Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South
By Albert J. Raboteau
One of the first things that attracted the African American slaves to Christianity was a way of obtaining the salvation of theirs souls based on the Christian’s idea of a future reward in heaven or punishment in hell, which did not exist in their primary religion. The religious principles inherited from Africa sought purely physical salvation and excluded the salvation of the soul. However, they did believe in one supreme God, which made it easier for them to assimilate Christianity.
Christianity provided African American slaves with hope, because although they were suffering as merely human instruments of work, God was watching them and all of theirs suffering would be rewarded by him. “Slavery, with all its disadvantages, gave the Negro race, by way of recompense, one great consolation, namely, the Christian religion and the hope and belief in a future life. The slave, to whom on this side of the grave the door to heaven, and that made his burden lighter. The hope and aspiration of the race in slavery fixed themselves on the vision of the resurrection.” They believed that by being passive and accepting all the humiliation and beatings from their masters, in the end, God would reward the slaves and punish their masters. The enormous number of conversions to Christianity among slaves during the First and Second Awakenings were important because it gave slaves hope and faith of some kind of divine rescue from all their suffering.
At the same time, although this question was never completely solved, many slaves would also get their freedom while getting baptized as Christians, given that many Christian slaveholders would not enslave their religious fellows. Although sometimes conversion would mean freedom, slaves did not tend to convert themselves in a hypocritical way; they did become religious people. During the Antebellum period and after the Civil War, black churches, not just in the North, but throughout the nation, offered African Americans refuge from oppression and focused on the spiritual, secular, and political concerns of the black community. Following emancipation, the church continued to exist at the center of black community life. With freedom, African-Americans rejected the second-class status they had been offered by white co-religionists and withdrew in large numbers from biracial congregations. Aided by the Freedmen's Bureau, freedmen and freedwomen pooled their resources to build greater numbers of independent black churches -- symbols of African-American demands for self-determination. According to another text, “…while fear of slave insurrection…