Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 3: Religion’s Impact on Shaping Colonial American Slavery



In this video, you’ll learn about how religion shaped American slavery in the early American colonies. We are talking about the 1600s, over 100 years before the American Revolution. You’ll learn about how European Christian ministers believed American planters corrupted Christianity to justify enslaving Africans.

Justifying the Enslavement of Africans

Religion was a powerful force in the lives of many early American colonists. For most colonists, the institution of the Christian Church organized their lives and shaped how they thought about their world. In the American colonies, Catholics and Protestants struggled with the impulse to teach what they believed was salvation through Christ and their desire to justify their enslavement of Africans. They told themselves it was acceptable to enslave humans if they were “heathen,” a degrading term for someone who was not of their own religion. Yet, at the same time, they blocked opportunity for enslaved people to learn Christianity.

When Christian clergy visited from Europe, they criticized American planters for not teaching Christianity to their enslaved human property. In the 1660s, Reverend Morgan Godwyn was one  clergyman from the Church of England who visited Virginia, was appalled the planters did not allow the people they enslaved to participate in the Christian faith. Godwyn believed, like other European clergy, that anyone could be Christian, regardless of origin. He believed the colonial experience had corrupted the planters’ understanding of Christianity. “In the New World, Godwyn found that planters believed enslaved blacks were inherently incapable of becoming Christian” (Goetz, 2). He published a pamphlet criticizing these views. As a result, the planters sent him away. American planters crafted these beliefs about the religious capacity of Africans to justify their enslavement and profit from their labor.

Read Transcript of Video Collapse

Questions: Check for Understanding

Answer these questions below on your own paper. 

  1. How did American planters justify enslaving Africans? 
  2. In 1660, why did Reverend Godwyn who was visiting from England believe the American planters corrupted Christianity? 
Lesson I. Step 3 of 5


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