Religion and slavery were mutually supportive pillars that significantly shaped the culture of antebellum Mississippi. From its introduction in the eighteenth century until the maturation of Mississippi’s antebellum slave-based society, slavery gained moral sanction from the religious beliefs held by its dominant white inhabitants. In turn, slavery’s economic, social, and political significance for Mississippians forced the state’s religious leaders and laypersons to structure their teachings and practices to meet the stringent demands of the Old South’s peculiar institution. The seamless connection between religion and slavery ultimately helped create separate religious identities for Mississippi’s white and African American populations.
Religious beliefs were no impediment to the introduction of slavery in Mississippi. Neither the settlers nor the governments of Catholic colonial powers France and Spain hesitated to import enslaved Africans and African Americans to meet labor needs, and the Protestant-dominated United States followed suit. As a general rule, Mississippi’s earliest Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders viewed slavery as a civil institution that lay outside their ecclesiastical authority. Christians and Jews who questioned the righteousness of slavery quickly found themselves reminded that the ancient Israelites held slaves and that Jesus Christ never offered any specific opposition to the institution. In fact, proslavery Christians found in the apostle Paul a helpful ally in their attempt to justify slavery. In Ephesians of the New Testament, Paul not only did not condemn slavery but in fact called on slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart just as you would obey Christ.” Accordingly, Mississippi’s religious leaders overwhelmingly focused on limiting the abuse of slaves as fellow children of God rather than challenging the legitimacy of human bondage. Such motivation is clear in the Mississippi Baptist Association’s 1819 directive to masters: “Let not avarice nor an animal thirst for riches induce you to oppress your servant lest his groans, his sweat, and his blood ascend up to God as a witness against you.”
By the time of the Mississippi cotton boom of the 1830s, turn-of-the-century Southern Baptist and Methodist soul-searching over slavery had long come to an end. In fact, with the emergence of the abolition movement in the 1830s, any Mississippi minister who dared to question slavery’s legitimacy faced the very real possibility of losing his ministry and social status and possibly even his life. Mississippi Baptists and Methodists were so united in their support of slavery that they left their national denominational organizations to join regional equivalents when slavery became an irreconcilable issue. As a result of the state’s religious unanimity on slavery, Mississippi ministers such as J. B. Thrasher, William Winans, and James Smylie became outspoken, proslavery advocates able to offer sermons with titles such as “Slavery a Divine Institution.” Liberty Baptist Church of Amite County was so assured of slavery’s righteousness that in 1859 its members elected a “committee to purchase two slaves for the church.”
Mississippians’ religious attachment to slavery directly influenced how they practiced their faith. Moved by the Second Great Awakening, southern evangelical Christians, the most numerous of the region’s religious adherents, actively proselytized among the South’s enslaved population. As early as 1815 the Mississippi Baptist Association encouraged ministers to “attend with the members of the African Church as often as they can.” Likewise, by the 1830s Mississippi Methodists had established numerous and growing missions among the slaves. A growing African American presence within Mississippi’s churches meant that religious services changed to address the racial etiquette slavery required to meet the varied needs of those attending. Segregated seating was the norm, with slaves typically sitting either in rear pews or in second-floor galleries and receiving communion after all whites had been served. Ministers and religious masters adopted specially written catechisms to orally instruct slaves, forbidden from learning to read the Bible, in the tenets of their faith. Ministers, ever watched by the public, often provided two sermons each Sunday, one for whites and another for slaves. Rather than lose access to the slaves, most southern ministers willingly constructed a slave‑specific version of the Gospel that emphasized otherworldly salvation in exchange for moral behavior and earthly obedience to whites. Accordingly, sermons for African Americans drew heavily on Paul’s admonitions to slaves and from their perspective often amounted to nothing more than “Mind yo mistress. Don’t steal der potatoes; don’t lie bout nothin’ an don’ talk back tuh yo boss; ifn yo does yo’ll be tied tuh a tree an stripped necked. When dey tell yuh tuh do somethin’ run an do hit.”
Despite the obvious inequities slaves faced in southern churches, many African Americans converted to Christianity. For example, by 1860 12,684 of Mississippi’s 37,976 Methodists were African American. This small but devoted segment of the southern African American population took the faith offered them and made it their own by blending aspects of African traditional religions with the elements of Christianity that had relevance for their lives. The resultant Afro-Christianity gave these believers spiritual relief from the everyday pain of slavery and hope for a better world to come. Most slave Christians also believed that God would ultimately provide them with earthly freedom when the time was right. Identifying themselves with the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, African American slaves regularly but quietly prophesied about and prayed for the day when God would break the shackles of bondage and set his righteous people free. When that anticipated deliverance arrived, slave Christians stood as a people justified in their faith and served as the greatest testament of their God’s power. The Christian core’s faithfulness and accuracy in anticipating emancipation thereby attracted ever greater numbers of former slaves to Christianity. Freedom proved the greatest force for conversion among African Americans in Mississippi and the South.
- Albert E. Casey, Amite County, Mississippi, 1699–1865, vol. 1 (1948)
- John G. Jones, A Complete History of Methodism as Connected with the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1887)
- Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi, vol. 1 (1973)
- Randall Miller and Jon Wakelyn, eds., Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture (1983)
- Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (rev. ed., 2004)
- Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (1993)
- Randy Sparks, in Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870, ed. John Boles (1989)