Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 2. Colonial Social Hierarchy



In this video, you’ll learn about how American colonial society adapted European ideas about social ordering. It was accepted as normal to use physical force on humans considered to be in the lower orders of society. The American Revolution introduced the idea of social equality in American society.

Social Hierarchy in British Colonial America

American colonial society adapted European ideas about social ordering, which was organized as an hierarchy. You can think of hierarchy like a ladder with the people who society considered the most important at the top and the people who society considered the least important at the bottom. Then everyone else was in between. Royalty were held as the most important. They had the most rights. Slaves were considered the least important in society. They were treated as if they had no rights.

Physical Punishment and Social Hierarchy

In many ways [the British American colonies] were a world…that took for granted natural human inequality and the routine use of force necessary to maintain it”(Kolchin, American Slavery, 7). 

It was common to use physical punishments to keep people in their place on society’s ladder and to maintain order. Village worthies could use whips on the poor and the master of the household could use whips on anyone in his household, including his wife.   In short, it was a world that believed it was right for those on the top of the hierarchy to use physical punishments on those at the low end of the ladder. It was a world that believed it was normal and acceptable to force labor from those at the bottom of society. In this environment, very few people questioned slavery. 

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Questions: Check for Understanding

Answer these questions below on your own paper. 

  1. In the hierarchy of colonial American society, or the social ladder, who was held at the top as the most important and who was held at the bottom as the least important?
  2. In colonial American society, who could use physical punishments on others without any social consequences? 
Lesson I. Step 2 of 5


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