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IntroductionDepartureMiddle PassageArrivalAbolitionLegacy

Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Conversion to Christianity
Enduring Hardships
Religious Services
Preaching to Enslaved Africans
Slave Religion in Central and South America

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
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Arrival: Life in the AmericasPreference for AfricansThe Slave Markets
European RewardsSlave Populations in the AmericasThe Ships Return to EuropeEconomics
Sugar IntroductionSlavery in North AmericaReligionSilver Mines of South America

Preaching to Enslaved Africans

Three major sources of religious teaching for enslaved Africans in the United States were white preachers, black preachers and exhorters, and slave conjurors.

White preachers delivered sermons that were usually openly pro-slavery and used the Bible to justify slavery and to teach the slaves to behave the way the owners wanted. Highlighting the Ten Commandments, white preachers especially liked to preach on the commandments not to kill or to steal and the commandment to obey mother and father, although sometimes "master" was added to the list of people to honor and obey. They would look particularly at Ephesians 6:5: "Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ." Unfortunately, they would leave out Ephesians 6:9: "Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heave and that with him there is no partiality."

Black preachers had a very different task from that of whites. While white preachers only had to make the owners happy, black preachers had to balance the desires of the enslaved Africans with the desires of the owners. These black preachers were often very popular, sometimes among both blacks and whites. But they were perpetually walking a tightrope. The black preacher wanted to preach to slaves about freedom, but he could not do so without serious troubles from the white owners. Thus, he was often forced to deliver the same message that the white preachers gave, and towards the end of slavery, black preachers even had to lead prayers for the Confederacy.

Black preachers sometimes found ways to preach about freedom secretly. In public, black preachers chose to preach from Matthew 25:31-46, in which God separates the sheep (good Christians) from the goats (evil men). What the whites did not understand is that the goat was an African-American symbol for white people, and that the sheep's wool was much like the black man's curly hair. In private, black preachers could be even more open in discussing freedom and were very good at encouraging enslaved Africans to be proud of who they were.

Black preachers were most famous for their oratorical style, which has many elements from African culture. The African-American preaching style that developed was energetic and, like most African art forms, encouraged community involvement. It was very rhythmic and almost musical. It relied heavily on call-and-response patterns, which urged the congregation to take part in the service.

Overall, the message that the black preachers taught was one of "spiritual freedom." They did not encourage open rebellion, but they did teach self-respect. Enslaved Africans learned to be proud of their heritage and to recognize their spiritual, if not material, equality with whites. This was one of the places from which African- American culture came to identify itself as unique and distinct.

A very powerful figure on most plantations, the slave conjuror practiced magic that was similar to voodoo and also to older African forms. Essentially he worked for hire, casting spells and using magic to help those who would pay for it. His power was rarely disputed among the plantation slaves, and he throve on people's fear of him and of what he could do. In some cases, he was feared even more than the owner himself was.

Conjurors practiced a uniquely African religious form, one that whites did not understand and feared greatly. Because of this, he helped to create an African identity for the slaves and remained a link to the older African heritage. According to W.E.B. DuBois, in The Souls of Black Folk, "The chief remaining institution was the Priest or Medicine-Man. He early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people."

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