and redemption of the Israelites. Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Daniel proved heroic figures in black Christian consciousness for the special covenant with God and the promise of deliverance for His people they represented. Christianity thus became above all a messianic faith for African Americans, grounded in God's saving power in the believer's heart and in fulfilment of prophecy through the emancipation of a people. Many African Americans considered themselves God's true Christians, and white planters to be impostors.6
In form and function, the religion of the slaves also blended Christianity with African traditional practices passed on through generations of African-American folk culture. The inflooding of the divine spirit duringthe conversion experience (when 'God struck me dead', as one former slave recalled) corresponded roughly to African spirit possession in which a sacred spirit would 'ride' its human host. A standard part of Afro-Christian worship was the 'ring shout', when worshippers gathered African-style in a circle to dance, clap and sing praises in call-and-response fashion, communing with the Spirit in an ecstatic trance that often lasted hours. When they buried their dead, the slaves often adapted the Congolese practice of placing broken jugs, bits of pottery, stones, glass and other objects on the grave to release the soul and accompany it to the afterlife.7
Aware of the subversive nature of many aspects of black Christianity, plantation owners sought to control both the flow and the interpretation of religious messages in the slave quarters. Religious meetings in plantation 'praise houses' were chaperoned by a white preacher or other authority figure, and slaves often attended church with whites, though they were generally assigned separate seating. Laws also proscribed the teaching of literacy to slaves, especially after the Nat Turner revolt of 1831. Throughout the plantation South, however, enslaved Christians secretly gathered in 'hush arbors' in woods and swamps far away from white oversight. There they were led in prayer by lay preachers from the slave community, both male and female, many of whom continued to read and interpret the Bible in defiance of the law. It was in these meetings, too, that African-American hymns and spirituals emerged as one of America's greatest musical art forms. The spirituals spoke about 'life and death, suffering and sorrow, love and judgment, justice and mercy, redemption and conciliation'. The biblical lyricism of the spirituals sometimes disguised other intentions; to sing of 'stealing away to Jesus' might have been a coded expression for running
6 Levine, Black culture and black consciousness, pp. 3-80; Frey and Wood, Come shouting to Zion, pp. 79-129.
7 Stuckey Slave culture; Creel, 'A peculiar people', chs. 9 and 10.
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