Read CHAPTER VIII of The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861, free online book, by Carter Godwin Woodson, on


Stung by the effective charge of the abolitionists that the reactionary legislation of the South consigned the Negroes to heathenism, slaveholders considering themselves Christians, felt that some semblance of the religious instruction of these degraded people should be devised. It was difficult, however, to figure out exactly how the teaching of religion to slaves could be made successful and at the same time square with the prohibitory measures of the South. For this reason many masters made no effort to find a way out of the predicament. Others with a higher sense of duty brought forward a scheme of oral instruction in Christian truth or of religion without letters. The word instruction thereafter signified among the southerners a procedure quite different from what the term meant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Negroes were taught to read and write that they might learn the truth for themselves.

Being aristocratic in its bearing, the Episcopal Church in the South early receded from the position of cultivating the minds of the colored people. As the richest slaveholders were Episcopalians, the clergy of that denomination could hardly carry out a policy which might prove prejudicial to the interests of their parishioners. Moreover, in their propaganda there was then nothing which required the training of Negroes to instruct themselves. As the qualifications of Episcopal ministers were rather high even for the education of the whites of that time, the blacks could not hope to be active churchmen. This Church, therefore, soon limited its work among the Negroes of the South to the mere verbal instruction of those who belonged to the local parishes. Furthermore, because this Church was not exceedingly militant, and certainly not missionary, it failed to grow rapidly. In most parts it suffered from the rise of the more popular Methodists and Baptists into the folds of which slaves followed their masters during the eighteenth century.

The adjustment of the Methodist and Baptist churches in the South to the new work among the darker people, however, was after the first quarter of the nineteenth century practically easy. Each of these denominations had once strenuously opposed slavery, the Methodists holding out longer than the Baptists. But the particularizing force of the institution soon became such that southern churches of these connections withdrew most of their objections to the system and, of course, did not find it difficult to abandon the idea of teaching Negroes to read. Moreover, only so far as it was necessary to prepare men to preach and exhort was there an urgent need for literary education among these plain and unassuming missionaries. They came, not emphasizing the observance of forms which required so much development of the intellect, but laying stress upon the quickening of man’s conscience and the regeneration of his soul. In the States, however, where the prohibitory laws were not so rigidly enforced, the instruction received in various ways from workers of these denominations often turned out to be more than religion without letters.

The Presbyterians found it more difficult to yield on this point. For decades they had been interested in the Negro race and had in 1818 reached the acme of antislavery sentiment. Synod after synod denounced the attitude of cruel masters toward their slaves and took steps to do legally all they could to provide religious instruction for the colored people. When public sentiment and reactionary legislation made the instruction of the Negroes of the South impracticable the Presbyterians of New York and New Jersey were active in devising schemes for the education of the colored people at points in the North. Then came the crisis of the prolonged abolition agitation which kept the Presbyterian Church in an excited state from 1818 to 1830 and resulted in the recession of that denomination from the position it had formerly taken against slavery. Yielding to the reactionaries in 1835, this noble sect which had established schools for Negroes, trained ambitious colored men for usefulness, and endeavored to fit them for the best civil and religious emoluments, thereafter became divided. The southern connection lost much of its interest in the dark race, and fell back on the policy of the verbal instruction and memory training of the blacks that they might never become thoroughly enlightened as to their condition.

Despite the fact that southern Methodists and Presbyterians generally ceased to have much anti-slavery ardor, there continued still in the western slave States and in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, a goodly number of these churchmen, who suffered no diminution of interest in the enlightenment of Negroes. In the States of Kentucky and Tennessee friends of the race were often left free to instruct them as they wished. Many of the people who settled those States came from the Scotch-Irish stock of the Appalachian Mountains, where early in the nineteenth century the blacks were in some cases treated as equals of the whites.

The Quakers, and many Catholics, however, were as effective as the mountaineers in elevating Negroes. They had for centuries labored to promote religion and education among their colored brethren. So earnest were these sects in working for the uplift of the Negro race that the reactionary movement failed to swerve them from their course. When the other churches adopted the policy of mere verbal training, the Quakers and Catholics adhered to their idea that the Negroes should be educated to grasp the meaning of the Christian religion just as they had been during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This favorable situation did not mean so much, however, since with the exception of the Catholics in Maryland and Louisiana and the Quakers in Pennsylvania, not many members of these sects lived in communities of a large colored population. Furthermore, they were denied access to the Negroes in most southern communities, even when they volunteered to work as missionaries among the colored people.

