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Enslaved Africans in the British colonies, and later the United States, often were able to hold their own religious services. The services were a place for people to get together and to socialize and a meeting place for friends and sweethearts. They were often an exclusively black forum, which meant that they provided the opportunity for exercising leadership and responsibility. They were a place where blacks could express their own cultural values without fear of reproach and also a place for recreation.
Enslaved Africans rarely had their own church buildings, so they usually had to meet in homes or outdoors, in the woods. It was, of course, very dangerous to sneak off to the woods at night for any reason. One practice to ensure safety, with West African roots, was to hang a pot upside down on the wall or in a tree. The slaves believed that the sounds would go into the pot instead of out into the air where the owners could hear. As one former slave recalled, "When dark come, de men folks would hang up a wash-pot, bottom up'ards, in de little brush church-house us had, so's it would catch de noise an' de oberseer couldn' hear us singin' and shoutin'."
The singing and shouting was one of the most distinctive parts of slave Christianity. As described by former slave Vinnie Brunson:
"De Bible tell how de angels shouted in heaven, so dat is where dey get de scriptures fer de dance dat is called de "Shout." De ones dat do dis does not sing, dey jes dance, dey songs are sung by de congregashun. In most cases de "shout" is done at de end of de services.
In de shoutin' song de best singers git to gether an start de song, hit moves slow at fust den gits faster an louder, as dey sing dey jine hands an make a circle, den somebody git happy an jumps out in de middle of de circles an goes to dance to de time of de singing an de clappin' of hands and feet, other jine her as de spirit moves dem, till dey all make a ring dat circles roun' and roun'. De folks in de congregashun jine de singin' an keepin' de time by pattin' de hands an feet an' hit makes a big noise an praise service."
The ring shout, as described by Brunson, was one of the features of slave Christianity that made it so powerful for the enslaved Africans and so foreign to European cultures. While singing and moving the body were an integral part of worship, the seeming chaos and abandon with which the ring shout was conducted were frightening to owners who wanted complete control over the slaves. The ring shout was not, however, all chaos. It was actually a strange combination of emotional release and controlled community behavior. The combination of abandon and control made the ring shout a powerful community activity and a vital part of enslaved Africans' faith.