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Religious Justifications Of Slavery In The Caribbean Essay, Research Paper

The doctrine of Christianity grants eternal life to all persons who accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and choose to follow him. Such a statement leaves little room for interpretation of the scripture itself. Nevertheless, the nineteenth century Christian churches of the Caribbean Islands created a racial distinction between humans which determined who could and who could not be granted eternal life through the Christian faith. This concept of race was based on the belief that Africans were intellectually unable to make an educated decision regarding personal religion. Planters supported this discrimination against their workers because then they did not have to be cruel to fellow Christians. Two kinds of Christianity existed in the Caribbean during the nineteenth century. Planters and the church of the elite, mainly the Anglican church upheld a Christian faith that served mainly to justify the wealth of the ruling class, and the oppression of the enslaved peoples. The other side of the Christian religion served to promote the religious education of the slaves by operating under the non-traditional belief that all men were worthy of hearing the gospel, and making a choice for or against Christianity. This underground form of Christianity more closely represents the true ideals of the Christian faith, and grossly illuminates the corruption of Christianity at the hands of the planters.

During slavery many families were separated: fathers, mothers and children were attached to different plantations with the result that some never saw their family members again. The responsibility of bringing up the children rested primarily with the mothers and grandmothers. This situation gave rise to a matriarchal type of family which is still common in the Caribbean today. Formerly slaves had little or no knowledge or opportunity of legal marriages. (Later they were informed by the missionaries). The slave owners did not encourage the institution of marriage. It was felt that the strength and power of the marriage union would offer a threat to the Plantation System. Concubinage was encouraged as it was believed that this frail type of union would keep the negroes humble and complacent. Despite the rapid social changes taking place, common-law marriages and concubinage are still present in Caribbean and will perhaps be for a long time.

During the latter part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century (1890-1910) there was a large movement of people from Jamaica to Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica and the United States of America in search of jobs. Fathers travelled away from their families leaving mothers to be solely responsible for the upbringing of their children. During the 1950s there was an exodus of Jamaicans to England. These included both fathers and mothers, and so, many children were left to be cared for by their grandmothers and other relatives.

Although families differ in form according to the society, they nevertheless are responsible for carrying out certain functions. The chief of these are:

1. Procreation or reproduction – for continuation of the species.

2. Socialisation which includes -education, religion, preparation for a career, learning social relationships, management of leisure and being a responsible citizen.

3. Providing the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, health care and love.

4. Transmitting the culture: that is, passing on the language, ideas, beliefs and attitudes, goals and values.

5. Preventing incest, by regulating kinship relationships

6. Conferring Status:

Status may be of 2 kinds, namely:

(a) derived: that is, inherited like familyname, language and speech, schooling, relationships and privileges.

(b) acquired: that is earned by the individual from the society based on the individual’s own performance.

Family functions are more or less universal, in that families through-out the world are expected to perform these functions for the Benefit chiefly of their family members and the community. Family roles are determined within the social setting of the family and are performed by individual family members. Families all over the world perform the functions outlined before, regardless of the society in which they live. Individual, family members, however, have different roles which they perform from day to day for the welfare of the family as a whole and the members in particular.

Roles of a generalized nature are attributed to certain family members: for example father as breadwinner, housekeeper, counsellor and caring person, depending on circumstances and family situation. Other family members like teenagers and grandparents can contribute from their earnings and pensions respectively to family income and encourage habits of thrift. Other roles include special household tasks like meal preparation and service, cleaning, sanitation, coring for pets, some of which con be performed by younger family members. Younger family members also add to the family’s aesthetic values by their music, drama and other art forms.

Parents’ roles include development of spiritual values, guidance in educational and social development, as well as giving assistance in forming good personal relationships.

In summary family roles include: sharing and performing home tasks pooling resources, pooling resources, assuming supporting roles, meeting family needs, recognizing individual rights, assuming role of breadwinner, helping to establish values.

