The very existence of praise houses in South Carolina indicates that masters failed in their attempt to make the plantation a completely closed system.
“Praise houses” (sometimes called “prayer houses”) functioned on antebellum South Carolina plantations as both the epitome of slave culture and symbols of resistance to slaveholders’ oppressive version of Christianity. Generally simple, clapboard structures built by the slaves themselves, praise houses were erected with the knowledge, if not always the complete approval, of the master class. Meetings in the praise house usually occurred on week nights rather than on Sunday mornings. Pious masters preferred that their slaves be in attendance at white-dominated churches where sermons buttressed the slave system with carefully chosen scriptural texts.
The simple architectural aesthetic of the praise house mirrored the nonliturgical style of slave religion. Enslaved Christians favored empty space over altars, kneelers, pulpits, and sometimes even chairs and pews. The resulting sparseness provided the slaves more room for “ring shouts” during often all-night sessions of prayer and song. Frederick Law Olmsted recalled visiting one South Carolina rice plantation where the master had attempted to provide the plantation praise house with “seats having a back-rail,” only to be informed by the slaves that this would not “leave them room enough to pray.”
Weddings, funerals, and other activities centered on the praise house. Following emancipation, some of these structures continued to serve the freedmen, providing them with a place for schools and public meetings.
The very existence of praise houses in South Carolina indicates that masters failed in their attempt to make the plantation a completely closed system. Even under the degrading conditions of slavery, religious life and practice strengthened and sustained the slave community. The building of the praise houses reveals the struggle of the enslaved to maintain their humanity in the midst of an inhuman system.
Carawan, Guy, and Candie Carawan. Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? The People of Johns Island, South Carolina–Their Faces, Their Words, and Their Songs. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Cooper, Nancy Ashmore. “Where Everybody Is Somebody: African American Churches in South Carolina.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.