Religion and American Slavery
Lesson IV. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth
Step 3. Learn About Denmark Vesey
Denmark Vesey was born into slavery in 1767. In 1799, Vesey purchased a winning ticket in the city lottery in Charleston, South Carolina, and won enough money to be able to purchase his own freedom. Even after becoming free himself, he still struggled to free his community. He became a leader of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and started to teach about liberation in his sermons. He read to his followers from the Bible about how the Israelites were delivered out of bondage in Egypt. He actively contested the slaveholder’s interpretation of the Bible and how they misconstrued Christianity. Vesey studied the Bible in great detail to prove slavery was against its principles and that a violent uprising was justified.
Vesey recruited co-conspirators from his church for a plan to rebel, and before long, a large part of Charleston’s Black community was involved–some estimate between 6,600 and 9,000 slaves. These slaves had come from many different regions of Africa. In fact, some of Vesey’s closest associates utilized African traditions like conjuring, speaking with spirits, and predicting the future to strengthen the movement. 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 has seen to date. Vesey and five other leaders of the rebellion were put on trial and executed. Twenty-two more slaves were hung later for allegedly being involved.
“Religion…strengthened the community ethic of resistance that made large-scale slave rebellion possible.”
Quote from “African Religions in the Early South,” a published article by Jason Young.
“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”
Bible King James Version Exodus 21:16
The responses to these events were significant. Pro-slavery advocates started to engage in their own vigilante justice by harassing the Black community. The mayor called in federal military assistance given the still looming threat of rebellion. The Charleston City Council stated that slaves learning to read and write was unnecessary and incompatible with public safety. The city began to enforce a previous prohibition on teaching Black people, enslaved or free, to read–anyone found to have broken the rule could receive a heavy fine and up to fifty lashes. Talk of abolition itself was also prohibited, which significantly limited civil discourse on the subject.
Because Vesey was a free Black man, the legislature passed the Act for the Better Ordering of Negroes in 1822 which prohibited free Black people from entering South Carolina and incentivized current Black residents to leave. The legislature also passed the Negro Seamen Act of 1823, which required free Black seamen on ships coming into any South Carolina port be imprisoned at the expense of the ship’s captain until the ship was ready to leave. If the captain did not pay, the cost was recuperated by selling the free Black sailors into slavery. This act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Elkison v. Deliesseline (1823). However, officials continued to enforce the law citing a state’s responsibility and power to suppress insurrections. Identical laws were soon passed in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas leading up to the Civil War. Overall, the Vesey insurrection plot significantly contributed to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which was a show of state power versus federal power and led to the Civil War.
Denmark Vesey is Born
Vesey is born into slavery in St. Thomas, Danish West Indies.