How difficult it was for these churchmen to carry out their policy of religion without letters may be best observed by viewing the conditions then obtaining. In most Southern States in which Negro preachers could not be deterred from their mission by public sentiment, they were prohibited by law from exhorting their fellows. The ground for such action was usually said to be incompetency and liability to abuse their office and influence to the injury of the laws and peace of the country. The elimination of the Christian teachers of the Negro race, and the prevention of the immigration of workers from the Northern States rendered the blacks helpless and dependent upon a few benevolent white ministers of the slave communities. During this period of unusual proselyting among the whites, these preachers could not minister to the needs of their own race. Besides, even when there was found a white clergyman who was willing to labor among these lowly people, he often knew little about the inner workings of their minds, and failing to enlighten their understanding, left them the victims of sinful habits, incident to the institution of slavery.

To a civilized man the result was alarming. The Church as an institution had ceased to be the means by which the Negroes of the South could be enlightened. The Sabbath-schools in which so many colored people there had learned to read and write had by 1834 restricted their work to oral instruction. In places where the blacks once had the privilege of getting an elementary education, only an inconceivable fraction of them could rise above illiteracy. Most of these were freedmen found in towns and cities. With the exception of a few slaves who were allowed the benefits of religious instruction, these despised beings were generally neglected and left to die like heathen. In 1840 there were in the South only fifteen colored Sabbath-schools, with an attendance of about 1459.

There had never been any regular daily instruction in Christian truths, but after this period only a few masters allowed field hands to attend family prayers. Some sections went beyond this point, prohibiting by public sentiment any and all kinds of religious instruction. In South Carolina a formal remonstrance signed by over 300 planters and citizens was presented to a Methodist preacher chosen by a conference of that State as a “cautious and discreet person" especially qualified to preach to slaves, and pledged to confine himself to verbal instruction. In Falmouth, Virginia, several white ladies began to meet on Sunday afternoons to teach Negro children the principles of the Christian religion. They were unable to continue their work a month before the local officials stopped them, although these women openly avowed that they did not intend to teach reading and writing. Thus the development of the religious education of the Negroes in certain parts of the South had been from literary instruction as a means of imparting Christian truth to the policy of oral indoctrination, and from this purely memory teaching to no education at all.

Thereafter the chief privilege allowed the slaves was to congregate for evening prayers conducted by themselves under the surveillance of a number of “discreet persons.” The leader chosen to conduct the services, would in some cases read a passage from the Scriptures and “line a hymn,” which the slaves took up in their turn and sang in a tune of their own suitable to the meter. In case they had present no one who could read, or the law forbade such an exercise, some exhorter among the slaves would be given an opportunity to address the people, basing his remarks as far as his intelligence allowed him on some memorized portion of the Bible. The rest of the evening would be devoted to individual prayers and the singing of favorite hymns, developed largely from the experience of slaves, who while bearing their burdens in the heat of the day had learned to sing away their troubles.

For this untenable position the slave States were so severely criticized by southern and northern friends of the colored people that the ministers of that section had to construct a more progressive policy. Yet whatever might be the arguments of the critics of the South to prove that the enlightenment of Negroes was not a danger, it was clear after the Southampton insurrection in 1831 that two factors in Negro education would for some time continue generally eliminated. These were reading matter and colored preachers.

Prominent among the southerners who endeavored to readjust their policy of enlightening the black population, were Bishop William Meade, Bishop William Capers, and Rev. C.C. Jones. Bishop Meade was a native of Virginia, long noted for its large element of benevolent slaveholders who never lost interest in their Negroes. He was fortunate in finishing his education at Princeton, so productive then of leaders who fought the institution of slavery. Immediately after his ordination in the Protestant Episcopal Church, Bishop Meade assumed the rôle of a reformer. He took up the cause of the colored people, devoting no little of his time to them when he was in Alexandria and Frederick in 1813 and 1814. He began by preaching to the Negroes on fifteen plantations, meeting them twice a day, and in one year reported the baptism of forty-eight colored children. Early a champion of the colonization of the Negroes, he was sent on a successful mission to Georgia in 1818 to secure the release of certain recaptured Africans who were about to be sold. Going and returning from the South he was active in establishing auxiliaries of the American Colonization Society. He helped to extend its sphere also into the Middle States and New-England.

