From the before the beginning of the slave trade, whites were known to utilize their religion as a means to subjugate and in some instances eradicate cultures and traditions. Missionaries have long been known to “convert the savages” and spread the gospel. Often times however, this has included eliminating cultural traditions and has been based on the premise that if you are not “Christian” you are a savage, or of lesser intelligence than those who are.
There is a long tradition of missionaries traveling into other countries to convert the people’s native to the region. From the pacific islands to the shores of the British Isles, to the African Continent, missionaries have cut a wide swath of spreading the gospel at the expense of the local customs. In times past more so than now as there is more of an understanding of incorporating cultural traditions and preserving the history of the areas that they serve to allow the people that live there to retain their cultural heritage while at the same time enjoying the blessings of understanding the word and Christ’s message.
It was not always this way earlier missionaries were charged not only with conversion but were of the mindset that the peoples of the countries they traveled to were somehow less than they were as a result of their not being “believers’. This mindset was extended and expounded upon as relates to the slave trade and Africa.
It was not enough to enslave people even though the profit for doing so in monetary terms was high, there had to be a moral justification for doing so especially for those who proclaimed their piety and Christian walk who were at the same time major slave owners.
This justification came in the idea and concept that was put forward at that time that blacks were the descendants of Cain and subject to Cain’s Curse and his mark (which was black skin). In 18th century America and Europe it was interpreted to mean blacks and was a perfect justification for the injustices that were placed upon them. It is also one of the greatest ironies as well. Note the following:
“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield it’s crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”(Gen. 4:10-12)
“If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over” and God set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him”. (Gen 4:15)
These verses provided the reasoning for many who still to this day believe that the black race is inferior and use this as a basis. The Southern Baptist congregations actually taught this in the 19th century and early 20th century along with the notion that there was a separate heaven for blacks and whites.
Ironic that they “taught” slaves anything when by their own laws and as shown in Harriet Jacobs book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” teaching slaves was against the law and punishable by fines.
It was the height of irony that a basis for treating blacks as less than the humans they were was predicated on a scripture that was taken out of context as seen above. If they had adhered to the entire context as written clearly how then would they have subjugated blacks and used them to work in the fields with such a degree of success as was found during the times of slavery.
While the text clearly indicates that Cain’s descendents would not be able to reap anything from the earth, blacks and slaves especially were obtained for that very purpose in most cases. In her case she was as a young girl destined to work in the house for the mistress of the house and her younger children as needed. The irony of the so-called Christian beliefs of these same slave owners was a constant theme that pervades Ms. Jacobs’s book.
One has to wonder at the kind of Christianity that would allow someone to beat a human being until the skin comes off their back and leaves the blood and gore behind as grim reminders of that beating. One wonders more at the mindset of those same so-called Christians that insist slaves attend church on the one hand, but forbid them from singing certain spirituals on the other – for fear they are somehow referring to escape or talking negatively about their masters.
One would think that if you wanted someone to truly learn about God, and Christ’s message that you would want them to learn to read as soon as possible. You would perhaps even give them a bible to practice reading as is done widely now by missionaries in the field.
It would be a welcome sign of understanding to see the people that you teach singing spirituals and incorporating Christian faith into their daily lives. This was clearly not the case during slavery.
For many it was a weapon used to keep blacks in line, it was put on for show and not in reality or in practice. Families were destroyed, lives were lost and the same people went to church every Sunday and professed to be the best of Christians. Then during the week they made the lives of countless slaves a living hell. There are numerous instances of the lack of regard of family structure in Harriet Jacobs’s book. Her not being able to see her father when he died is one. The “master” trying to sell Aunt Marthy is another. The acceptance of the slave owner cohabiting with his slaves while married is another. This evidenced by the light , fair skinned babies that were commonplace on most plantations. The lack of Christian compassion shown during this time period is marked the Curse of Cain, was one way to justify mistreating one’s fellow man(even though they were black).
It is no lesser ironic that out of the mistreatment shown to slaves and free blacks that the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded by a black man, Richard Allen – after being denied the right to worship alongside the very whites that “wanted” slaves to get some religion and that to this day this is one of the largest denominations internationally and that they have themselves taken on mission work and ministering to those in far reaches and countries with however a notable difference in the consideration for the cultural differences of the places they visit and the traditions of the people they are trying to teach.
In fact you could say the lesson learned from the ironies visited upon the slaves was the RIGHT way to go about spreading the good news and to be INCLUSIVE as opposed to divisive. At least one can but hope from the work that has been done and that is still going on in the AME church and its outreach and mission work.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl. Boston: Linda Brent, 1861.
Chapters “The New Master and Mistress”, The Jealous Mistress”