Religion: A double-edged Sword

Slave masters generally concurred that converting heathens and preaching servitude to slaves would subdue any rebellious tendencies, but why if conversion seemed so agreeable did slave owners fail to Christianize their slaves? Why did some churches have galleries for slaves while others like Christ Church did not? The variability of slaves’ church attendance contradicts the goals of Christians to convert heathens and the aristocracy to squash disobedience. The fluctuations of slave attendance at church compelled me to question the reasons behind the reluctance of the gentry to Christianize their slaves. The gentry tried ineffectively to wield religion as a tool to instill gentility upon their slaves towards their masters. But why did they fail? Did religion have unintended effects on slaves the gentry couldn’t foresee? The inconsistencies in church attendance for slaves can be attributed to the logistics of preaching in Virginia, the hope Christianity gave slaves, the Bible’s teachings against enslaving Christians, and the Great Awakening.

Even if all slave masters wished to evangelize their chattel, the feat would have been impossible in seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia due to the isolation of plantations, a lack of ministers, and inclement weather. The Church of England already struggled with monthly mass attendance of their free practitioners. It wasn’t unusual for church goers to ride twenty-five miles to the nearest church. Adverse weather wreaked havoc on rough dirt roads, hindering ecclesiastical participation. Ministers traveling wouldn’t solve the problem either because parishes couldn’t spare any of their ministers. “A shortage of clergy also contributed to the Church of England’s problems in Virginia… Statistics tell a grim tale. In 1616, four ministers served the colony’s 350 settlers. By 1661, nearly 25,000 people lived in the colony; perhaps ten or twelve were ministers.” (Bond 13) After the challenges listed above, I find it surprising that anyone made it to church once a month. The sheer effort to bring slaves to the local church inhibited many efforts of the gentry to Christianize their slaves.

Image from Northern Neck News

Christ Church: An Anglican church built by a member of the Virginia gentry. Image from Northern Neck News

Why go to such extraordinary lengths? What were the benefits for slaveowners? The gentry logically assumed that sermons calling for servants to obey the Lord would encourage good behavior from slaves. “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters…” (Ephesians 6:5) This backfired. Why? By this same rationality, slaveowners should have abided by their own logic. A few sentences later in the same Letter to the Ephesians, Paul advises, “And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” (Ephesians 6:9) What messages did slaves take from the readings? Slaves discovered hope, meaning behind their suffering, and a belief in the Promised Land. Slaves identified with the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Hope in the form of Jesus’ Resurrection gave them power to continue through their oppression in hopes of their own resurrection. The Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and eventual arrival to the Promised Land resonated strongly with the enslaved population. Far from creating the ideal, submissive slave the aristocracy desired, Christian teaching achieved the opposite. “The dangers of slaves believing in a radical Christian message seemed real to many white Virginians.” (Rasor and Bond 89) Religion ignited an internal beacon of hope.

A painting of slaves dancing and perhaps practicing religion.

Not only did the Bible empower slaves spiritually, but it gave them a physical way out of bondage during the early years of slavery. Enslaved Biblical scholars argued in court and won their cases when stating the Bible didn’t allow Christians to enslave fellow Christians, and English law confirmed this fact. This provides a perfect reason for the gentry’s refusal to baptize their chattel because they feared the loss of labor. This was soon to change. “…in 1667, the General Assembly passed a statue invalidating the traditional correspondence of Christianity with freedom.” (Bond 41) If English law remained on the aristocracy’s side, why didn’t the numbers of slave baptisms skyrocket? White Virginians still didn’t feel secure enough to Christianize their slaves and didn’t fully accept the 1667 Act. Also slaves started coming directly from Africa and weren’t familiar with Christianity as early slaves had been. Slaveowners were daunted by the insurmountable task of evangelizing those who didn’t even speak the same language. They also believed their conversion wouldn’t be as genuine due to their inability to understand English and therefore Christian teaching. Another reason planters shied away from evangelizing their property stemmed from fears of slaves learning to read and write. Protestant sects stressed the importance of education because of Protestants’ emphasis on individual study of the Bible. Slaves reading and writing could breed insubordination in slaves. Baptism into the Anglican Church provided slaves with freedom and education the aristocracy desired to deny them.

Besides liberty, slaves in the mid-eighteenth century gained a perceived equality in religion due to the Great Awakening. “The Awakening had more success in reaching Virginia’s black population than the Anglican church had achieved in a century.” (Gaustad 7) The renewed religious fever spreading throughout the colonies initiated a surge in enslaved baptisms not to the Anglican Church but to the Methodist and Baptist Churches. Why did these sects attract slaves? These other denominations preached brotherhood for all including white planters, slaves, females, and males. Compared to the blatant hierarchy the gentry displayed within their Anglican parishes, slaves found the equality in different sects liberating. The Great Awakening and dissenting denominations focused more on emotion and individual conversion than reading liturgy as the Church of England did. The significance of the liturgy to the Anglican Church can be seen at Christ Church because the pulpit where the sermon was spoken stands at the center of the church. Slaves couldn’t connect as easily with the sermons as their white counterparts. What did the gentry think of their slaves belonging to dissenting sects? Used to always having control, white planters felt their power seeping through their fingers. These other Protestant sects filled their slaves’ heads with radical notions, undermining their authority. No longer could they ingrain their superiority within the church and their favor in the eyes of the Lord as slaves brazenly entered other denominations.

A depiction of a great crowd gathering to hear a preacher during the religious ferment of the Great Awakening. Image from

In colonial Virginia, the white elite believed in their power over all aspects of society: government, economy, and religion. Yet their qualms over evangelizing their slaves reveals a different reality than the one the aristocracy perceived. Religion, a tool the upper class thought they could wield to make their slaves yield, became a double-edged blade as slaves used Christianity against their masters’ wills. The one thing white Virginians could never control was another’s thoughts and beliefs. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl 86) The gentry’s omnipotence was an illusion.


Bond, Edward. Spreading the Gospel in Colonial Virginia.Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004. Print.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon, 2006. Print.

Gaustad, Edwin. Revival, Revolution, and Religion in Early Virginia. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994. Print.

Rasor, Paul B., and Richard E. Bond. From Jamestown to Jefferson: The Evolution of Religious Freedom in Virginia. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2011. Print.

Rose, John. The Old Plantation. 1785. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg. Web. 26 July 2014.

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