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The Invisible Church Essay, Research Paper

The purpose of this paper is ask and attempt to answer the question of the presence of religion during oppressionistic times, particularly during the enslavement of black people in the United States. Rev. Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister of Culpepper County, Virginia, during the 1850 s was one of the most forceful and popular preachers of the biblical defense of slavery. Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, a widely article published in 1856, Stringfellow stated that the institution of slavery has received . the sanction of the Almighty and quotes Genesis to prove that the posterity of Ham (Africans) should be held in a state of abject bondage by the descendants of Japheth (Europeans) as a divine curse, the so called Hamitic Curse. The biblical curse upon Ham is the centerpiece of White Cultural domination. Stringfellow believed that masters should have absolute authority over theirs slaves and that the masters had the right to expect unfailing obedience from them. Southern White Christians had a religion that saw the African as people, yes, but as an inferior people who needed parenting. This belief which legitimated the practice of slavery, was based on the notion that a father/son or mother/daughter relationship existed between the master and the slave. This relationship allowed the master to regulate the actions and behaviors of the slave, as a parent would do the same for their child or children. Slave owners where confident that he being the slave s superior knew what was right and best for the slave and this justified the demand for unfailing obedience. This was to be attained through the use of moral persuasion or if necessary the use of physical force. Rev. Fred A. Ross, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, Alabama, during the 1850 s had this to say; ..the relation of the master and slave is not sin; and not withstanding its admitted evils, it is a connection between the highest and the lowest races of man, revealing influences which may be, and will be, most benevolent for the ultimate good of the master and the slave . There were times where slaves dutifully played the role of a child in relating to their masters and earned rewards. This is true of Mary, a slave in St. Louis, who remembers her life with the Armstrong family: Mr. Will and Miss Olivia sure is good to me, and I never calls Mr. Will Massa neither, but when there s company I calls him Mr. Will and roundthe house by ourselves I calls them Pappy and Mammy, cause they raise me up from a little girl. White Christian slaveowners had the tendency to see their slaves as inferior to themselves and that inferiority required parenting those who they deemed inferior. This paternalism justified the segregation and exploitation that were very critical to in keeping the economic interests of the community. This idea of paternalism raised a very disturbing question amongst the leadership of the church. Should African slaves be forced to conform to the religion or should the remain as they are seen in the eyes of their masters, as heathens. Believers of slavery believed that that the action of christianizing the African slaves was the a requirement of being a good Christian and the will of God, while others opposed the idea arguing it violated the divinely ordained master/slave relationship, and still others ignored the matter. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, endorses the christianization of Blacks he described his master as an affectionate and tender-hearted man who after becoming Christian, worshipped with his slaves and respected them as fellow-believers: While living with him we slaves had family prayer in the kitchen, to which he frequently would come out of himself at the time of prayer and my mistress with him. At length he invited us from the kitchen to the parlor to hold family prayer, which we attended. As a Christian, Allen s owner, could not be satisfied to hold slaves, believing it to be wrong, and, acting on this conviction, he allowed Richard and his brother to purchase their freedom. Slaveowners maintained that it was their responsibility before God, the pragmatically argued that it did not challenge White domination. Thus, they tended to spiritually interpret, but did nothing to change the existing power relations based on race. Blacks were slaves, and Christians or Non-Christians, Whites were free. On the other hand, some slaveholders were resistant to the christianization of their slaves. One of the best examples is the attitude of Master Hugh, the owner of Frederick Douglass, who chastised his wife for teaching Frederick to read the Scriptures. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master and learn to obey it .. If you teach him to read, he will want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he ll be running away with himself. As Master Hugh prohibited Douglass from reading the Bible, other slaveholders forbade their slaves to attend church services. Such is the report of Henry Box Brown, a Virginia slave who during the early 1800 s had himself shipped in a box through the public mail from Richmond to Philadelphia and so to freedom. Prior to 1750, slave owners had shown little interest in African religious life and had made no concerted effort to share their faith. This is not suggesting that Blacks were without religion before the coming of European missionaries, they retained their traditional African beliefs throughout slavery. However, the Protestant evangelists, in the style of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, And Episcopalians, introduced Christianity to slaves and from that point on it became the predominant Black religion. During the hard and cruel times of slavery, Christianity became a ray of hope through the clouds of despair. The gospel helped African believers to develop a sense of self worth. Although as slaves they could not escape the physical oppression their newfound religion offered them a way to resist the psychological oppression of slavery. Although slaves had no prospect of freedom in their present life, their religion assured them of liberty in heaven. The combination of hard work with poor diet and health care made their existence on earth short and miserable, while the laws of the land denied them freedom before the grave. Before the mother of William Wells Brown was sold to a southern plantation she bid him this farewell:Don t I pray you weep for me. I cannot last long upon a cotton plantation. I feel that my heavenly master shall soon call me home, and then I shall be out of the hands of the slaveholders. Similarly, Peter Randolph, a slave who became a preacher after his emancipation in 1847, clarifies the stabilizing effect of hope within the context of bondage and the invisible church. He recalls a typical meeting of the underground congregation, stating that the slave forgets all his sufferings, except to remind others of the trials during the past week, exclaiming: Thank God, I shall not live here always! then they pass from one to another, shaking hands, and bidding each other farewell, promising, should they meet no more on this earth, to strive and meet in heaven , where all is joy, happiness and liberty. Like the sense of self worth mentioned above, the hope of a glorious afterlife assisted the slaves in resisting the physical and mental abuse and also the cultural oppression of bondage. However the promise of heaven was only one several features of Black religion contributing to the resistance, indeed, the meetings themselves of the underground church contributed also. In these gatherings, the Christian slaves developed social cohesion through rituals fostering emotional unity and community support. Peter Randolph, the slave from Virginia mentioned above, describes the group practices during another typical gathering of the invisible church: They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds They continue preaching in order by the brethren; then praying and singing all round, until they generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy, and talks very slowly, until, feeling the spirit, he grows excited, and in a short time, there fall to the ground twenty or thirty men and women under its influence.