The church of the elites struggled to justify the role of slavery in contemporary Caribbean life. This church, primarily of the Anglican denomination sought only to supplicate its financial supporters, so that its future existence would be insured. The justification of slavery went back far into biblical history. References to slavery litter the Old Testament of the Bible, creating arguments for the support of slavery. Many men of the Old Testament such as Abraham, David, and Moses referred to themselves as slaves of the Lord. However, these men referred to slavery as a voluntary condition, which one entered into by agreement and belief that the Lord would reap benefits upon those who bowed to Him. These definitions of slavery also focus more at the spiritual being than the physical being. However, the Israelites twisted this notion of slavery into the subjugation of other peoples, because they had been named the Lord’s chosen people. Moses wrote in the book of Leviticus:

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have – you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. `Then, too, it is out of the sons of sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. `You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.”(Bible, Leviticus 25:44-46)

The Jews interpreted this passage as a license to own slaves and a reaffirmation of their superiority over other nations (and races). The Old Testament offered little to contradict the institution of slavery as it became an approved fixture within society. (Davis, 1966, p.63-65) Ancient biblical theology interpreted the slavery of the Jews in Egypt as a necessary period of bondage in preparation for freedom. Slavery, therefore, was a step towards salvation and freedom, not a permanent bondage. However freedom was not easy to come by for the slaves. Many slave women wanted their freedom and the freedom of their children. They wanted also to do housework and be free from the toils of field labour as well as to escape the economic hardship of slavery. So they submitted to the sexual advances of the planters and slave masters, and bore them children outside of wedlock. A similar pattern exists today (even though to a lesser extent) where positions and special considerations are exchanged for sexual favours. This passage in Leviticus represented one of the earliest justifications of the slavery of another people. Because the Jews had suffered under slavery, now others were destined to follow the same path, to one day achieve their freedom. The New Testament, containing the teachings of Jesus Christ discredited this earlier justification of slavery by redefining the Jews’ definition of slavery. Jesus used the term in a much broader context. The Apostle John wrote:

“Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, `You shall become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.”(Bible, John 8:31-35)

Jesus here extended the definition of slavery to extend beyond physical bondage. The Jews, having lived with the righteous belief that they were the chosen people, never considered themselves to be in bondage to anything. Jesus, and his follower Paul, taught that there existed two forces over men, God and Satan, and that humans lay in a perpetual state of bondage to either of these two forces. Therefore, from the Christian perspective, true freedom came only when one pledged oneself fully to the will of God, becoming in essence a slave or servant to God’s Word. The alternative to this slavery was slavery to sin, which deceived individuals because it allowed people to do whatever they wished to do. Such free choice normally denotes freedom, not a slavery. Therefore, slavery became inevitable, the only issue was to what would an individual choose to enslave him or herself.

This theology came as a double-edged sword to both pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements. Jesus’ teaching inferred that all men were equal before the Lord, and subject to both God and Satan. This held owners and planters as equals, a strong point for anti-slavery movements. For slavery advocates, the fact that Christian slaves were to accept their condition as ordained by God discouraged slave revolt, and encouraged the peaceful continuance of the slave society. Human existence on earth should not matter to Christians, having been assured eternal life after death. If Christians fought for emancipation, either for themselves, or for others, they took responsibility away from God and placed it with themselves, denying their faith in their deliverance.

Paul’s Epistle to Philemon discusses the issue of slavery directly. This letter instructs Philemon to take back Onesimus, a former slave of Philemon, whom Paul had converted to Christianity. Paul asked Philemon to treat Onesimus as a spiritual brother, not as a bondservant. By obeying Paul’s instruction, Onesimus’ bondage to Philemon would not have carried the connotations that slavery carry today. While Onesimus would remain subject to Philemon for employment, an atmosphere of exploitation would not have existed. This theory relied on both the master and slave maintaining a solid religious basis in Christianity. For planters and slaves in the nineteenth century Caribbean, a mutual understanding of Christian beliefs did not exist, and was prevented from existing by sections of the Christian church. Therefore, the conception that the Christian church condoned slavery is only partially correct. While the Christian faith does allow for slavery, it does not allow for slavery under the conditions that existed in the Caribbean. The Anglican church however, ignored the New Testament teachings in order to support their patrons, the planter class. The church, though charged by the European monarchies with instructing the slaves in Christian practices, took an uninterested approach to missions work with the Africans. The planters wished to avoid the Christianization of their slaves, thus becoming guilty of abusing fellow Christians in the eyes of God. This tailoring of Christianity to fit a certain predetermined set of circumstances, and complacent attitude towards the religious responsibilities to the slaves marked the deep corruption of the Christian church.

