Essay, Research Paper
Religion as a Controlling Force During Slavery
The Turner Rebellion and Thomas Bacon s
Sermon to Maryland Slaves, 1749
During antebellum, religion, in many cases, was used as a tool to control people, an institution of empowerment. Preachers conformed individuals to their views simply by backing their message with either signs from God or the word of God, the Bible. Nat Turner and Thomas Bacon are two prime examples of preachers that did just this. Thomas Bacon oppressed slaves during the eighteenth century by preaching a comprehensive view of the slaves duties and responsibilities in the eyes of God.1 Nat Turner, on the other hand, preached a message of signs he had received from God in order to conform fellow slaves to rise up and rebel against their current position in society. In both cases, those preachers used religion as a means of empowerment.
Sermon to Maryland Slaves, 1749
Thomas Bacon was a preacher notorious for conforming slaves to think of themselves as creation of God placed on earth for a purpose. That purpose was to assist and work for masters and mistresses that provide for them. 2 In Bacon s Sermon to Maryland Slaves, 1749, he preached a message to black slaves to, basically, stay in line. Bacon begins his sermon by hyping himself up as a messenger, watchman, and steward of the great Lord. 3 This makes his audience of slaves look at him as not just a white man preaching his interpretation of the bible, but a divine individual preaching the word of the most powerful force in the world, God. Bacon then becomes friendly with his parishioners after he establishes his position of power by saying, my dear black brethren
1. Butler, Religion in American History, 74
and sisters, I beg that you will listen seriously to what I say. You all know what love and affection I have for you and I do believe that most of you have always found me ready to
serve you when you wanted my help. I doubt not therefore, that you will readily hearken to the Good Advice I shall now give you and, as you know me to be your friend and wellwisher, and hope you will remember it hereafter, and think upon it at home and talk it to your fellow servants that are not here, that they may receive advantage by it, as well as you, that hear it from my own mouth. 4 Since Bacon is on a friendly level with the audience he makes them believe that the message that they are about to receive is one of extreme importance. A message from a divine figure to people that this person has well wishes for?
Bacon paints the picture that the work the slaves are doing is work for God, not for the profit of their master. He then sermonizes that masters and mistresses are godsends; that the man that is in the field with a whip, cracking it over his slaves backs is a creation of God placed on this planet to take care of the men and women he is so wrongfully abusing. Bacon explains this to his congregation by telling them, That whatever good thing you do, though you be slaves, bound to serve masters and mistresses, here upon the earth, for the sake of bare maintenance; yet while you are doing what is right and good, you are at the same time, working for a just master in heaven. Bacon proceeds with his sermon He had sent your fathers and mothers, your masters and mistresses before you, to take care of you, and provide for you, while you could take not care of, or help, or provide for yourselves. He hath made Masters and Mistresses, for
4. Butler, Religion in American History 76
taking care of their children, and others that belong to them. 5 Bacon justifies this
section of his sermon simply by asking his congregation one lucid question, Can you think that almighty God would send you into the world for bad purposes? He (God) takes care of all. 6
Bacon then justifies why slaves were put in the position they are and virtually crushes any thoughts of a slave rebellion through the idea of damnation:
Almighty God hath been pleased to make you slaves here, and to give you nothing but labor and poverty in this world which you are obliged to submit to, as it is his will it shall be so. And think within yourselves what a terrible thing it would be, after all your labors and suffering in this life, to be burned in hell in the next; and after wearing out your bodies in service here, to go into a far worse slavery when this is over, and your poor souls be delivered over into possession of the Devil, to become his slaves forever in Hell, without any hope of getting free from it. If therefore, you would be God s freemen in heaven, you must strive to be good, and serve him on earth. 7
Bacon continues his sermon by dealing with problems that planters saw arising in their slaves. He deals with the obedience of slaves by stating, you are to be obedient and subject to your masters in all things. God requires this of you, that whatever your masters and mistresses order you to do, you must set about it immediately, and faithfully perform it, without any disrupting or grumbling and take care to please him in all things. And, for your encouragement, he tells you, that he will reward for it in heaven, because while you are honestly and faithfully doing your master s business here, you are serving the lord and master in heaven. 8 Bacon is almost tempting slaves with the notion of a better place in their next life if they accomplish the work of their masters and mistresses
5. Butler, Religion in American History
without any objection what so ever. Bacon continues to use religion as a way of justifying his request of submission by telling slaves they are doing the work of God.