This ritualistic bonding was magnified by the fact that slaves were rigorously whipped if discovered participating in illegal meetings. Moses Roper, a slave fathered by his North Carolina master in the early nineteenth century, supports this observation in his narrative published in 1837 by English abolitionists: On Sunday nights, a slave, named Allen, used to come to Mr. Gooch s estate for the purpose of exhorting and praying with his brother slaves One evening Mr. Gooch caught them all in a room, turned Allen out, and threatened his slaves with a hundred lashes each, if they ever brought him there again. The production of group unity assisted the slaves in opposing the atrocities of forced servitude. It helped them to resist the planters attempt to increase their control over them by breaking apart their community life. Mary Ella, a slave from Alabama recalls:We weren t even allowed to talk with nobody from another farm. Iffen you did, you got one of the worst whippin s of your life .Massa Jim told us dat dey was fraid we d get together and try to run away to de North. However, Black Christianity brought about subtle defiance, it also fostered ideas of open revolt. Some slave believers declared that, according to the scriptures, God intended all people to be free, and, under the weight of these convictions, they led insurrections as Christian revolutionaries. Such a believer was Gabriel Prosser of Virginia who believed that he was divinely called to deliver his people from bondage and organized an attack on Richmond in 1800 involving some 40,000 slaves. However, the best-documented revolt led by a biblically motivated slave was that of Nat Turner of Virginia who, attempting to liberate his fellow Blacks in 1831, killed some sixty Whites before being captured. According to his confessions, Turner viewed himself as a divinely chosen messiah destined to lead Black people to freedom as God sovereignly destroyed slavery. Inspired by prayer and Bible reading, he believed he was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty and described the following vision as a prophet and revolutionary:And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first. Of course, Turner was simply one among many Bible believing slaves who like David Walker contended that when Blacks revolted, Jesus Christ the King of heaven and of earth who is the God of justice and of armies, would surely go before them. The Gospel produced an ideology of liberation, motivating the slaves to violently abolish the existing social order. Christian slaves, adapting the faith of their masters, developing their own traditions of accommodation and resistance. Some were conforming, that is they accepted the dominant beliefs; the preaching that God ordained slavery, ruling class morality, and African evangelism. Unable to outrightly oppose the dominant order at least with no real hope of success they embraced it, quietly resigning themselves to a surrounding in which it was impossible to escape. At the same time, a number of believing Africans developed a tradition in which they were submissive to the notions of White supremacy but opposed to bondage. They produced ideas which both protected them against the further mental destabilization of slavery and provided with a moral basis for resurrection, to be lifted up out of bondage and to be taken some place where there is no pain or suffering. Slave religion changed the basic idea of Christianity in the fact that it was transformed into an ideal weapon of resistance against the physical and psychological challenges of slavery. Gatherings of the invisible church, which were themselves and act of rebellion against the system, produced natural leaders, who, served as that times intellectuals. These men and women who served as preachers created and popularized a worldview which went against the essential ideas of European theology and christianization. The presence of the invisible church helped many slaves get through the hard times they had to face. Slaves at first had no hope they had onlyto work for their master and to die. Religion gave some slaves what others did not have and that was a sense of hope for a better place. During the slave times is where the music genre gospel started. Songs such as Soon Ah Will Be Done, Marry, Don You Weep, King Jesus Is A Listenin , Motherless Child, I Know I ve Been Changed, Nobody Knows da Trouble Ah See, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Do, Lawd , How I Got Over. Most of these songs were forbidden and had to be sung in secret. Some of these songs which are sung in most Black churches are sung without a thought about what they have brought a race of people through a host of trial and tribulations, when all that they had their religion and the family and the family was not always guaranteed for slaveholders often broke up families to make a dollar. The presence of religion during this particular oppressionistic time there is truly evidence of. there is many a testimony of how it brought them through.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1943 Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave Written by Himself. In Puttin on Ole Massa Edited by Gilbert Osofsky. New York; Harper Torchbooks, 1969, pp. 51-171. Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of Henry Box Brown. Boston, 1851 Brown William Wells. Narrative of William Wells Brown: A Fugitive Slave Written By Himself. In Puttin on Ole Massa. Edited by Gilbert Osofsky. New York; Harper TorchBooks, 1969, pp. 175-223. Equiano, Oludah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, OrGustavas Vassa, the African. In Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology. Edited By Richard Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon. New York: The Macmillian Company Randolph, Peter. Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible. In Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. Edited by Milton C. Sernett Durham: Duke University Press, 1985, pp.63-75. Turner, Nat. The Confessions of Nat Turner. In Black Writers: A Comprehensive Anthology. Edited by Richard Barksdale and KennethKinnamon. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972, p.163-172 Walker, David. The Appeal. In Black Writers: A Comprehensive Anthology. Edited by Richard Barksdale and KennethKinnamon. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972,151-161 Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr. Rupe Simms for his help in the writing of this paper. I really had no where to start until I went to him. He gave me quite a few resources many of which he used in his own paper. His paper, The Polotics of Religion in Plantation Society: A Gramscian Analysis, helped and many of my ideas came from his paper. Although, after writing my own paper it pretty much sounded like his. I would also like to thank a certain young librarian named Alicia at the Harold Washington Library who helped my acquire several of my resources. THE PRESENCE OF RELIGION DURING AN OPPRESSIONISTIC TIME: THE INVISIBLE CHURCH Kenneth E. Ray World Religions Dr. Don Wagner

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