Resisting Enslavement through Religion

Matthew Rakowski


The central question of the following research is the degree to which African American slaves resisted their enslavement through religious practices. An examination of the ex-slave narratives from the Works Project Administration (WPA) will show that despite tremendous obstacles, including the threat of death, slaves formed a community in which religion was an integral part and provided a means for autonomy and resistance. According to Albert J. Raboteau, “Slave rebelliousness should not be thought of exclusively in terms of acts such as arson, sabotage, flight or revolt, for religion itself, in a very real sense, could be an act of rebelliousness.” This paper builds upon Raboteau’s work and recent scholarship on slave Christianity by Paul Harvey and Daniel L. Fountain. Whether through Christian religious practices, African rituals or a combination of the two, enslaved people used religion to resist the oppression of their masters. African rituals allowed slaves to retain their African identity-- an identity that made them separate and apart from the white masters. Unique prayer services, incorporating African traditions, “would annoy de white folks wid shouting and singing” according to the WPA narrative of former slave James Southall. These practices were alien to the white masters and in Southall’s words, annoying. It was here that the slaves constructed an identity outside their masters’ world. For decades the humanity of slaves was downplayed or even denied. It is important today to understand the methods they used to maintain their humanity -- Religion foremost among them.


African-American Slavery, Religion, Christianity

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