As slavery established itself in the region, a difference between Protestant and Catholic theologies developed on the religious treatment of slaves. The Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal employed priests to perform rudimentary baptisms on the slaves, usually before they departed from the African continent. This practice ensured that the Catholics had completed their responsibility of `Christianizing’ their slaves. In fact, the slaves received no instruction in the Christian faith, and certainly did not understand the rituals performed by the Catholic priests. The Protestants, on the other hand, discouraged religious education of slaves because of statutes within the Protestant church forbidding the ownership and exploitation of fellow Christians. They also felt that their safety and security rested upon the ignorance of their workers. If slaves were educated and given knowledge, the slave owners worried that their justifications of slavery would fall under attack from the oppressed class, exactly what had already happened on mainland Europe during the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century. This belief ran directly against true Christian teaching, which said that the slaves, upon good Christian education would realize their position within society and would work in return for fair treatment as described above.

Even if the slaves had been granted a Christian education by the Protestants, it is unlikely they would have received better treatment. Most plantations focused on the production of sugar, requiring grueling fieldwork by slave gangs. To convert this labor to a more civilized schedule, allowing workers free time, and proper food and shelter would have raised the costs of plantation operation exorbitantly for the planters. The owners of these plantations, mostly absent from the region cared only for profits, and money. Any cost not directly resulting in more income was deemed unnecessary. The maltreatment of the slaves was further encouraged by the low prices for slaves. It became more economical to work slaves to death than to care for them. With such conditions, it was not surprising that few slaveowners allowed Christian education for the slaves. (Hart, 1980, pg.119)

The large institutional religions of Europe were not the only Christian influences in the Caribbean at this time. Other denominations such as the Baptists, Moravians, and Methodists established missions programs throughout the Caribbean Basin to educate the slaves independently. These religious groups offered a strong political base to the slaves as well, becoming more of a political institution than a religious one. Nonetheless, the slaves looked to the Christian faith as means to freedom from the oppression of servitude. Such movements to educate the slaves did not meet with the approval of the plantation masters, fearful of the growing education and political identity that the slaves gained through the church. Slaveowners convinced the Jamaican parliament to pass an ordinance in 1807 forbidding any unlicensed minister to “preach or teach, or offer up in public prayer, or sing psalms.” Penalties for breaking this ordinance ranged from 100 Pounds to six months imprisonment in the workhouse. To further curtail slave participation in religious ceremonies, parliament further restricted worship practices for all island inhabitants. This ordinance, restricting worship during the free hours of slaves, attempted to discourage participation among slaves in religious gatherings. Such measures against these Christian religions proved pointless, and eventually the slaveowners turned to their own form of education to attempt to take control of their slaves religious life. This teaching consisted of the basic belief in Jesus, neglecting any theological study or background to empower the slaves into the effects and responsibilities of Christianity. The slaveowners though professing to follow the Christian faith, actually were more cultural Christians than religious Christians, and instead of educating the slaves in the religious Christian sense, they preferred to make the slaves cultural Christians, so they would not be inclined to follow the Bible religiously, and then realize the full implications of Jesus’ teaching on slavery.

