Enslaved Africans arriving in South Carolina brought their traditional belief systems with them, and until the early nineteenth century, Christianity only marginally affected them and their descendants. Little effort was made to Christianize them because some planters initially believed that conversion required emancipation. Others feared that Christianity would lead to literacy or make their slaves less tractable. In addition, language barriers and African resistance to the faith of their oppressors, combined with South Carolina’s high percentage of Africans, ensured that African religion would survive tenaciously.
West and South Central Africans shared many sacred beliefs– for instance, in an omnipotent and omniscient creator God who remained at some distance from life’s daily affairs. Theirs was a pantheistic world containing lesser deities, the spirits of natural forces, nonbiological objects, and the spirits of ancestors. No sharp demarcation existed between the spiritual and the corporeal. Ancestors were considered the “living dead” because their spirits could affect the material, corporeal world. Ritual homage was regularly shown to them through sacrifices. Problems in life such as illness or bad fortune were considered to have spiritual as well as physical causes. Priests, diviners, or medical specialists were consulted to identify the genesis of these problems and to apply sacred medicines or perform rituals to counteract “bad magic.” These and related ways of conceptualizing the world were persistent and informed the spiritual beliefs of enslaved Carolinians.
Beginning in the late 1820s, faced by the rising abolitionist threat and convinced by white missionaries that Christianity would make their bondsmen more docile, slaveholders allowed and even supported a sustained missionary effort to evangelize the slaves. By the 1840s support for the plantation missions was widespread throughout South Carolina. When the slaves did not attend their owners’ churches, masters hired local preachers or utilized trustworthy slaves or free blacks to lead religious services. Conversions occurred because eventually the power of African spirits diminished in the new environment. Furthermore, Christianity offered an explanation of the suffering plight of the enslaved and a hope for ultimate redemption that traditional beliefs did not. In addition, for all their differences, traditional African beliefs and Christianity had important points of convergence, making the latter more easily understood. A creator God was present in both, and the Christian Trinity and angels were suggestive of a multiplicity of deities. Also, the story of death and resurrection was familiar to West and South Central Africans who believed in reincarnation.
The brand of Christianity that enslaved Carolinians practiced was highly Africanized; they did not passively accept the faith as given but reshaped and embellished it according to their own culture. This occurred throughout the state and especially in the lowcountry where Gullah culture was prominent. West African religious ceremonies frequently included sacred dances that evoked the presence of ancestral spirits, as the supplicants moved in a counterclockwise motion to the accompaniment of music. The ring shout, as it was known, was a frequent part of Carolina slave worship services. Some slave religious practices derived from South Central Africa’s BaKongo culture. Baptism by immersion was especially important for enslaved Carolinians. BaKongo people believed that the most powerful ancestors reside in the “land of all things white,” below the water of the sea and rivers; their priests used crosslike staffs to perform important water rituals. When Carolina slaves were baptized, the participants were usually dressed in white and crosses were often part of the ceremonies, and when the preachers immersed the candidates below the water, the persons were placed in spiritual contact with powerful ancestral spirits. Thus, the baptismal ceremony that appeared fully Christian to the untrained eye might have derived much of its spiritual force from African ceremonial analogs. Funerary rites were important, and in the African tradition, Carolina slaves were frequently buried with objects they cherished in this world, or grave sites were decorated with objects last used by those deceased. This honored and placated the spirits, preventing them from becoming wandering, vengeful ghosts.
Baptisms, funerals, and ring shouts involved the slaves in spiritual communities whose members provided mutual support that reinforced their humanity and worth. These bonds were strengthened when they gathered secretly at their “prayin’ grounds” or bush arbors in isolated wooded areas. These services were led by men who frequently lacked white sanction but whom the slave communities chose as their informal leaders for their rhetorical ability, their literacy, or their scriptural discernment. Their unique biblical understanding led the enslaved to develop their own eschatology. Enslaved Carolinians believed that the Bible condemned bondage, and many viewed themselves as morally superior to their depraved owners. The God they worshiped aided the downtrodden, and so the Old Testament Book of Exodus had special appeal. Collectively singing spirituals with titles and lyrics such as “No Man Can Hinder Me” and “the Lord shall bear his children home” reinforced the idea of ultimate delivery despite slaveowners’ contrary efforts. In myriad ways slave religion thus created a vital psychic buffer, enabling black Carolinians to survive slavery’s potentially devastating impact.
Creel, Margaret W. A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press, 1988.
Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Jones, Norrece T. Born a Child of Freedom, yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
Raboteau, Albert. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.