Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 4. Christian Reform of Slavery



In this video, you will learn that as the practice of enslaving Africans in colonial America became more established, Christian leaders began making the case for reforming slavery. Yet, most colonial Christian leaders did not argue to abolish slavery. They argued that enslaved people should be taught Christianity. Slavery was still accepted as part of the natural order of things.

Christian Reform of Slavery: American Slaves Can Become Christian and Stay Enslaved

As the enslavement of Africans became more established in colonial America, most enslavers did not want to teach the people they enslaved Christianity. They justified their enslavement of Africans because they were “heathen” or non-Christian. Over several generations, leading Christian leaders began to argue that enslavers should take on the responsibility of the spiritual lives of their human property. These leaders fought to accommodate slavery to Christianity. As enslavers pushed back on these Christian arguments, Christian ministers shifted to demonstrate the benefit to planters for teaching Christianity to slaves. They argued slaves who learned Christianity would become more docile and harder working than those who did not learn it.

George Fox, a leader of the Quaker movement, argued that the Christian gospel should be preached to every creature, regardless of station. In 1671, after visiting the Caribbean island of Barbados for three months and observing slavery in the sugar fields, he published a pamphlet titled Gospel Family-Order criticizing slavery for dividing families. He did not argue that slavery was wrong or it should end, but that families should stay united.

Cotton Mather was a leading New England Puritan clergyman who argued for teaching slaves Christianity, but he did not argue for their freedom.  In early 1700, he wrote that social hierarchy, or the social ladder where the important people were on top and the least important were on the bottom, was by natural design, writing, “there must be some who are to Command, and there must be some who are to Obey.” Mather went on to argue of those who were to obey, there were two kinds: indentured servants and slaves (Warren 229). Mather declared that it is permitted to command slaves and they must obey.  

These Christian leaders’ attitudes toward slavery represented normal societal beliefs. There was no questioning of the morality of slavery. They simply argued to begin taking responsibility for the spiritual lives of their enslaved laborers.

There was one Puritan leader who was the exception to this norm. Samuel Sewell was the chief justice of the highest court of Massachusetts and was famously known for apologizing for his role as a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. He is known as one of the first British Colonial Americans to argue for abolishing slavery. He argued for freedom based on his religious beliefs. In his pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph, a reference to Joseph of Egypt who was sold into slavery by his brothers, he argued that slaves are offspring of God and have an “equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life.”  However, Samuel Sewell failed to convince anyone of this interpretation of Christian scripture. Even Sewell’s own son continued to enslave people of African descent.

Slavery was an accepted practice in colonial America that hardly anyone questioned. At this time, the only changes happening to the practice were attempts to persuade planters to take on some responsibility in the spirituality of their enslaved property. There was no movement to abolish slavery.

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Questions: Check for Understanding

Answer these questions below on your own paper. 

  1. Why did enslavers push back on Christian ministers’ request to  teach slaves Christianity? 
  2. What did most Christian ministers argue would happen to slaves if they learned Christianity? 
Lesson I. Step 4 of 5


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