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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Reading Against Jesus: Nineteenth Century African Americans' View of Sabbath Law

Introduction
It is generally assumed that African Americans have been "Jesu-centric" in our readings of the Bible, focusing on narratives of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection and recognizing in this progression a parallel to our own existences. Though this assumption has been evidenced time and again by contemporary historians and theologians [1], it is not clear whether the privileging of Jesus extends to his understanding of the Law. For example, do the narratives of Mary Prince, Peter Randolph, and Frederick Douglass employ hermeneutical strategies like those of Jesus in regard to the Sabbath, or do they favor a strict adherence to a day of rest and worship similar to the observance patterns of ancient Israelites [2]? At first glance, these interpretations of Sabbath law appear to be direct reactions to slaveholders who denied those they enslaved a day of rest and an opportunity to worship God as they saw fit. For those who struggled against slavery, time for rest and spiritual renewal was more important than the power to determine how to live out Sabbath. Thus, in this instance, Old Testament law may provide greater relief for those enslaved than did Jesus' theoretically liberating rereading of Sabbath law, wherein he established human beings (typified by the Son of Humanity) as the masters of the day. Further, human authority to determine the nature of Sabbath observance (see Mark 2:28) would have enabled their oppressors to force enslaved Africans to work or deny them the freedom to worship God. So, it follows, they may in effect be reading "against" Jesus' hermeneutic, as initially it was more important for them to have a Sabbath than for them to determine what was legal on the Sabbath.

In antebellum narratives, this pragmatic hermeneutic is expressed in the acceptance-reversal subversive pattern of Sabbath appropriation. [3] From their oppressors, African Americans "accept" the notion of the first day Sabbath, which encompasses rest from labor and worship that includes both liturgical and pedagogical dimensions. But the subversive move (or the "reversal" of the appropriated term's intent) occurs when they employ Sabbath in their discourse liberatively, as a time that God guarantees them one day each week for respite, spiritual and intellectual nurture, and even the opportunity for escape.

It is far too simple, however, to suggest that their pragmatic hermeneutic was a "reading against" Jesus. In fact, we will show that their readings, like Jesus' own, are similarly liberative, using Scripture to achieve their own ends.

Biblical View of Sabbath: First Testament
The contested origins of Sabbath, or shabbat, law are evidenced in two related First Testament passages. Though the relationship is likely one of literary dependence, these two textual units offer distinct reasons for the existence of a hallowed seventh day. The first occurs in the initial declaration of the Ten Words/Commandments (so designated in Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13, 10:4). Exodus 20:8-11 reflects on the Creation narratives found in Genesis 2:1-3, noting that even God rested after six days of toil. As a result, Israel was instructed to shabbat, meaning either to "abstain" or to "cease from their labors." Further, YHWH blessed and sanctified this day, setting it apart from the other six as a day dedicated to rest. In this way, God's activity has become exemplary for humanity and the narrative pedagogical, instructing the Yahwistic community to regard this day as did their God, for it was "a Sabbath to YHWH your God" (Exod 20:10).

Sabbath rest was not viewed solely as the privilege of the land owning male Israelite. All members of the household were required to observe Sabbath; in fact, it was enforced with an apodictic proscription, "you shall not do any work" (v.10). The proscription was coupled with a list that delineated those for whom work was forbidden. Such a list would have been irrelevant, save for the characters mentioned. Except for the presumed householder, deemed simply "you," the members on this list appear to be those at a considerable social disadvantage, including the householder's children, resident aliens, farm animals, and male and female slaves.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, occurring in the Deuteronomic retelling of the Ten Words, is remarkably similar to Exodus 20:8-11, including a similar list of household members to whom Sabbath Law applies. However, in this instance the reason given for the Sabbath is not because of God's act in Creation, but because God acted to deliver Israel from bondage. Thus, the reason for Sabbath is literally "so that your male and female slaves may rest as well as you" (v.14). The presumption is that the householder will rest on Sabbath, but the goal is to ensure that even the slaves in the house will be granted a time to cease from their labor. At this point the status of the householder is raised as a matter of no small importance: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and YHWH your God brought you out...." (v.15).

As such, the Sabbath becomes one of the clearest indications that the people thought of themselves as slaves freed from bondage, for a memorial of divinely sanctioned cessation of labor commemorates God's act of deliverance. Because of the experience of slavery, the Deuteronomic Historian determines, "therefore YHWH your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (v. 15).[4]

It is impossible to say which of these texts most influenced early African Americans. Yet, because of the emphasis on biblical narratives and the significance of the accounts of Creation evidenced in James Weldon Johnson's poem, "The Creation," it would not be impossible to surmise that Genesis 2:1-3 supplied the principal elements of Sabbath law, perhaps even in conjunction with the Exodus accounts (Exod 16:23-29, 20:8-11, 31:14-16, and elsewhere). It is unlikely that they were as familiar with Deuteronomy 5:11-13, for the resonance between the situation described in the biblical text and their own contexts would have resounded too loudly to be ignored. Such a text would have all too clearly emphasized that slaveholders were intentionally and deliberately violating the letter and spirit of Sabbath Law and provided an immediate context whereby scriptural authority would mandate social change.

