Religion and American Slavery


These lessons explore the ways religion was used to oppress enslaved people in the Colonial American and Antebellum periods and the ways some enslaved people turned to religion to resist their oppression. First, the lessons explore the ways religion influenced the development of early American slavery. This knowledge lays the historical background for students to then explore the ways religious divisions over the morality of slavery contributed to tensions leading to the outbreak of the Civil War. They also include biographies of Enslaved African Muslims and Black Antebellum Abolitionists motivated by their religion.

The Utah 3Rs Project developed the lessons with the support of faculty and students at Utah Valley University.  The project teaches students to be good citizens by learning about the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Utah 3Rs want students to:

  • Understand the right of conscience;
  • Feel a responsibility to protect that right in others; and
  • Respect the freedom to disagree.

The project aspires for students to be champions in defending the religious freedom of everyone, even those who are different. With this in mind, the lessons include themes about religious freedom.  The freedom of religion is a natural right that everyone has because they are human. However, American society and government have not always protected this natural right for everyone. The institution of slavery suppressed the religious freedom of enslaved people.

The 3Rs Framework

The Utah 3Rs Project promotes the civic understanding of constitutional rights by using humanities education to promote the 3Rs of religious liberty: every person has Rights; we all have the Responsibility to protect the rights of others, including people who are different; and we all have the duty to be Respectful toward other people even when we disagree.

The Utah 3Rs Project is a civic education initiative that uses humanities scholarship to cultivate students’ knowledge about the origins and effects of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Our objective is to create a constitutional culture in Utah, whose residents respect and honor one another’s differences. This is especially critical in our current political moment as polarization increases and political attention for the marginalized has amplified.

Learning Objectives

By using Religion and American Slavery, students will:

  1. Understand that in the colonial American period, slavery was accepted as normal, and hardly anyone questioned it. There were social norms, including religion, that maintained slavery’s acceptance in society. 
  2. Explore the stories of African Muslims enslaved in America. 
  3. Investigate the ways some enslaved people used religion to resist their enslavement.
  4. Compare religious arguments supporting and opposing slavery, which contributed to tensions leading to the Civil War. 
  5. Explore the biographies of Black Antebellum abolitionists motivated by their religion to claim their own freedom and fight for the freedom of others in their community.

Lesson Summaries

Lesson I. Religion’s Impact on Shaping Colonial American Slavery

  1. Slavery is an ancient institution. For Europeans colonizing the American colonies, slavery was a normal and acceptable practice that was not questioned. Religion reinforced these social norms. 
  2. European social ordering was hierarchical, or like a ladder, with those held as the most important at the top and those held as the least important at the bottom. It was socially acceptable to use physical force to keep people in their place. 
  3. The American innovation on the ancient institution of slavery was to base slavery on skin color. This developed because it was easier to enslave Africans who looked different and could not easily escape home. 
  4. Early American colonial enslavers justified slavery of Africans because they were “heathen,” or non-Christian. However, at this time, the enslavers made no attempt to share Christianity with the people they enslaved. 
  5. Later, in the colonial American period, Christian ministers argued that it was acceptable to continue to enslave Africans and their descendants if planters taught them Christianity.

Lesson II. African Muslims Enslaved in America

  1. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was a Muslim man enslaved in colonial America. After years of enslavement, he was able to write a letter to his father, which was intercepted by a powerful English man who purchased his freedom. On his journey home to Guinea, he stopped in England where William Hoare, a famous English portraitist, painted his portrait. 
  2. Yarrow Mamout was a Muslim man captured in slavery in Guinea and sold to a planter in Maryland. His enslaver allowed him to earn money on the side. He was able to save and eventually purchase his freedom, the freedom of his son, and a home in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.. The famous portraitist of the American Revolution, Charles Willson Peale painted a well-known portrait of him. 
  3. Omar ibn Said was a Muslim man captured in a military conflict in Futa Toro and sold as a slave. He eventually lived in North Carolina. He is well known for writing his life story, which is the only known Arabic autobiography written by a slave in America. He lived to be 94 years old and was still enslaved at the time of his death in 1864.  An Ambrotype image, which is an early form of photography, exists of him. 
  4. Abdul Rahman was a Muslim man and military leader. The men in his army were ambushed, captured, and sold to a slave ship. He ended up enslaved on a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. He was freed twenty years later after an extended public relations campaign. He returned to West Africa with his wife and two of his eleven children but died soon after arrival. 
  5. Many enslaved Muslims lived on Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia during the American colonial period. Some of the descendants of these enslaved people still live on the island and remember stories of their great-grandparents and the ways they practiced their Muslim faith.