Next Bacon deals with the laziness of slaves, what he calls eye-servants. He lets the slaves know that being lazy is a sin in the eyes of God: I am afraid that there are a great many eye-servants among you, and that you do not consider how great a sin it is to be so, and how severely God will punish you for it. You may easily deceive your owners, and make them have an opinion of you that you do not deserve. But remember, that you cannot deceive almighty God, who sees your wickedness and deceit, and punish you accordingly. 9
Bacon continues to preach, he commands that, you are to serve your masters with cheerfulness, and reverence, and humility. You are to do your masters service with good will, doing the will of God, from the heart, without any sauciness or answering again. Bacon concludes his sermon by summing up all of his preaching into one complete sentence, I have shown you, that while you are serving your masters and mistress, you are, at the same time serving God. 10
To understand how this sermon was used to empower slaves one must first understand the position slaves where in, where they came from and what they were accustomed to. In Africa slaves were typically prisoners of war.11 Although African slaves had to work the hardest they did have legal rights. Slaves received one day of rest
9. Butler, Religion in American History. 85
11. Berry, Long Memory. 2-3
and were allowed to labor in their own behalf for one to three days per week.12 Slaves were required to labor from sunrise until 2 in the afternoon, not from sunrise to sunset.13
The reason for slavery was economical. 14 In Africa, slaves were simply an extra hand helping with the daily chores of everyday life, but in America slaves were instruments of profit for slave owners. Slave owners, for the most part, were intelligent enough to realize that in order to maximize their investment in slaves they had to make sure that their slaves would simply work and do nothing but work.15 Thomas Bacon realized this. Bacon, wanting to Christianize the slave holding system of eighteenth century America, saw that the only way to accomplish this was to preach a message slave owners would want to hear and, in the eyes of slave owners, a message slaves needed to hear.16
Since slaveholders could control where their slaves could worship, it was only a logical decision to send them to a preacher that would, in return, keep their investments in line. Bacon would interpret the bible in various different forms to do this. He constantly referred to masters and mistresses as individuals sent from God to take care of their slaves. Problematic slaves were dealt with as well. Slaves were told they would become the Devil s slaves in their next life if they failed to comply with their master s and mistress every need. Bacon clearly uses the word of God to justify the slave system and he uses this extraordinary power, known as God, to empower slaves to live and work for their master, just work.
12. Berry, Long Memory. 4
14. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. 5
The Turner Rebellion
Like Bacon, Nat Turner used religion as institution to empower, but Nat was a prophet.16 Nat s African-born parents would read the marks on his head and breast confirming that he was a prophet who could recount tales of events before his birth and foretell the future.17 As a child, Nat provided signs that he was, in fact, a prophet. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge, There was nothing that I saw or heard to which my attention was not directed, a natural acquisition of literacy, I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet but to the astonishment of my family, one day when a book was shown to me to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects, and received special treatment from other children, They would often carry me with them when they were going on any roguery, to plan for them. 18
A few years before the 1831 rebellion, Nat began experiencing visions and inner voices. While laboring in the field one day the spirit spoke to him: Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added onto you. 19 He interpreted this as a sign that he now had an overseer. He foresaw things as well, I saw drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven- and I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens. And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me for as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended in the form of dew. 20
16. Berry, Long Memory. 10
17. Robinson, Black Movements in America 36
18. Turner, Confessions. 2
19. Robinson, Black Movements in America. 37
20. Turner, Confesions. 4
Nat began to see more visions, that foretold his purpose: I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened- the thunder rolled in the heavens, and the blood flowed in streams- and I heard a voice saying, Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely beat it. 21
Meanwhile, Nat preached to slaves and waited. The eclipse of the sun of 1831 was the final piece needed for him to carry out what his vision foretold.22 On August 22, 1831 sixty to eighty free blacks and slaves rose up to join Nat for two days as they annihilated Southampton, Virginia.23 Nat and his gang killed approximately fifty-five adults and children, all of slave holding classes.24 After the assault was completed the Navy, Federal troops, Virginia s militia and several mobs were mobilized. The disturbance was immediately quelled.25 Nat avoided capture for two months but eventually surrendered.26 Nat was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.27 While at the execution he refused to give the spectators the joy of seeing his pain and stayed stiff as a board throughout the entire ordeal, with no last words except, I am ready. 28
The results of Nat Turners rebellion can be looked at in two perspectives: political and its effects on slave s morality. After the rebellion the state legislatures banned the teaching of literacy to slaves, the possession of books, the preaching by slaves, and prayer by slaves, banishing anything that might fortify slave knowledge.29 One satisfied legislator from Virginia stated, We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by
21. Turner, Confessions. 5
22. Robinson, Black Movements in America. 37
23. Encarta CD ROM, Nat Turner
24. Robinson, Black Movements in America. 37
28. Encarta CD ROM, Nat Turner 29.
29. Robinson, Black Movements in America. 38
which light may enter their minds. 30 Even though legislation against slaves had been passed; moral victory for slaves was much greater than any law. Slaves now had a sense of self-worth.
Nat Turner took his visions and messages and preached them to slaves. He used religion as an instrument to justify the validity of his experiences with spirits. Since he was perceived as a prophet, the message he was preaching must have been the message of God? Through this message, Nat bound together over fifty individuals to accomplish a task of murder. A task that is not only a violation of the law of the United States but also a violation of the word of God, Thou shall not kill. 31 But Nat used his visions and messages as a way to empower and kill.
By using religion as an institution of empowerment one is able to accomplish virtually whatever task they decide upon. In the case of Thomas Bacon his task was to convert the slave system to Christianity.32 By preaching a message that God has created a specific role for slaves, Bacon convinces them that they are carrying out the work of both God and their master. Slaves are not going to rebel against God because God, in the eyes of Bacon, controls the destination of ones soul after they die. Nat Turner used his visions and messages sent to him from God to accomplish the task of. By preaching this to fellow slaves and free blacks Nat is able to rally together people ready and willing to break one of the ten commandments, based on his interpretations of various occurrences. Religion is a way for people to identify themselves with the extraordinary world. When preachers start interpreting the word or visions in order to conform others to their views, religion is used an institution of empowerment.
30. Robinson, Black Movements in America. 38
31. Drake, Laws Gods and Heroes. 33
32. Butler, Religion in American History. 74