NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:
African American Christianity, Pt. I: To the Civil War
by Laurie Maffly-Kipp, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
©National Humanities Center

Excerpts from the digital collection
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
in American Memory, Library of Congress

"A Negro preacher delivered sermons on the plantation. Services being held in the church used by whites after their services on Sunday. The preacher must always act as a peacemaker and mouthpiece for the master, so they were told to be subservient to their masters in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But the slaves held secret meetings and had praying grounds where they met a few at a time to pray for better things."
Harriet Gresham, born a slave in 1838 in South Carolina, as reported by her interviewer, ca. 1935

"Sometimes we would, unbeknown to our master, assemble in a cabin and sings songs and spirituals. Our favorite spirituals were—Bringin' in de sheaves, De stars am shinin' for us all, Hear de Angels callin', and The Debil has no place here. The singing was usually to the accompaniment of a Jew's harp and fiddle, or banjo."
Dennis Simms, born a slave in Maryland in 1841, as transcribed by his interviewer, 1937

"De black folks gits off down in de bottom and shouts and sings and prays. Dey gits in de ring dance. It am jes' a kind of shuffle, den it git faster and faster and dey gits warmed up and moans and shouts and claps and dances. Some gits 'xhausted and drops out and de ring gits closer. Sometimes dey sings and shouts all night, but come break of day, de nigger got to git to he cabin. Old Marse got to tell dem de tasks of de day."
Silvia King, born in Morocco and enslaved in Texas, as transcribed by her interviewer, ca. 1936

"Tom Ashbie's [plantation owner] father went to one of the cabins late at night, the slaves were having a secret prayer meeting. He heard one slave ask God to change the heart of his master and deliver him from slavery so that he may enjoy freedom. Before the next day the man disappeared . . . When old man Ashbie died, just before he died he told the white Baptist minister, that he had killed Zeek for praying and that he was going to hell."
Rev. Silas Jackson, born a slave in 1846 or 1847 in Virginia, as transcribed by his interviewer, 1937

"[The plantation owner] would not permit them to hold religious meetings or any other kinds of meetings, but they frequently met in secret to conduct religious services. When they were caught, the 'instigators'—known or suspected—were severely flogged. Charlotte recalls how her oldest brother was whipped to death for taking part in one of the religious ceremonies. This cruel act halted the secret religious services."
Charlotte Martin, born a slave in 1854 in Florida, as reported by her interviewer, 1936

"On Sundays the slaves were permitted to have a religious meeting of their own. This usually took place in the backyard or in a building dedicated for this purpose. They sang spirituals which gave vent to their true feelings. Many of these songs are sung today. There was one person who did the preaching. His sermon was always built according to the master's instructions which were that slaves must always remember that they belonged to their masters and were intended to lead a life of loyal servitude. None of the slaves believed this, although they pretended to believe because of the presence of the white overseer. If this overseer was absent sometimes and the preacher varied in the text of his sermon, that is, if he preached exactly what he thought and felt, he was given a sound whipping."
William Ward, born a slave in the early 1830s in Georgia, as reported by her interviewer, ca. 1936

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