Bishop Meade was a representative of certain of his fellow-churchmen who were passing through the transitory stage from the position of advocating the thorough education of Negroes to that of recommending mere verbal instruction. Agreeing at first with Rev. Thomas Bacon, Bishop Meade favored the literary training of Negroes, and advocated the extermination of slavery. Later in life he failed to urge his followers to emancipate their slaves, and did not entreat his congregation to teach them to read. He was then committed to the policy of only lessening their burden as much as possible without doing anything to destroy the institution. Thereafter he advocated the education and emancipation of the slaves only in connection with the scheme of colonization, to which he looked for a solution of these problems.

Wishing to give his views on the religious instruction of Negroes, the Bishop found in Rev. Thomas Bacon’s sermons that “every argument which was likely to convince and persuade was so forcibly exerted, and that every objection that could possibly be made, so fully answered, and in fine everything that ought to be said so well said, and the same things so happily confirmed ...” that it was deemed “best to refer the reader for the true nature and object of the book to the book itself." Bishop Meade had uppermost in his mind Bacon’s logical arraignment of those who neglected to teach their Negroes the Christian religion. Looking beyond the narrow circle of his own sect, the bishop invited the attention of all denominations to this subject in which they were “equally concerned.” He especially besought “the ministers of the gospel to take it into serious consideration as a matter for which they also will have to give an account. Did not Christ,” said he, “die for these poor creatures as well as for any other, and is it not given in charge of the minister to gather his sheep into the fold?"

Another worker in this field was Bishop William Capers of the Methodist Episcopal Church of South Carolina. A southerner to the manner born, he did not share the zeal of the antislavery men who would educate Negroes as a preparation for manumission. Regarding the subject of abolition as one belonging to the State and entirely inappropriate to the Church, he denounced the principles of the religious abolitionists as originating in false philosophy. Capers endeavored to prove that the relation of slave and master is authorized by the Holy Scriptures. He was of the opinion, however, that certain abuses which might ensue, were immoralities to be prevented or punished by all proper means, both by the Church discipline and the civil law. Believing that the neglect of the spiritual needs of the slaves was a reflection on the slaveholders, he set out early in the thirties to stir up South Carolina to the duty of removing this stigma.

His plan of enlightening the blacks did not include literary instruction. His aim was to adapt the teaching of Christian truth to the condition of persons having a “humble intellect and a limited range of knowledge by means of constant and patient reiteration." The old Negroes were to look to preachers for the exposition of these principles while the children were to be turned over to catechists who would avail themselves of the opportunity of imparting these fundamentals to the young at the time their minds were in the plastic state. Yet all instructors and preachers to Negroes had to be careful to inculcate the performance of the duty of obedience to their masters as southerners found them stated in the Holy Scriptures. Any one who would hesitate to teach these principles of southern religion should not be employed to instruct slaves. The bishop was certain that such a one could not then be found among the preachers of the Methodist Episcopal Church of South Carolina.

Bishop Capers was the leading spirit in the movement instituted in that commonwealth about 1829 to establish missions to the slaves. So generally did he arouse the people to the performance of this duty that they not only allowed preachers access to their Negroes but requested that missionaries be sent to their plantations. Such petitions came from C.C. Pinckney, Charles Boring, and Lewis Morris. Two stations were established in 1829 and two additional ones in 1833. Thereafter the Church founded one or two others every year until 1847 when there were seventeen missions conducted by twenty-five preachers. At the death of Bishop Capers in 1855 the Methodists of South Carolina had twenty-six such establishments, which employed thirty-two preachers, ministering to 11,546 communicants of color. The missionary revenue raised by the local conference had increased from $300 to $25,000 a year.