Biblical View of Sabbath: Second Testament
For the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, the Sabbath was not necessarily a "day of rest." Or, to put it in a different way, the Sabbath, for Jesus, never hindered the doing of good. It does not mean that Jesus never rested in the traditional sense, but human need, as in "plucking grains" if hungry (Mark 2:23-28) or restoring a deformed hand (Mark 3:1-6), outranked religious (legal) stipulations.

It is safe to assume that Jesus did not share the same ideology of "Sabbath rest" as the group of Pharisees who were depicted as attacking him because of his Sabbath activities. (To be sure, by Jesus' day, Sabbath laws were not universally agreed upon.) In fact, Jesus challenged the Pharisees directly with the question: "Who among you would not seek after his own sheep having fallen in a pit?" (Matt 12:11). For Jesus, God made the Sabbath on behalf of humanity—and, not the other way around, which is why he claimed that the "Son of Man" held authority over the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28; cf. Exod 23:12; Deut 5:14-15). Such a hermeneutic is liberating (humanizing), demonstrating Jesus' pragmatic readings of biblical law, emphasizing that law is to benefit humanity.

The View(s) of the Slave Narratives: A Pattern?[5]
Biblical law among African American men and women
It should not surprise us that Sabbath law was an important concern for early enslaved men and women, for they too had their own understanding of God's laws, which, to the best of their abilities, they enacted in their lives. In his 1843 "An Address to the Slaves," Henry Highland Garnet, born enslaved in 1815, [6] discusses what he deems "divine commandments":

The divine commandments you are duty bound to reverence and obey. If you do not obey them, you will surely meet with the displeasure of the Almighty. He requires you to love Him supremely, and your neighbor as yourself, to keep the Sabbath day holy, to search the Scriptures, and bring up your children with respect for His laws, and to worship no other God but Him. But slavery sets all these at nought and hurls defiance in the face of Jehovah. The forlorn condition in which you are placed does not destroy your moral obligation to God. You are not certain of Heaven, because you suffer yourselves to remain in a state of slavery, where you cannot obey the commandments of the Sovereign of the universe. [7]

In this passage, we should recognize the importance of Sabbath legislation by its placement in his list of laws. Sabbath law is second only to loving neighbor as self—that which Jesus deemed most important. A similar arrangement is found in Mary Ann Shadd's work, where again Sabbath law is second only to the law of Love. (LEV, 319-320).

But for some of these authors, it can be argued that the very existence of slavery represented a deliberate nullification of God's laws. As Daniel Payne, in his June 1839 address, "Slavery Brutalizes Man," notes :

But what saith slavery? "they are my property, and shall be brought up to serve." They shall not even learn to read his word, in order that they may be brought up in his nurture and admonition. If any man doubts this, let him read the slave code of Louisiana and see if it is not death to teach slaves. Thus saith the Lord, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." Does not slavery nullify this law, and compel the slave to work on the Sabbath? (LEV, 176; author's italics).

Payne then mentions other laws slavery forces the enslaved to violate like marriage and adultery. The mandates of American slavery made it inevitable that African men and women would live contrary to the laws of God.

The Autobiographical Slave Narrative & the Sabbath

First Attestation: The History of Mary Prince (1831)
We begin with Mary Prince's 1831, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself, the first narrative by an African female. [9] She offers two primary, albeit short, passages on the Sabbath. [10]

It is very wrong, I know, to work on Sunday or go to market; but will not God call the Buckra [i.e., "white"] men to answer for this on the great day of judgment—since they will give the slaves no other day? (16).

They hire servants in England; and if they don't like them, they send them away: they can't lick them. Let them work ever so hard in England, they are far better off than slaves. If they get a bad master, they give warning and go hire to another. They have their liberty. That's just what we want. We don't mind hard work, if we had proper treatment, and proper wages like English servants, and proper time given in the week to keep us from breaking the Sabbath. But they won't give it: they will have work—work—work, night and day, sick or well, till we are quite done up; and we must not speak up nor look amiss, however much we be abused. And then, when we are quite done up, who cares for us, more than for a lame horse? This is slavery (23; her italics).

The end of her story, which provides the literary context of the second quote, provides the comparison between slavery in the Americas and "servants" in England.

