[Thesis]. Manchester, UK: The University of Manchester; 2011.
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