Religion and American Slavery

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Religion’s Impact on Shaping Colonial American Slavery

In Lesson I, you’ll come to understand how slavery developed in colonial America. Slavery was an ancient institution. The American innovation on the ancient institution of slavery was to enslave people with dark skin. This developed because it was easier to enslave Africans who looked different and could not easily escape home. 

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. 

Later, in the colonial American period, Christian ministers argued that it was acceptable to continue to enslave Africans and their descendants if they taught them Christianity. 

Enslaved African Muslims in America

In Lesson II, you’ll learn the stories of four African Muslims enslaved in America. These include Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Yarrow Mamout , Omar ibn Said, and Abdul Rahman. We know about these stories because of portraits made of each of them and some records that still exist. 

You’ll also learn about Salih Bilali, a West African Muslim born in 1790 who was kidnapped and enslaved on Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia. Interviewers were able to capture the memories of his descendants who remembered the Muslim practices on the island. 

Religious Influences on Tensions Leading to the Civil War

In Lesson III, you’ll learn that over time in the United States, more enslaved people began accepting Evangelical Christianity. As this community grew, many enslaved people secretly practiced this religion in their own way as a form of resistance.

You will also learn that westward expansion upset the balance in Congress between slave states and free states, which led to a sectional crisis. This sectional crisis split many national churches along Northern and Southern lines as the question of the morality of slavery intensified. Some preachers argued slavery was a sin while others argued it was ordained of God. 

This lesson ends with investigating religious arguments for and against slavery. 

Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion

In Lesson IV, you’ll compare and contrast the biographies of four Black  Abolitionists who lived in the Antebellum era, or the period leading up to the Civil War. These four were each motivated by their religion to free themselves and others in their community from slavery. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth all felt led by God to free themselves and others. However, they used different methods to pursue that goal. 

Religious Freedom and American Slavery

Watch Eleesha introduce these lessons about Religion and American Slavery


Hi there. I’m Eleesha and I’m the director of the Utah 3Rs Project. We teach students to be good citizens by learning about the religion clauses of the First Amendment. We want students to:

  •   Understand the right of conscience (or the right to follow what you believe is morally right)
  •   Feel a responsibility to protect that right in others and
  •   Respect the freedom to disagree.

One way we learn these competencies of citizenship is to learn about our nation’s history. We are especially interested in exploring how religion has shaped our individual and national stories. This includes learning about the early formation of our ideals about liberty, equality, and natural and civil rights.  It’s also important to learn about the parts of our history when we did not live up to our ideals of freedom for everyone. It’s by reflecting on the ways we have fallen short of our ideals in the past that we are inspired to make our American experiment in liberty a More Perfect Union today.

The freedom of religion is a natural right that everyone has because they are human. However, American society and government has not always protected this natural right for everyone. The institution of slavery suppressed the religious freedom of enslaved people. Yet they still expressed their religion in their own way as a form of resistance and as a way to keep their human dignity in the face of terrible oppression. This lesson explores the American story of ways religion was used to oppress enslaved people and the ways some enslaved people turned to religion to resist their oppression.

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Eleesha Tucker is a history and civics educator living in Utah. She loves history about colonial America, the American Revolution, U.S. Constitution, and Utah. She believes in the 3Rs for citizenship: Rights, Responsibility and Respect where every person has rights, everyone has the responsibility to protect the rights of others, and everyone has the duty to respectfully contribute to civic discourse. 


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