpose. The oppressor could apply the mechanism of
religion to subdue the oppressed and enslave the poor perpetu-
ally. Therefore in Marx category religion plays the role of
opium for the people—making them docile and causing them to
think that their material and existential realities have eschato-
logical dimensions
On the other hand, religion can be used as a virile instrument
to challenge an oppressive society. Religion is an institution
that equips those who use it for social reforms of the oppressive
society, with moral, spiritual and collective powers that no
other weapon on earth can challenge. It was the religion of the
black people in the Antebellum American that broke the chains
of slavery and bequeathed the American society of after war
period with conscience. Religion is the greatest weapon with
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