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Religion in Colonial Virginia

"A Torrent of Sacred Harmony"

"Sometimes when I have awaked about two or three a-clock in the morning, a torrent of sacred harmony pored into my chamber and carried my mind away to heaven."24

Samuel Davies strengthened his appeal to the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor with this account of his recent converts' piety in song. And the society responded enthusiastically to Davies' request by shipping off another batch of bibles, prayer books, and hymnals. But they were moved less by the musical enthusiasm of Davies' new Christians than their color and status. Davies' converts were slaves—and his work among them marked a turning point in the histories of American Christianity and slavery.

Religion in Tobacco Country

In order to appreciate the full significance of Davies' work, we need to back up a bit and look at the role of religion in Virginia prior to the arrival of Samuel Davies in 1747. In contrast to the centrality of religion to the founding of many northern colonies, religion was something of an afterthought in the tobacco-crazy Chesapeake. Even though there was an element of idealism within the colony's founding vision—that is, the Virginia Company hoped to provide new opportunities for England's poor and a more humane alternative to Spain's exploitive example in the New World—the naked pursuit of profit became the colony's driving ambition after the discovery of tobacco around 1617.

Therefore, even though the Anglican Church was established in the colony in 1632, it never was very powerful. Like the Anglican Church in England, it had certain judicial powers, and it was delegated many of the safety-net responsibilities that today we assign to the state—such as the care of orphans and the poor. Attendance in church was even required by law. But this law was rarely enforced. And therefore, beyond its charitable work the Church did not contribute much to the character of the colony or to the daily lives of Virginians. On most Sundays, farmers thought more about racing books and cockpits than about holy books and pulpits. And even when they did make their way to church, their focus was not particularly sharp. "Had a large congregation," one priest observed, "but according to custom, one half of them got drunk before they went home."25

One of the problems faced by the Church in Virginia was its weak ecclesiastical organization. As a branch of the hierarchically structured Church of England, the Virginia church was governed from London. Local needs and conditions were poorly understood. Even more problematic, the Church required that all priests be educated and ordained in England. Few Virginians were interested in pursuing so elaborate a career path, and even fewer English clergy were interested in trading a cozy English parish for the backwoods of the Chesapeake. As a result, there was a severe shortage of priests in Virginia—only 28 priests served a population of 140,000 in 1724. And parishes were unworkably huge—some were as large as 120 by 40 miles.26 Even among a deeply devoted people, attendance would have been poor and the influence of the clergy would have been strained. Among Virginians, pious by no stretch of the imagination, these structural difficulties left the church with virtually no influence.

One positive result of the Anglican Church's weakness was that dissenting sects found plenty of room to practice freely. The Quaker, Baptist, and Presbyterian immigrants to Virginia faced few restrictions on their worship. Their churches had to register with the local Anglican parish, no itinerant preaching was allowed, and weddings had to be performed by an Anglican priest. But beyond these requirements, dissenting sects were allowed to worship freely.

Virginia's religious character through the first third of the eighteenth century might therefore be characterized as loose, and its churches all but irrelevant. But by 1750, a religious earthquake had taken place which shook Virginia society on several levels.

The Great Awakening Comes to Virginia

The wave of religious enthusiasm known as the Great Awakening began in the northern colonies around 1740, and traveled to the South on the backs of itinerant preachers few years later. The most important of these was Samuel Davies. Originally from Delaware, he decided to take the new religion to Virginia in 1747, and in 1748 he moved there more permanently.

Davies, like other evangelical or "New Light" ministers, believed that the established churches had grown cold and sterile. Placing greater emphasis on the head than the heart, on formal doctrines rather than an individual's personal relationship with God, the old churches and the old ministers had lost sight of the true meaning of the gospel. New Lights preached a more vital, emotional religion; they encouraged sinners to examine their hearts for the evidence of their sin and God's saving grace. And they welcomed rather than discouraged the emotional outpourings that often accompanied this examination. Whereas older churches argued that the emotions could be a dangerous and misleading index of one's religious character, the new churches suggested that they could be a useful guide to one's spiritual state, and a legitimate part of religious experience. In addition, New Lights challenged the Arminian tendencies within the older churches—that is, their emphasis on good works rather than faith. New Lights argued that the established clergy had forgotten that only faith saved people from the degradation of original sin, and that human actions not blessed by grace could never win man his salvation.

These theological and doctrinal ideas sent shock waves through Virginia's social and religious establishment, for they challenged more than the details of religious experience. In arguing that authentic religion was about piety rather than knowledge, and about the intensity of one's religious feelings rather than the extent of one's theological training, these New Lights challenged the hierarchical premises of the entire society. If true religion lay in a man's heart, not in his head, then even the most common and uneducated of persons could claim equal religious authority. And if we were all born in sin, and saved only through the free grace of God, then society's most successful and most humble started life in the same wretched condition and escaped damnation only by traveling down the same spiritual path.

Revivalists turned Social Critics

Armed with a new definition of religious authority, New Lights moved on to a thorough critique of the existing order. Everything from dress to speech to entertainment came under the judgmental scrutiny of these new religious experts. Nor were they inhibited by traditional patterns of deference or social respect. They found fault with the loose, irreligious lifestyles of the wealthy planters just as readily as they criticized the vulgarity and licentiousness of the poor. Horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, drinking, dancing—these were all condemned by Virginia's newly minted religious authorities. And soon enough they tackled the biggest issue of all—they began to question slavery.