The most striking example of this class of workers was the Rev. C.C. Jones, a minister of the Presbyterian Church. Educated at Princeton with men actually interested in the cause of the Negroes, and located in Georgia where he could study the situation as it was, Jones became not a theorist but a worker. He did not share the discussion of the question as to how to get rid of slavery. Accepting the institution as a fact, he endeavored to alleviate the sufferings of the unfortunates by the spiritual cultivation of their minds. He aimed, too, not to take into his scheme the solution of the whole problem but to appeal to a special class of slaves, those of the plantations who were left in the depths of ignorance as to the benefits of right living. In this respect he was like two of his contemporaries, Rev. Josiah Law of Georgia and Bishop Polk of Louisiana. Denouncing the policy of getting all one could out of the slaves and of giving back as little as possible, Jones undertook to show how their spiritual improvement would exterminate their ignorance, vulgarity, idleness, improvidence, and irreligion; Jones thought that if the circumstances of the Negroes were changed, they would equal, if not excel, the rest of the human family “in majesty of intellect, elegance of manners, purity of morals, and ardor of piety." He feared that white men might cherish a contempt for Negroes that would cause them to sink lower in the scale of intelligence, morality, and religion. Emphasizing the fact that as one class of society rises so will the other, Jones advocated the mingling of the classes together in churches, to create kindlier feelings among them, increase the tendency of the blacks to subordination, and promote in a higher degree their mental and religious improvement. He was sure that these benefits could never result from independent church organization.

Meeting the argument of those who feared the insubordination of Negroes, Jones thought that the gospel would do more for the obedience of slaves and the peace of the community than weapons of war. He asserted that the very effort of the masters to instruct their slaves created a strong bond of union between them and their masters. History, he believed, showed that the direct way of exposing the slaves to acts of insubordination was to leave them in ignorance and superstition to the care of their own religion. To disprove the falsity of the charge that literary instruction given in Neau’s school in New York was the cause of a rising of slaves in 1709, he produced evidence that it was due to their opposition to becoming Christians. The rebellions in South Carolina from 1730 to 1739, he maintained, were fomented by the Spaniards in St. Augustine. The upheaval in New York in 1741 was not due to any plot resulting from the instruction of Negroes in religion, but rather to a delusion on the part of the whites. The rebellions in Camden in 1816 and in Charleston in 1822 were not exceptions to the rule. He conceded that the Southampton Insurrection in Virginia in 1831 originated under the color of religion. It was pointed out, however, that this very act itself was a proof that Negroes left to work out their own salvation, had fallen victims to “ignorant and misguided teachers” like Nat Turner. Such undesirable leaders, thought he, would never have had the opportunity to do mischief, if the masters had taken it upon themselves to instruct their slaves. He asserted that no large number of slaves well instructed in the Christian religion and taken into the churches directed by white men had ever been found guilty of taking part in servile insurrections.

To meet the arguments of these reformers the slaveholders found among laymen and preachers able champions to defend the reactionary policy. Southerners who had not gone to the extreme in the prohibition of the instruction of Negroes felt more inclined to answer the critics of their radical neighbors. One of these defenders thought that the slaves should have some enlightenment but believed that the domestic element of the system of slavery in the Southern States afforded “adequate means” for the improvement, adapted to their condition and the circumstances of the country; and furnished “the natural, safe, and effectual means" of the intellectual and moral elevation of the Negro race. Another speaking more explicitly, said that the fact that the Negro is such per se carried with it the “inference or the necessity that his education the cultivation of his faculties, or the development of his intelligence, must be in harmony with itself.” In other words, “his instruction must be an entirely different thing from the training of the Caucasian,” in regard to whom “the term education had widely different significations.” For this reason these defenders believed that instead of giving the Negro systematic instruction he should be placed in the best position possible for the development of his imitative powers “to call into action that peculiar capacity for copying the habits, mental and moral, of the superior race." They referred to the facts that slaves still had plantation prayers and preaching by numerous members of their own race, some of whom could read and write, that they were frequently favored by their masters with services expressly for their instruction, that Sabbath-schools had been established for the benefit of the young, and finally that slaves were received into the churches which permitted them to hear the same gospel and praise the same God.

