Teaching Christianity in the face of adversity: African American religious leaders in the late antebellum South

  • Thomas Strange

Student thesis: Phd


Religious leaders were key figures within African American society in the late antebellum South. They undertook a vital religious function within both the plantation slave community and the institutionalised biracial and independent black church and many became a focal point for African American Christianity amongst slaves and free blacks. These religious leaders also took on a number of secular responsibilities, becoming counsellors, mediators, and advisors, individuals that blacks would frequently seek out for their opinion, advice and solace. African American religious leaders held a position considered to be vital and prestigious. But such a position was also perilous. Black religious leaders had to reconcile the conflicting demands of two groups whose needs were almost diametrically opposed. Slaves and free blacks wanted to hear a message of hope, but the Southern elite wanted to hear a message of obedience to ensure that their authority remained unchallenged. Appeasing both groups was an almost impossible task. Failing to meet their demands, however, could be disastrous for black religious leaders. Slaves and free blacks who heard a message of obedience to the Southern white elite rejected the authority of the black preacher, who was then often unable to continue his ministrations. Conversely, those who were considered to be teaching a message that was undermining the planter's authority faced reprisals from white society. These reprisals could be violent. In order to survive, black religious leaders had to chart a difficult course between the two groups, giving a sense of hope to the enslaved but in a manner that did not appear to undermine white authority. Within historical scholarship, it has been argued that African American religious leaders shared a common role. By the late antebellum period, however, a divide had emerged amongst black religious leaders. Although they continued to share many of the same goals, responsibilities, and challenges, the form of Christianity practiced by black preachers on the plantation was not the same as that practiced by licensed black ministers in the biracial and independent black church. Christianity within the plantation slave community continued to include African traditions and rituals that had survived the transatlantic crossing. Christianity within the biracial and independent black church, however, had begun to reject these African traditions as backward and outdated, and had moved instead towards a form of religion that, whilst still emotional and uplifting, was also more formal and hierarchical, resembling the Christianity of white Southern evangelicals.Black preachers and licensed black ministers were preaching Christianity in the face of adversity and had the potential to become political leaders within the African American community. The realisation of this potential was hindered, not only by the constant supervision of these religious leaders by the white elite but also through the refusal of black preachers and ministers to use Christianity to justify acts of resistance. This research adds new insight to the role of African American religious leaders through a detailed understanding of their different approaches in delivering the Christian message.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorBrian Ward (Supervisor) & David Brown (Supervisor)


  • African American history
  • Slave religion

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