This challenge to slavery began somewhat indirectly. Ministers like Davies asked whether slaveowners were fully meeting their Christian responsibilities—whether they were providing their heathen workforce with the good news of true religion. Davies, like most evangelicals of this era, did not challenge slavery directly. In fact, Davies emphasized that there was nothing within the African's enslaved condition that need necessarily prevent his pursuing the only thing that truly mattered—eternal life. But in demanding that Christianity be delivered to the slaves, these evangelicals opened up a spiritual can of worms.

Eternal Life, Literacy, Equality

For starters, Davies was still something of a traditionalist. He believed that the essence of religion lay in one's personal relationship with God—but he also believed that knowledge of the Bible was essential in cultivating this relationship. Therefore he insisted that slaves be taught to read. His entreaties to the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge, in fact, were part of a larger literacy campaign which aimed at giving slaves the tools they needed to advance their spiritual lives. Throughout the 1750s, Davies and a small band of followers made literacy a vital part of their evangelism. Believing that reading and religion went hand in hand, and that both would spread virally, they tried to promote both within the slave communities.

Teaching slaves to read was itself of great importance; the role that reading and writing would play in shaping a more cohesive and empowered slave community can be easily imagined. But it also reinforced the broader message of human equality within the New Light gospel. Teaching slaves to read and write, providing them with the empowering skills of self-education and communication, added dimension to the New Light emphasis on the equality of all people in sin and salvation, and the authority found by all people within their own religious experience. True, Davies and most of his contemporaries steered clear of the more radical implications lying within their theology. But the newly converted slaves, and even the next generation of southern white evangelicals, did not—they began to question the very bases of slavery. They began to ask why, if moral and religious authority lay in human experience, a master class should be deferred to on any question? And if all people were born equal in sin—and if all were offered salvation freely—then how could one group of men have the audacity to enslave another? How could one group deny the egalitarian essence of the spiritual order by asserting dominion over another?

The new religion of the Great Awakening, brought to the South by itinerant preachers like Samuel Davies, therefore challenged the very social and moral character of Virginia society. It questioned the hierarchical values that underlay the social and political order, positing instead an egalitarian notion of moral authority. New Lights then drew upon this authority to question not just horse racing and gambling—but the institution of slavery itself. But the transformation within the Christian message triggered by the Great Awakening was only one half of the equation. Completing the story were transformations within the slave communities themselves, transformations that made them more ready for the egalitarian and insurrectionary messages within this new Christian movement.

The Americanization of America's Slaves

Here again we need to back up and remember that slavery grew exponentially during the eighteenth century. While it was practiced in Virginia by 1660, there were still only a few thousand slaves in the colony by 1690. But over the next 80 years, Virginians would import 90,000 slaves from Africa. By 1750, there were 100,000 slaves in the colony; by 1775, there were 200,000, representing 40% of the colony's total population.27 Moreover, an increasingly large part of this population represented slaves born in America. By 1750, more than half of America's slaves were born in America, and by the end of the colonial period, the American-born portion reached 80%.28 This meant that Virginia's plantations were increasingly worked by slaves who had never known Africa—slaves who were born in Virginia, and quite possibly were married, had children and grandchildren in the same neighborhood.

In other words, by 1750 America's slaves were members of communities—coherent, multi-generational, native-born communities—not just recently kidnapped laborers. And New Light Christianity provided these emerging communities with a useful and potentially insurrectionary ideology. Within the more conventional elements of the Christian message, slaves were offered a worldview that provided solace and perhaps the hope of spiritual redemption. But within the particular emphases of New Light evangelicalism, they were offered something of far greater importance as they combated the psychic and physical abuses of slavery. They were told that the worldly order bore no relationship to the divine, that the standards set by men were not those of God—that, in fact, the people rewarded on earth were often cursed by God and that, contrary to all worldly signs, all human beings were fundamentally equal in their sin and in their dependence on God for salvation.

The Possibilities and Limitations within Evangelicalism

Samuel Davies and the New Light preachers of the mid-eighteenth century were not quite ready for the more radical implications of Great Awakening theology. But the next generation of evangelical converts and preachers would be. In 1784, Methodist leaders, meeting in neighboring Maryland, threatened to excommunicate all church members who failed to free their slaves within two years. In 1789, Baptists meeting in Richmond, Virginia declared slavery a "violent deprivation of human nature."29

Unfortunately, these southern churches would not be able to sustain these positions for long—standing up against the slaveholding establishment would prove to be too difficult. Within a year of issuing their historic ultimatum, the Methodists were forced to retreat, declaring that they would fight slavery through education rather than threats of expulsion. But the issue continued to trouble southern church members, periodically surfacing and dividing individual churches and regional conferences. And eventually northern evangelicals, although arriving at the issue later than their southern co-religionists, would provide the core of the antebellum antislavery movement. Just as important, the thousands of newly converted slaves would continue to embrace the more radical implications of the theology brought to them by Davies and the generation of evangelicals that followed. The insurrectionary message of human equality would find expression in sermons and songs offered up in their increasingly independent churches, and contribute to the slave revolts of 1822 and 1831.

Samuel Davies never saw any of this; he died long before his evangelical message had fully flowered. In fact, he never imagined that the New Light Christianity he preached would pose such a dramatic challenge to slavery. But perhaps, had he listened more closely to the "sacred harmony" pouring from the hearts of his new Christians, he might have heard Gabriel's trumpet getting ready to blow.

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