Seeing even in the policy of religious instruction nothing but danger to the position of the slave States, certain southerners opposed it under all circumstances. Some masters feared that verbal instruction would increase the desire of slaves to learn. Such teaching might develop into a progressive system of improvement, which, without any special effort in that direction, would follow in the natural order of things. Timorous persons believed that slaves thus favored would neglect their duties and embrace seasons of religious worship for originating and executing plans for insubordination and villainy. They thought, too, that missionaries from the free States would thereby be afforded an opportunity to come South and inculcate doctrines subversive of the interests and safety of that section. It would then be only a matter of time before the movement would receive such an impetus that it would dissolve the relations of society as then constituted and revolutionize the civil institutions of the South.

The black population of certain sections, however, was not reduced to heathenism. Although often threatening to execute the reactionary laws, many of which were never intended to be rigidly enforced, the southerners did not at once eliminate the Negro as a religious instructor. It was fortunate that a few Negroes who had learned the importance of early Christian training, organized among themselves local associations. These often appointed an old woman of the plantation to teach children too young to work in the fields, to say prayers, repeat a little catechism, and memorize a few hymns. But this looked too much like systematic instruction. In some States it was regarded as productive of evils destructive to southern society and was, therefore, discouraged or prohibited. To local associations organized by kindly slaveholders there was less opposition because the chief aim always was to restrain strangers and undesirable persons from coming South to incite the Negroes to servile insurrection. Two good examples of these local organizations were the ones found in Liberty and McIntosh counties, Georgia. The constitutions of these bodies provided that the instruction should be altogether oral, embracing the general principles of the Christian religion as understood by orthodox Christians.

Directing their efforts thereafter toward mere verbal teaching, religious workers depended upon the memory of the slave to retain sufficient of the truths and principles expounded to effect his conversion. Pamphlets, hymn books, and catechisms especially adapted to the work were written by churchmen, and placed in the hands of discreet missionaries acceptable to the slaveholders. Among other publications of this kind were Dr. Capers’s Short Catechism for the Use of Colored Members on Trial in the Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina; A Catechism to be Used by Teachers in the Religious Instruction of Persons of Color in the Episcopal Church of South Carolina; Dr. Palmer’s Cathechism; Rev. John Mine’s Catechism; and C.C. Jones’s Catechism of Scripture, Doctrine and Practice Designed for the Original Instruction of Colored People. Bishop Meade was once engaged in collecting such literature addressed particularly to slaves in their stations. These extracts were to be read to them on proper occasions by any member of the family.

Yet on the whole it can be safely stated that there were few societies formed in the South to give the Negroes religious and moral instruction. Only a few missionaries were exclusively devoted to work among them. In fact, after the reactionary period no propaganda of any southern church included anything which could be designated as systematic instruction of the Negroes. Even owners, who took care to feed, clothe, and lodge their slaves well and treated them humanely, often neglected to do anything to enlighten their understanding as to their responsibility to God.

Observing closely these conditions one would wonder little that many Negroes became low and degraded. The very institution of slavery itself produced shiftless, undependable beings, seeking relief whenever possible by giving the least and getting the most from their masters. When the slaves were cut off from the light of the gospel by the large plantation system, they began to exhibit such undesirable traits as insensibility of heart, lasciviousness, stealing, and lying. The cruelty of the “Christian” master to the slaves made the latter feel that such a practice was not altogether inhuman. Just as the white slave drivers developed into hopeless brutes by having human beings to abuse, so it turned out with certain Negroes in their treatment of animals and their fellow-creatures in bondage. If some Negroes were commanded not to commit adultery, such a prohibition did not extend to the slave women forced to have illicit relations with masters who sold their mulatto offspring as goods and chattels. If the bondmen were taught not to steal the aim was to protect the supplies of the local plantation. Few masters raised any serious objection to the act of their half-starved slaves who at night crossed over to some neighboring plantation to secure food. Many white men made it their business to dispose of property stolen by Negroes.

In the strait in which most slaves were, they had to lie for protection. Living in an environment where the actions of almost any colored man were suspected as insurrectionary, Negroes were frequently called upon to tell what they knew and were sometimes forced to say what they did not know. Furthermore, to prevent the slaves from cooeperating to rise against their masters, they were often taught to mistreat and malign each other to keep alive a feeling of hatred. The bad traits of the American Negroes resulted then not from an instinct common to the natives of Africa, but from the institutions of the South and from the actual teaching of the slaves to be low and depraved that they might never develop sufficient strength to become a powerful element in society.

