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Slavery and the Portsmouth Church

White Status and Black Worship  (Continued)

A Separate Christianity for Slaves

The preceding is not about religion; it is about expressions of white status and white control of black people. Religion provides a remarkable window into the survival, adaptation, and transformation of African spiritual traditions in the New World, and adjustments of Christianity to these and the institution of slavery.

In the reformed Calvinist tradition, the family patriarch was responsible for the moral education and conduct of his entire household, including wife, children, apprentices, servants, and slaves. His responsibility included church attendance, family prayers, catechism, guidance and admonition. From the beginning in New England Calvinist church control of government and population was weaker than elsewhere in New England, and after the 1690s gradually grew weaker throughout New England. Increasing numbers gave only nominal attention to religion other than attending Sunday services.

Some slave owners required church attendance of their slaves. A few even gave scriptural names to their slaves. Portsmouth examples include Adam Marshall, James Stavers, John-Jack Warner, Peter Warner, Peter Frost, Hannah Langdon, Pharaoh Rogers, Samuel Wentworth, and Rebecca Chase. But overall, scriptural names were not the norm.

When catechizing slaves, masters and clergy alike tended to emphasize scriptural passages dealing with obedience. Whether overtly conscious or unconscious, whites presented Africans with a specially tailored version of Christianity suited to the maintenance of the status quo. As the first local doubts about the legitimacy of slavery were publicly voiced in the 1770s, a letter to the editor in the local newspaper justified slavery with scriptural passages.

Enslaved people received Yankee religion as did all Yankees; through a didactic, rational and dry style, whether Anglican or Calvinist. The principal mode was hour-long sermons, psalms, and the reading of scripture chapters, which the Calvinists augmented with long extemporary prayers. All were delivered from the pulpit twice each Sunday.

Isolated in remote galleries, hidden from view and hearing long droning sermons in complex language, black hearers often responded with little interest. In some towns slaves played quiet games or snacked during church. North Church appointed overseers of the Negro pews to minimize such pastimes.

Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. First posted on in 1999. 

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