The Anglican and Catholic churches, in deference to their desire to remain in the good graces of the ruling class did not actively rally against these laws. However, other Christian denominations continued undeterred by the laws and unfavorable conditions put forth by the ruling class. The Moravians were the first missionary group to exert an influence upon the Negros of Jamaica. Establishing themselves as early as 1754, these missionaries, did not upset the slaveowners primarily because they exhibited a very poor track record in terms of evangelizing and conversions. By 1804, the Moravians claimed only 938 converts in 50 years of Christian teaching.(Patterson, 1967, pg. 209) As a result, the slaveowners did not actively prosecute the Moravians in the preaching.

The Methodists established a missionary unit in 1789 and quickly made more of an impact among white, free black, and slave population on Jamaica. This interest exhibited by free blacks upset the white landowners because it gave the blacks, albeit free, a central organizational unit from which to gain power. The slaveowners operated solely out of self-protection of their plantations, and because they knew that treatment of the slaves was abhorrent, they wore worried that those exploited might rise up against their power. This admission looks psychologically into the minds of the slaveowners, showing their knowledge of unfair treatment and coercion, and their guilt at inflicting it upon another human being. Thus came the undeniably different attitude held by the owners towards the Methodists.

The Baptist faith also established a very strong foothold in Jamaica over a period of time. Their movement began in 1784 with an ex-slave from the United States, George Liele, who received his freedom from his master because of his fine preaching ability. He established a church in Kingston, from which he built many congregations all over the nation. The wide appeal of the Baptist faith, came from in part, its black ministers who identified with the plight of the slaves. This interest within the Baptist church eventually led to a great split in the church, with half following the traditional, orthodox teachings of Liele, and the other half adapting the message to their own needs. (Patterson, 1967, pg. 212)

Missionaries of these churches faced many adversities in bringing their message to the African peoples. Those clergy who wished to instruct the slaves oftentimes could not gain access to the slaves because planters would not grant the slaves any free time to study religion, or even to till their own plots. (Russell-Wood, 1982, pg.130)

The majority of slaves come from West Africa where polygamy was practiced, i.e. one man having many wives. They all shared the some compound with their husband who was the father of their children. Some African tribes chose their chief because of his virility and physical prowess. A man’s virility was based on the number of his offspring, especially males. In our society today, it is not uncommon to find men who boost about the number of children they have to show off their virility. Not just these cultural differences was the barrier to an effective slave education. The language was another. Newly-arrived slaves were unable to understand the Portuguese, Spanish or English instruction. The clergy was reluctant to use experienced slaves with knowledge of European languages for fear that as translators, they would take advantage of the situation to spread false doctrine.

These religious movements among the slaves took hold within the younger generations of workers. Older people tended to be so browbeaten, that they could not worry themselves with theological and spiritual issues, and focussed more on the immediate problems of day-to-day living. Many couples’ excuse for producing large families is the cultural practice of mothers ‘having out their lot’. This practice contributes to over-population and inability of a people to develop to their highest potential. It can even lead to suffering with children being the chief victims. A large proportion of the Caribbean population is below working age. In Jamaica in 1990, 50% of the total population wasbelow the age of 20. In countries with such a young population, there is heavy burden on the working group. Age structure also has an effect on educational levels, and consequently on lifestyle and standard of living. Maintaining a desirable standard of education places heavy burden on the country. Communities that have a high ratio of school children to working adults experience great economic strain.

Young people are therefore often urged to break loose from cultural practices that could be destructive to them. They are encouraged to develop self-esteem, and attitudes and habits that will improve their environment. This will have a good effect on their own lives and that of their families.

