Religion and American Slavery
Lesson IV. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth
Step 1. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion
In this video, you will learn about how religion motivated some of the leading Black abolitionists during the Antebellum period in American history. While you may have heard of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, you may not realize religion was a key part of their efforts to free their people. Through their stories, we will explore how religious freedom was constrained, understand the abolitionists’ sense of responsibility towards their communities, and discuss the importance of civil dialogue.
Nat Turner was born into slavery. He was deeply religious and raised with both African and Christian religious influences. He became an admired and respected preacher in his community in Southampton County, Virginia. He escaped slavery, but believed God told him to return and serve his fellow slaves. He felt deeply troubled by the lack of religious freedom available to slaves and believed the slaveholders were denying the community the ability to practice religion in their own way. For him, he was not able to honor his African and Christian roots. After seeing a series of visions, Turner believed he was chosen by God to lead a rebellion against the slave masters. In 1831, he and about fifty other slaves escaped in the night and caused a great panic by killing 51 white people. Turner’s rebellion was one of the largest slave insurrections in the early 19th century America. It left a great impact on the country. Laws and pro-slavery vigilantes thereafter continued to restrict religious freedom and endanger the Black community. Because Nat Turner was literate, the state legislature passed laws prohibiting teaching slaves to read. Also because Nat Turner had been a popular preacher, the state legislature passed laws preventing slaves from gathering in worship services unless white ministers were present.
Denmark Vesey was born into slavery. Even after being able to purchase his own freedom through a series of fortunate events, he still continued to struggle to liberate his community. He became a leader of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He read to his followers from the Bible about how the Israelites were delivered out of bondage in Egypt and believed the same could happen for the slaves of Charleston. Vesey recruited co-conspirators from his church for a plan to rebel. While the plan was discovered in 1822, shortly before it could be carried out, Vesey’s insurrection plot was still one of the largest America had seen to date. There were several pro-slavery responses to Vesey’s plot: a prohibition on teaching Black people to read was strongly enforced, talking about abolition was prohibited, free Black people were prohibited from entering South Carolina and incentivized to leave, and the Negro Seamen Act of 1823 was passed in the South Carolina legislature. This act was directly responsible for some of the federal and state tensions which resulted in the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. She was raised to have a strong faith in God. She felt a close relationship to God and talked to him as one might a friend. After hearing she was to be sold to a plantation in the South, Tubman determined she had a right to freedom or death. She was willing to struggle for freedom and trusted the Lord to guide her. She escaped slavery in 1849, but she soon returned to rescue a niece. For the next ten years, she worked with the Underground Railroad to free other relatives and slaves. Tubman believed it was her duty to lead as many of her people as possible from slavery to freedom like Moses did for the Israelites from Egypt. She returned to the South over 19 times and rescued an estimated 300-400 slaves–all with a bounty of $40,000 on her head. Because of efforts like hers, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed to force free states to return escaped slaves. Tubman thereafter had to take slaves all the way to Canada to ensure their freedom.
Sojourner Truth’s given name was Isabella Van Wagenen, and she was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. She escaped slavery in 1826 shortly before all adult slaves in New York were set to be freed. Her early religious influences came from her mother who taught her about morality and Protestantism intermixed with African spirituality. She was taught to talk with God, and this intimate relationship was the basis of her spirituality. After escaping slavery, she attended some Methodist services and sought to come to her own understanding about the Bible. After a series of amazing events occurred, Truth was convinced she had God’s favor. In 1843, Truth had a vision in the night that compelled her to change her name from Isabella Van Wagenen to Sojourner Truth and leave New York City to start preaching across the country. “Sojourner” came from her responsibility to travel throughout the land to see her people, and “Truth” came from her duty to declare the truth to her people. Overall, Truth’s love for Jesus was a main motivator behind her work. Her religious experience inspired her and gave her the tools to argue for abolition.
While parts of their stories can be compared and contrasted, on the whole, religion played an integral role for these four abolitionists. Some fought for their right to religious freedom because religion was constrained to what was approved by slaveholders. Religion intensified the responsibility they felt towards their communities and enabled big and small rebellious acts. And despite laws shaping public discourse about slavery, many still continued to speak out for abolition.