Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 1. Enslaved People Create the Invisible Church as a Form of Resistance



Hello! My name is Eleesha, and in this video you will learn, about some of the African religious traditions that survived the oppression of slavery. You’ll also learn about how the First and Second Great Awakenings exposed enslaved people to evangelical Christianity. Many who adopted this form of Christianity secretly practiced it on plantations. Scholars call this practice the Invisible Church. This was a form of resistance.

Elements of African Religions Survived Among Enslaved People Throughout Generations

The voyage across the Atlantic on slave ships is known as the Middle Passage. This was an agonizing experience where about 1/3 of Africans trapped on the ships died. Some scholars have argued the trauma of this experience wiped out traditional African culture and when these victims of the slave trade arrived in the American colonies, they were blank slates. This simply was not true. We have found evidence of African religious practices in colonial America. This evidence can be seen in how some enslaved people dressed and how they worshipped.

In many traditional African religions and in Islam, hats, turbans, and headwraps are worn as an outward sign of faith. For example, Omar ibn Said was a devout Muslim. He was captured in 1831 in modern-day Senegal, brought to South Carolina, and enslaved until his death in 1864. He wore a white turban to signify his faith and prayed morning, noon, and night. While some masters provided rough and demeaning clothing for their slaves, many of the enslaved whenever possible would wear traditional robes, hats, or head wraps as a sign of their faith.

There was great diversity among traditional African religions and many shared a belief in the power of the human voice and dance. Singing and dancing were considered prayerful expressions. As enslaved people in colonial America embraced Christianity, singing and dancing became part of their Christian worship.

In the New World, this singing and dancing became known as the “ring shout”. This was different than everyday dancing. “Shouters” could not cross their feet, and the circle only moved counterclockwise. Some scholars believe that the ring shout descended from the Islamic word shaw’t, which means to circle the sacred Ka’bah at Mecca counterclockwise. The joy of dancing and singing the ring shout would eventually develop into energetic, and life-affirming modern day gospel music.

Enslaved People Begin to Practice Their Own Form of Christianity Different From Their Enslavers as a Form of Resistance

While many enslaved people embraced Christianity during the religious revivals of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, even more were drawn to it in large numbers during the Second Great Awakening, which ran from  1795 to 1835. Many enslaved people saw in evangelical Christianity a sense of power, personhood, and dignity they were denied in their everyday lives. 

The Christianity enslaved people practiced usually looked different than the Christianity of their enslavers. Enslavers sometimes arranged for Christian church services among their enslaved people where preachers quoted Bible passages about obedience and submissiveness to masters. When enslaved people gathered without the presence of their enslavers, they often focused on the Biblical exodus story where Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. They also emphasized messages of redemption from suffering.

While powerful churches like the Church of England emphasized priestly authority and scriptural sermons, evangelical Christianity emphasized feelings of the heart. This resonated with many enslaved people because traditional African religions also emphasized experiences of the heart and did not rely on prepared sermons from scripture.

Many powerful planters considered evangelical Christianity radical because it brought together men and women, both white and black, on more equal terms. It taught that all humankind were children of God with access to the Holy Spirit. It emphasized human dignity of the individual.  Evangelical meetings were often held in the forest where congregants sang, shouted, and preached. Anyone could discuss their faith, not only the preacher. d

Invisible Church

As more enslaved people embraced evangelical Christianity, they created what scholars now call the Invisible Church. The Invisible Church was a form of resistance that undermined the power of the master/slave relationship. It empowered enslaved people to hold to their dignity while they faced the gruesome realities of enslavement. It was called the Invisible Church because enslaved people gathered in secret where their enslavers could not see them. These secret gatherings were hold deep in the swamps and woods to avoid detection. At these gatherings, enslaved people worshipped by sharing sermons emphasizing suffering, redemption, deliverance and freedom. 

Members of the Free Black community often led these gatherings and inspired enslaved people with hope of freedom. Free Blacks were people of color who were not enslaved. They either were able to purchase their own freedom or were descended from parents who were not enslaved. These leaders were often able to read and could preach inspiring messages drawn from Bible passages. These meetings often combined African religious traditions with evangelical Christianity. Worshippers gathered around an inverted iron pot to capture the sound of fervent preaching, praying, and singing.

For meetings of the Invisible Church, congregants harvested wild game or pigs from the plantation and roasted them over hot coals in a pit. This prevented smoke from rising in the air and revealing their location.  Some scholars believe that this is the origin of the southern tradition of barbecue.

These secret meetings gave personal power and hope to the enslaved congregants. It strengthened them to endure the daily trauma and oppression of slavery.


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Questions: Check for Understanding

Answer these questions on your own paper. 

  1. What are some examples of African religious traditions found among enslaved people? 
  2. What are some ways the religious freedom of enslaved people was suppressed under slavery?
  3. What was the Invisible Church? 
  4. What are some ways that enslaved people who participated in the Invisible Church began reclaiming their religious freedom?
Lesson I. Step 1 of 7


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