The Connection Between Religion and Slavery

Last year, I wrote about whether Christianity deserves the credit for abolishing slavery. I have some additional evidence on that topic I’d like to mention.

I just finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the autobiography of the great American abolitionist. Born a slave in antebellum Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read at a young age, in secret, and later escaped to the North and freedom. His account of his own life is an eloquent first-hand retelling of the cruelty, suffering and bigotry he saw and experienced in the world of slavery.

Douglass wasn’t an atheist. If anything, he was a Christian (though arguably only in the same sense that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, i.e., praising a purely theoretical form of Christianity, while denouncing Christianity as it was actually practiced as corrupt and laden with hypocrisy and immorality). This makes his own personal testimony on the close connection between religion and slavery all the more compelling:

In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged 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 to be 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 upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night.

…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 cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red 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 doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

When Douglass’ owner grew frustrated with his disobedience, he resolved to break his spirit by lending him out to another slaveholder renowned for his ability to terrify and torture slaves into obedience:

Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer. I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey… Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation… Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion — a pious soul — a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.”

Later in his autobiography, Douglass tells of yet another slaveholder, known for his cruelty, who was an actual Christian minister:

Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave. It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion — a mistake, accident, or want of power — are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it…. Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. There was not a man in the whole county, with whom the slaves who had the getting their own home, would not prefer to live, rather than with this Rev. Mr. Hopkins. And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals — more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family — that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer — than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.

Douglass sums up his experience as a slave as follows:

I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It’s not that all the religious people he met while enslaved were evil. He speaks of one preacher in particular who urged slaveholders to set their slaves free. The point is that, far from making everyone better, religion made the slaveholders worse. As Frederick Douglass put it, it gave them “religious sanction and support” for their cruelty: it convinced them that they had the right to buy and sell human beings, that God approved of their conduct and granted them license to oppress, abuse, and even murder their slaves.

And biblically speaking, they were correct. The Bible explicitly does permit slavery, and even commands slaves to be meek and obedient. To overthrow this foul institution, we had to ignore the immoral commands of the Bible – and for the sake of Frederick Douglass and millions of others, it’s a good thing that we did.

Erasing the Past, Denying the Future
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
How the Cross Is Like the Confederate Flag
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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