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A Question of Faith

I’m in group four, the group looking at African American burial rituals from around the Civil War up until World War II, and part of what we’ve discussed researching is how religion played in to the burial rituals and what types of religion and religious practices African Americans found significant and meaningful during this time. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve been particularly attuned to the mentions of religion in what we’ve been reading so far this semester, both in terms of how enslaved people practiced religion and in terms of how their White owners forced religion on them while simultaneously using Christianity to justify their ownership of slaves. 

I noticed several instances of religion in the slave narratives we were asked to read for this week. One in particular which caught my eye as an example of White people misusing Christianity to benefit themselves in terms of slave control and ownership occurs in the narrative of Richard Caruthers, who describes how a White priest told his slave congregation, “The Lord say, don’t you [slaves] steal chickens from your missus. Don’t you steal YOUR MASTER’S hawgs.” I’ve read several narratives of slave life before taking this class and this is, disturbingly, not the first time I’ve seen Christianity’s principles warped in order to attempt to maintain and glorify White people’s supposed superiority. I obviously don’t want to appear too much like Galland and attempt to insert myself into a slave narrative, but I feel like if I were illiterate and had to rely on a priest’s word to tell me about the religion I was expected to subscribe to, and if according to this priest the religion not only justified my enslavement but encouraged my harsh treatment and directly accused me of stealing, I would be highly disinclined to have any real semblance of faith.  In fact, I’d probably be much more inclined to blow off the religion I was being sold altogether, since it seemed to have such a low opinion of me.

Going back to the slave narratives we’ve read for this week, in the narrative of James Jackson he mentions how church services funtioned on Sundays, saying, “Dey had a white preacher in de mornin’ and a cullud preacher in de evenin’.” I sadly don’t have quite as few hypothetical connections or significant thoughts about this quote beyond the fact that it seems strange to me that they would have two different preachers giving two different sermons on the same day, when, presumably, since they’re preaching the same religion their messages should be reasonably similar. Perhaps this again is an example of how White people were attempting to monitor the religious exposure their slaves received, as though through they were afraid to see the slaves actually think about and interpret Christianity and make it a personal experience. I’m really excited to see what I can uncover about slave religion and experience in my research and see how they may (or may not) have incorporated the religion being pressed upon them with their own systems of faith.

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  1. February 15, 2011 at 9:37 am

    I’m similarly excited to read about (and watch about) what you uncover in this arena — the manipulation of Christianity for various ends is very interesting and disturbing to me as well

    J.D. in our group is planning on going to visit a local historical church and interview some of the members and clergy if you’re interested in joining him/us on the fieldwork :]

  2. markcotham
    February 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    I am continually dismayed to see such numerous greedy manipulations of what I consider to be the Word of God. What is particularly sad is that the message of Christianity is salvation to anyone who seeks it (which is an attractive and beautiful message in and of itself) but greedy preachers frequently add restrictions on that salvation, requiring their congregations to bend to their will in order to “achieve” it. I still have trouble trying to understand how southern Christianity managed to justify such atrocities against fellow human beings.

  3. February 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    This is the same thing that really interested me, well kinda. Not so much the burial practices part, but I am curious to see how significant religion was during that time for African Americans. How much did they depend/lean on it? Anyways, as Katie stated, I will be going to the Wesley Chapel soon. It was the first Black church in Georgetown. Let me know if you or any group members would like to come along.

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