In this note, written seven years after Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia, Joseph D. Lee, a planter in Cumberland County, wrote to John T. Watkins, a Baptist minister at a local church, giving his permission for Amy, an enslaved woman, to join Watkins's congregation. The document is a testament to the attraction and the controversy over the influence of Protestantism, specifically the Baptist movement, among enslaved African Americans. Virginians, both black and white, were profoundly affected by the evangelical movement after 1790. Motivated by a belief in Christian brotherhood, white Baptists increasingly preached to and among African Americans, winning many converts. Scores of black and white Virginians, enslaved and free, worshipped together in Baptist and Methodist congregations during the next several decades. Enslaved African Americans particularly identified with the religious teachings of the Old Testament of the Bible through which they saw themselves as the "children of Israel," the Hebrew people, who suffered bondage in Egypt and were freed by God's intervention. Participation in Baptist congregations also allowed them the opportunity to exercise some authority as worship leaders, preacher, and exhorters. By 1850, black Baptists in Virginia outnumbered white Baptists, 44,832 to 42,377.
The increasing influence of Protestantism among enslaved African Americans in Virginia was not without controversy. Slave owners worried that ideas about spiritual equality and divine redemption would have a negative impact on their ability to control their enslaved workforce. Others were concerned because of the liberty granted to enslaved African Americans to travel, gather, and worship independent of white governance. To address these fears, some preachers, sometimes by their own choice but often by external pressures, tailored their sermons to enslaved congregants to emphasize hard work and encourage obedient servitude.
All of this changed after Nat Turner's Rebellion on August 22 and 23, 1831, in Southampton County, an uprising of enslaved blacks that left at least fifty-five white people dead and produced a reaction in which white people killed an unknown but probably larger number of black people. At the center of the controversy was the fact that Turner was not only literate but was also reportedly a Baptist preacher who claimed to be a prophet. White leaders in Virginia viewed this claim as the foundation of the trouble and sought ways to exercise more control over African American religious practices. Shortly before Turner's Rebellion the Virginia General Assembly passed a law forbidding the assembling of African American people for the purpose of teaching them to read or write, and after the rebellion it passed laws outlawing religious gatherings or preaching among African Americans, free and enslaved, unless supervised by white ministers.
White Baptist leaders and congregations also took action to curtail the perceived problem of too-permissive practices within the church. Some established special segregated areas, bounded by railings, or even balconies at the rear of the church, for their African American members. They also began to limit the status and authority blacks exercised as a part of the church body. Many congregations, as in Amy's case, began to require enslaved African Americans to present written permission from their owners before they could be baptized or accepted for membership.
1. Why did Amy need a permission slip to join a church?
2. What steps did white Virginians take to regulate African American religion in reaction to Nat Turner's Rebellion?
1. What were the differences in how enslaved African Americans interpreted the Bible and Christianity, and how their owners wanted them to?
2. What are slave codes? Why were they created? Discuss the scope and intent of slave codes that were passed in Virginia and the Deep South.
Scully, Randolph Ferguson. Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740–1840. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Irons, Charles F. The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Akinyela, Makungu M.,"Battling the Serpent: Nat Turner, Africanized Christianity, and a Black Ethos" Journal of Black Studies 33, no. 3 (January, 2003): 255–280.