Lesson III. Religious Influences on Tensions Leading to the Civil War

  1. As the revivals of the First and Second Awakening spread, more enslaved people accepted Evangelical Christianity.  This led to enslaved people practicing their own form of Christianity in secret on plantations as a way to resist the oppression of slavery. Scholars call this the “Invisible Church.” 
  2. Westward expansion upset the delicate balance in Congress between slave states and free states, which caused a sectional crisis leading to the Civil War. 
  3. American Christian ministers usually avoided the topic of slavery, but as the sectional crisis intensified, many churches split as debates over the morality of slavery became fierce. 
  4. Americans made religious arguments in support of slavery and in opposition to slavery. Some argued that slavery was a sin, while others argued that slavery was ordained by God. 

Lesson IV. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by their Religion: Nat Tuner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojouner Truth 

  1. Nat Turner was an enslaved literate Christian preacher who escaped slavery. He believed God told him to return and free other slaves. He led a violent rebellion that killed at least 50 white people. He and his co-conspirators were hanged. As a result of the rebellion, the Virginia legislature passed laws further constraining the freedom of enslaved people.  
  2. Denmark Vesey was born into slavery but was able to purchase his freedom. He became a leader of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He believed God called him to organize a rebellion plot that involved up to 9,000 slaves and free Blacks. The plot was discovered and Vesey and his co-conspirators were killed. The South Carolina legislature then passed harsh laws constraining the freedom of enslaved and free Blacks. 
  3. Harriet Tubman escaped Maryland slavery in 1849 but soon returned to rescue her niece. Tubman believed it was her duty to lead as many of her people as possible from slavery to freedom as Moses did for the Israelites from Egypt.She believed God guided her as she led others to freedom. 
  4. Sojourner Truth escaped slavery in 1826 in New York. She practiced a mix of African spirituality and Protestantism. She believed she had a vision from God to travel and argue for abolition.

Ways to Use the Lessons

Option 1. Asynchronous Assignment. The lessons are designed for students grades 7 to 12 to use at their own pace. Assign the videos and interactives and ask them to send you written reflections on the discussion questions.

Option 2. Synchronous Exercises. Use a video conferencing platform to gather your students. Watch the videos and interact with the lessons together in real time. Use the discussion questions to engage and assess their learning.

Option 3. Hybrid Experience. Combine both asynchronous and synchronous learning. Start by assigning the videos and interactives as homework. Whether you gather your students in person or via a video conferencing, use the discussion questions to engage and assess their learning.

Option 4. Classroom Experience. Use a large screen in the classroom to show the  videos and use the discussion questions to engage them. Demonstrate on the large screen how to use the interactives as part of your in-person learning experience.

Utah Learning Standards

U.S. I Standard 2.4: Students will explain historic and modern regional differences that had their origins in the colonial period, such as the institution of slavery; patterns of life in urban and rural areas; differences between the French continental interior, Spanish southwest,and English northeast; and the location of manufacturing centers. 

U.S. I Standard 5.2: Students will identify the conditions that gave rise to, and evaluate the impact of, social and political reform movements such as Jacksonian Democracy, the women’s rights move

U.S. I Standard 7.1: Students will explain how slavery and other geographic, social, economic, and political differences between the North, South, and West led to the Civil War. 

U.S. II Standard 4.2: Students will use case studies involving African-American civil rights leaders and events to compare, contrast, and evaluate the effectiveness of various methods used to achieve reform, such as civil disobedience, legal strategies, and political organizing. 

U.S. GOV Standard 2.1: Students will use historic and modern case studies, including Supreme Court cases, amendment initiatives, and legislation to trace the application of civil liberties, civil rights, and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other amendments 

Teachers' Guide

Download Lesson Materials

Funders & Partners

The Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative at Utah Valley University funded the development of these lessons. The Foundation for Religious Literacy and 1791 provided e-learning support. 

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A logo of the 1971 Delegates organization

Humanities Scholars

Eleesha Tucker, M.A., the project director and history/civics educator, brings ten years of experience designing educational resources for educators. She is known for connecting the history of America’s founding to contemporary audiences. She is based in Utah.

Michael Goode, a professor of American and Atlantic World history at Utah Valley University specializing in religion and political culture, Native American history, slavery and abolition, and peace history.

Utah Valley University Research Assistants

Jenn Embry

AmyJo Jones

Morag Kawasaki

Natalie Williams


Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.