As this system operated to make the Negroes either nominal Christians or heathen, the anti-slavery men could not be silent. James G. Birney said that the slaveholding churches like indifferent observers, had watched the abasement of the Negroes to a plane of beasts without remonstrating with legislatures against the iniquitous measures. Moreover, because there was neither literary nor systematic oral instruction of the colored members of southern congregations, uniting with the Church made no change in the condition of the slaves. They were thrown back just as before among their old associates, subjected to corrupting influences, allowed to forego attendance at public worship on Sundays, and rarely encouraged to attend family prayers. In view of this state of affairs Birney was not surprised that it was only here and there that one could find a few slaves who had an intelligent view of Christianity or of a future life.

William E. Charming expressed his deep regret that the whole lot of the slave was fitted to keep his mind in childhood and bondage. To Channing it seemed shameful that, although the slave lived in a land of light, few beams found their way to his benighted understanding. He was given no books to excite his curiosity. His master provided for him no teacher but the driver who broke him almost in childhood to the servile tasks which were to fill up his life. Channing complained that when benevolence would approach the slave with instruction it was repelled. Not being allowed to be taught, the “voice which would speak to him as a man was put to silence.” For the lack of the privilege to learn the truth “his immortal spirit was systematically crushed despite the mandate of God to bring all men unto Him."

Discussing the report that slaves were taught religion, Channing rejoiced that any portion of them heard of that truth “which gives inward freedom." He thought, however, that this number was very small. Channing was certain that most slaves were still buried in heathen ignorance. But extensive as was this so-called religious instruction, he did not see how the teaching of the slave to be obedient to his master could exert much power in raising one to the divinity of man. How slavery which tends to debase the mind of the bondman could prepare it for spiritual truth, or how he could comprehend the essential principles of love on hearing it from the lips of his selfish and unjust owner, were questions which no defender of the system ever answered satisfactorily for Channing. Seeing then no hope for the elevation of the Negro as a slave, he became a more determined abolitionist.

William Jay, a son of the first Chief Justice of the United States, and an abolition preacher of the ardent type, later directed his attention to these conditions. The keeping of human beings in heathen ignorance by a people professing to reverence the obligation of Christianity seemed to him an unpardonable sin. He believed that the natural result of this “compromise of principle, this suppression of truth, this sacrifice to unanimity,” had been the adoption of expediency as a standard of right and wrong in the place of the revealed will of God. “Thus,” continued he, “good men and good Christians have been tempted by their zeal for the American Colonization Society to countenance opinions and practices inconsistent with justice and humanity." Jay charged to this disastrous policy of neglect the result that in 1835 only 245,000 of the 2,245,144 slaves had a saving knowledge of the religion of Christ. He deplored the fact that unhappily the evil influence of the reactionaries had not been confined to their own circles but had to a lamentable extent “vitiated the moral sense” of other communities. The proslavery leaders, he said, had reconciled public opinion to the continuance of slavery, and had aggravated those sinful prejudices which subjected the free blacks to insult and persecution and denied them the blessings of education and religious instruction.

Among the most daring of those who censured the South for its reactionary policy was Rev. John G. Fee, an abolition minister of the gospel of Kentucky. Seeing the inevitable result in States where public opinion and positive laws had made the education of Negroes impossible, Fee asserted that in preventing them from reading God’s Word and at the same time incorporating them into the Church as nominal Christians, the South had weakened the institution. Without the means to learn the principles of religion it was impossible for such an ignorant class to become efficient and useful members. Excoriating those who had kept their servants in ignorance to secure the perpetuity of the institution of slavery, Fee maintained that sealing up the mind of the slave, lest he should see his wrongs, was tantamount to cutting off the hand or foot in order to prevent his escape from forced and unwilling servitude. “If by our practice, our silence, or our sloth,” said he, “we perpetuate a system which paralyzes our hands when we attempt to convey to them the bread of life, and which inevitably consigns the great mass of them to unending perdition, can we be guiltless in the sight of Him who hath made us stewards of His grace? This is sinful. Said the Saviour: ’Woe unto you lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered."’