(This Post originally appeared on 2/20/09 when the U.S. was observing the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Some links have been updated and a few typos corrected.)
No doubt there were slaveholders in the Old South who were genuine Christians. This was acknowledged by Frederick Douglass who mentioned a few in his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. However, some Christians today have been led to believe that because the modern South is the location of America's "Bible Belt", that the Old South was predominantly a Christian land fighting to preserve its religious heritage of true Christianity from the dominance of the "Godless" North. Many Christians view American slavery in a benign light because many slaveholders claimed to be disciples of Christ. Yet the testimony of former slaves, many of them who were Christians themselves, paints a far different picture. The main purpose behind most religious instruction given to slaves was to make them accept their slave status, to do their assigned tasks without complaining (even though their labor and living conditions reduced a male slave's lifespan to 29 years), and to think that to disobey an order or to desire freedom was sin. It is interesting that when slaves were allowed to marry, the charge by the preacher that "...those whom God has joined together, let no man split asunder..." was omitted. This made it more convenient for masters to split families apart to make a profit. When the slaves wished to worship as they felt led, they had to do so secretly, often in wooded areas surrounding the plantations. It was in these secret worship meetings where many of the African American Spirituals came to be.
The following is an excerpt from Douglas's "Narrative" which paints a more accurate picture of religion in the Old South:
"In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bayside, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged in a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied on his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slave holding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter. His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls. His house was the preachers' home. They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them. We have had three or four preachers there at a time. The names of those who used to come most frequently while I lived there, were Mr. Storks, Mr. Ewery, Mr. Humphrey, and Mr. Hickey. I have also seen Mr. George Cookman at our house. We slaves loved Mr. Cookman. We believed him to be a good man. We thought him instrumental in getting Mr. Samuel Harrison, a very rich slaveholder, to emancipate his slaves; and by some means got the impression that he was laboring to effect the emancipation of all slaves. When he was at our house, we were called into prayers. When the others were there, we were sometimes called in and sometimes not. Mr. Cookman took more notice of us than either of the other ministers. He could not come among us without betraying his sympathy for us, and stupid as we were, we had the sagacity to see it.
While I lived with my master in St. Michael's, there was a white young man, a Mr. Wilson, who proposed to keep a Sabbath school for the instruction of such slaves as might be disposed to learn to read the New Testament. We met but three times, when Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders, with many others, came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again. Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael's.
I have said my Master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cow skin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm blood to drip; and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture--"He that knoweth his master's will, and does it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."
Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation, four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of the master's cruelty toward 'Henny' is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to the master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offense to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, 'set her adrift to take care of herself.' here was a recently converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them."
Douglass had escaped slavery nearly thirty years before it ended. During this time, if his old master, or a bounty hunter, had captured him, he could have been returned to slavery. After 1850, it was the law of the land that any northerner who gave shelter to an escaped slave was subject to fines and imprisonment. Douglass has already been quoted asking whether or not God will visit a land (judge it) for these things. The fact that Abraham Lincoln was not orthodox in his religious views, or the fact that many in the North were racist, does not alter the fact that they were used as divine instruments of deliverance. The Christianity of the old South was by in large a false one, an institution used as a pillar supporting the South's "Peculiar Institution." Most slaves were not treated any better because a master claimed to follow Christ. Here is more of Frederick Douglass on the subject:
"...Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,--a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,--a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,--and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have even found the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. They were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman's back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch. He used to hire hands. His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master's authority. Such was his theory, and such was his practice."
It is my purpose in sharing this testimony with you to highlight the greatness of Lincoln by examining the evil institution which he and those under his authority overthrew. Yes, Lincoln was slow in realizing that the North must act to free the slaves; it was two years into the war when he issued The Emancipation Proclamation. But once Lincoln decided on this course, he never wavered, even in the face of vehement opposition from some sections of the North. He imperiled his own reelection by standing firm on the issue of Emancipation.
To me, it is a miracle that these slaves who had an impossible task of learning the entire Word of God from masters who did not want them to know the whole Gospel, who were forbidden from learning to read God's Word, who had to worship in secret to worship freely, who underwent unspeakable cruelty in the name of the Gospel, these same slaves knew that their masters were not telling them what the Bible really said, and that their masters did not really live up to its commands. For them to be able to know there was a true Gospel, and a God that would hear and one day deliver them, is truly a miracle. In Part IV, Frederick Douglass contrasts real Christianity with the false one their master's proclaimed.