Those who became more involved with Christianity and the various religious sects associated the religion with the social cause for emancipation. This connection however was seen only from the side of the slaves. The church, largely wished to avoid heavy political situations while attempting to spread the Gospel amongst the captive peoples.(Turner, 1982, pg.9)

The slaves interpreted this movement correctly as going against the will of their masters, and therefore good for the slaves and good for their freedom. The slaves therefore developed a psychological connection between the church and their freedom, and used the church to achieve that goal. Once the slaves became free, their connections to the church fell off drastically, having used the church to achieve their desired goal. This represented the fact that the slaves did not attach themselves religiously to the Christian faith, but became more cultural Christians intent upon using the church to further their own ends. After emancipation many of the ex-slaves deserted the estates to improve their living conditions, and to acquire a sense of independence from their former bosses. With the help of missionaries, large numbers of them purchased small plots of land, up to five acres, while a few squatted on crown lands or on lands belonging to absentee owners. The missionaries encouraged marriage among these freed people who were by that time establishing families. Many of the holdings were inaccessible to markets so those farmers with donkeys would buy from other farmers. The food would then be transported by the peasants themselves or by higglers. Today, still this pattern exists, but trucks and buses are used instead of donkeys. This practice provides financial support for the family, but it is not without its consequences. Here are two:

? Children are kept from school to care for younger sibling (s) or to help with preparation of the produce for market.

? Children are often left to care for themselves while their parents are away selling food or gathering food for market. Lack of supervision often produces negative results.

Ironically, the planters achieved the overall goal they wished to achieve, albeit not in the final form they had planned. By supporting the lax and unenthusiastic effort by the Anglican clergy to Christianize the slaves, the slaveowners ensured what they thought would be a peaceful work force, unburdened with the bothers of religion. However, this same policy allowed for other missionary groups to enter the Caribbean, to fill the void created by the existing churches in serving the Christian needs of the African peoples. This in turn sparked underground religious movements within the slave population, which eventually led to large scale organization and emancipation. Therefore, the issue of the withholding of Christianity from the slaves by the owners became a crucial question in terms of its wisdom. While it solved the short term difficulties of providing the education and overall better living and working conditions for the slaves, it created a long term, insurmountable problem for the planters, allowing the slaves to become organized against their oppressors.

Instead of using Christianity as a means to inform and educate, the planters saw it as an enemy which would prevent the collection of profits. Clearly, the planters did not serve as a good representative of the true religious beliefs of Christianity in the enslaved Caribbean. When given a choice between God and money, they made a clear choice, which in hindsight from the point of view of the planters was incorrect. Any arguments for slavery used by the slaveowners came from as justification for economic gain which violates the very nature of the Bible, a collection of books for spiritual gain. In fact, true Christian missionaries operating in the Caribbean, spurred organization and mobilization of the slaves through the teaching, although that was not their intent. The planters, seeking absolution from sin, pretending that their slaves were in some way not created equal, or were unworthy of Christian education, actually lay in bondage to their sin as Christians in failing to spread the word of Jesus Christ. Some interpretations of the outcome might say that God brought down the ruling class and liberated the poor through emancipation because of the sin and cruelty of the planters. Jesus recognized the plight of the poor and oppressed, and comforted them specifically in his Sermon on the Mount. Others might point to the growing secular outrage at the infringement of personal liberty and freedom which triggered the end of slavery. In any regard, the institution of Christianity found itself on both sides of the slavery issue. It was employed by the slaveowners to justify the bondage of the slaves, as well as by the slaves themselves as a path to freedom. Issues of slavery within the Christian faith deserve a close examination, as they neither call for the total freedom, nor total physical slavery of the nineteenth century Caribbean. Christianity refers to slavery for the most part as a spiritual issue, not the physical issue created by the exploitationist elites of the nineteenth century against the innocent Africans.


1. Davis, David Brion (1966). The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

2. Hart, Richard (1980). Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Volume 1 – Blacks in Bondage. Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research.

3. Karasch, Mary C. (1987). Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro: 1808-1850. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

4. Patterson, Orlando (1969) The Sociology of Slavery. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses.

5. Phillippo, James M. (1971) Jamaica. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press.

6. Russell-Wood, A.J.R. (1982) The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. London: The Macmillan Press.

7. Schuler, Monica. (1980) “Alas, Alas, Kongo”: A Social History of Indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841- 1865. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

8. Sells, William (1972) Remarks on the Condition of Slaves in the Island of Jamaica. Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press.

9. Turner, Mary (1982). Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787-1834. Urbana,

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