“Man Cannot Serve Two Masters”: African Americans’ Religious Loyalties in Northern Colonies

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago)
Richard J. Boles, Oklahoma State University
On a November evening in 1740, an enslaved man in Boston argued that “Man cannot serve two Masters,” so he claimed “Jesus Christ to be my right Master.” Thirty-four years later, a group of slaves submitted a petition asking for freedom, and they implored white leaders in Massachusetts to see that slavery necessarily rendered them “incapable of shewing our obedience to Almighty God [for] how can a Slave perform the duties of a husband to a wife or parent to his child.” Because thousands of enslaved African Americans in Britain’s northern colonies participated in Anglican, Congregational, Baptist, and other churches, black Americans often employed concepts of religious loyalty, duty, and obedience when negotiating or contesting with masters. White clergy routinely stated that Christianity makes black slaves more loyal and diligent workers, but African Americans used concepts of religious duty to seek concessions and even freedom.

This paper contends that the concept of loyalty is valuable for examining enslaved African Americans’ religious practices. In the last decade, historians have increasingly shown that black people participated in many churches across Atlantic colonies, but there is more work to be done on interpreting the meaning and power of religious practices for black people involved with predominantly white churches. This paper explores enslaved people’s sometimes competing loyalties to a particular church, theological tradition, and family in order to understand the range of experiences within the institution of slavery in northern colonies. Based on a wide variety of written sources, and contextualized with black participation rates in four hundred congregations, this essay argues that claims of religious loyalty were a powerful tool for enslaved people.

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