Black Christianity Before the Civil War: Did You Know?

She’d Be A-Prayin’

My mother, all de time she’d be prayin’ to de Lord. She’d take us chillun to de woods to pick up firewood, and we’d turn around to see her down on her knees behind a stump, a-prayin.’ We’d see her wipin’ her eyes wid de corner of her apron—first one eye, den de other—as we come along back. Den, back in de house, down on her knees, she’d be a—prayin.’

—Rebecca Grant

Good Bye, Child

While traveling in Delaware, a child of a slave was sold: As the colored woman was ordered to take it away, I heard Fannie Woods cry, “O God, I would rather hear the clods fall on the coffin lid of my child than to hear its cries because it is taken away from me.” She said, “Good bye, Child.”

We were ordered to move on, and could hear the crying of the child in the distance as it was borne away by the other woman, and I could hear the deep sobs of a broken hearted mother. We could hear the groans of many as they prayed for God to have mercy upon us and give us grace to endure the hard trials through which we must pass.

—Fannie Woods

Welcoming the Baby

Whenever white folks had a baby born, den all de old niggers had to come th'ough the room, and the master would be over ‘hind the bed, and he’d say, “Here’s a new little mistress or master you got to work for.” You had to say, “Yessuh, Master,” and bow real low, or the overseer would crack you.

—Harriet Robinson

Religion With Filling

That religion I got in them way—back days is still with me. And it ain’t this pie-crust religion, such as the folks are getting these days. The old-time religion had some filling between the crusts.

—Prince Bee

Turning Loose

On Sundays, us would git tergether in de woods an’ have worship. Us could go to de white folks’ church, but us wanted ter go whar us could sing all de way through, an’ hum ‘long, and shout—you all know, jist turn loose lak.

—Emily Dixon

Bloodied Prayer

One night Joe an’ my mammy an’ some more slave wus down on deir knees prayin’ fur de good Lord to sot dem free, an’ Frances [a house slave] wus slippin’ round de corner uf de house an’ heard what dey was sayin.’ An’ she goes back to de house an’ tells de old marse [master], an’ he sont [sent] de oberseer down dar an’ brung ebery one uf dem to de stake, an’ tied dem, an’ whupped dem so hard dat blood come from some uf dem’s backs.

—July Halfen

Revealed Freedom

I've heard ‘em pray for freedom. I thought it was foolishness, then, but the old time folks always felt they was to be free. It must have been something ‘vealed [revealed] unto ‘em.

—Anonymous

Resources:

Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom, edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, is the Library of Congress’s companion volume to the Smithsonian Institution’s radio documentary by the same name. The book contains the complete transcripts of interviews with former slaves (some of which you can hear on the radio production—tapes are available).

In 1998, PBS ran an excellent documentary titled Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. It’s truly one of the best (if not the best) video series on the topic we've ever seen, and dedicates a lot of time to the role Christianity played in the slaves’ lives as well as to the stories of black Christians in the North (like Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church). The four-part documentary is now available in a book, by the same title, which weaves together primary source documents, short stories (by renowned author Charles Johnson), and narratives and comes up with one of the most innovative book formats we've seen. It’s incredibly riveting, too. And one cannot overly praise the series’ companion website, either (more on that below).

Africans in America. The narrative is informative, but its true strength lies in its “resource bank,” which includes one of the best—ever collections of images and primary—source documents. There’s also an excellent teacher’s guide. I can’t count how many times we visited this site while researching this issue.

Slave narratives abound on the Web, and some of the sites are truly excellent:

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology contains some of the interviews the Works Progress Administration took with of more than 2,300 former slaves, and includes photos of several of the interviewees.

Other interviews with former slaves, taken in the 1920s and ‘30s, can be heard at North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920, which plans to include, for the first time in one place, “all the narratives of fugitive and former slaves published in broadsides, pamphlets, or book form in English up to 1920.” In fact, its plans are even broader than that, as it also includes biographies of former slaves published during the same period.

Other slave narratives are available at Duke University’s narratives, including a section regarding slave religion, are also available. And an anonymous The African-American Mosaic Exhibition. Unfortunately, its four main areas—Colonization, Abolition, Migrations, and the WPA—seems limiting.

If you like your history listened—to rather than read, check out National Public Radio’s site complementing PBS’s Africans in America. Here you’ll find stories and programs NPR ran about the history of slavery in America around the time the documentary aired in 1998.

To see what PBS is doing these days regarding African-American history as well as other great resources on the topic, check out its site

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #62 in 1999]

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