While there is no substantial treatment of the subject or any mention of the concept of "rest," it is understood that the Sabbath law was being abrogated. In fact, Prince's first passage offers a clear sense of what Sabbath breaking is: working and buying/selling on the Sabbath break the law. This is implied in the context of the second passage. [11] Prince also provides the solution to the problem: "proper treatment" and "proper wages," including time during the week to fulfill their requisite chores, would allow folks the ability not to break the Sabbath law.

Though there is no clear evidence of literary dependence, Mary Prince's work is a precursor of later more in depth discussions of the Sabbath in the genre of "slave" narratives. Here, as in the other accounts that will follow, adherence to the Sabbath law assumes first testament discourse; there is no mention of Jesus.

We are not arguing, since at present we have no proof, that African American authors of autobiographical narratives were dependent on Prince's earlier account, especially as it deals with the Sabbath law. We do know that African Americans were reading stories like this whether by means of the book itself or, as in the case of Frederick Douglass, by means of the accounts within the abolitionists' newspapers. [12]

In addition to familiarity with the stories of the formerly enslaved, African American authors would have also been aware of the white abolitionist Theodore Weld's Slavery As It Is, published in 1839, in which Weld advocated for more testimonies from those who had escaped the immoral institution. [13] If so, Weld's specifications for what was needed may have also been influential on the topic of the Sabbath law, since he included in his list—in addition to the kind of food, clothing, and lodging—a need for the description of "hours of labor and rest." [14]

Furthermore, the discourse among free African Americans (e.g., Shadd and Payne), among whom these authors lived when they wrote their abolitionist texts, supported extensively the peaceful nature of the Sabbath day.

The 1840s: Douglass, Bibb, and Pennington
The 1840s was the heyday of the African American autobiographical genre known as the "slave narrative." Frederick Douglass offers the classic example of a narrative of individual freedom, a theme that is significantly modified in his later 1855 narrative over which he exerted greater autonomy. Henry Bibb provides the classic example of a love story among the enslaved, in which he re-enters slavery on several occasions because of a deep longing to be with his wife, Malinda, and daughter. Finally, James Pennington's narrative provides one of the classic portrayals of the necessary role of "deception" in order to gain one's freedom. These individual narratives emphasize many distinctive themes of the genre, including the recurrent religious ideal of the Sabbath day.

Two motifs predominate in these authors' discussions of the Sabbath day. First, on this day, the potential existed for the establishment of Sabbath day schools, which would allow for opportunities for securing literacy and developing community. Both Frederick Douglass (writing about Maryland) and Henry Bibb (writing about Kentucky) include passages in which they discuss the organization of such schools by named white sympathizers. [15] Unfortunately, in both instances, the actual "schools" lasted for a very brief time. In Douglass's case, the "school" was disrupted by "class leaders" in the Methodist church (69-70). In Bibb's case, "the law was opposed to it," so that it was soon disbanded. In both cases, it was viewed by slaveholders as, in Bibb's words, "an incendiary movement" (16).

In addition to this brief description of this initial effort, Douglass also includes an account of a more successful and substantial Sabbath school, one that he himself led. Douglass attributes partial credit for the success of this school to the more lenient Mr. Freeland, whom Douglass considered to be (in his words) "the best master I ever had, till I became my own master" (84-85; his italics). In contradistinction from Douglass's severe critique of professing slaveholders, Mr. Freeland "made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in [Douglass's] opinion, was truly a great advantage" (82). This Sabbath school "society of my fellow-slaves," Douglass emphasizes, was a community, men and women, [16] in which "we would have died for each other" (85). In this setting, they were "behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings," yet they had to beware of such positive humanistic activities that were contrary to slaveholding designs (84). Their secret society met in the home of a free, intentionally unnamed, African American, whose action must have placed his status in jeopardy. The success of this mission affected both Douglass and individual members. For Douglass, "it was the delight of my soul," he states, "to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race" (84). For members, several learned to read, and "one, at least, is now free through my agency," Douglass wrote (84). This last statement shows that Douglass was able to maintain contact with at least some members of this gathering after he escaped to the North. (Further, the success of this early flirtation with autonomy may well have served as a foreshadowing of the independent African American church.)

As part of his discussion (although a theme absent from Douglass), Bibb highlights that "the Sabbath is not regarded by a large number of the slaves as a day of rest." This was not due to any fault of the enslaved. For Bibb, as for others, "Sabbath" and "literacy" interrelate extensively (16, 20-21). There was nothing incompatible with rest on the Sabbath and education. Yet, with no schools to attend and no moral or religious instruction, much Sabbath breaking occurred. Those actions that hindered the intellectual and spiritual development of the human being—gambling, fighting, and getting drunk—Bibb considered Sabbath breaking (16).[17] As Bibb notes, many slaveholders actually encouraged these behaviors on the Sabbath (16-17). Later in the narrative, he explains part of their rationale. During "slave auctions" intelligence is a significant offense:

If they are found to be very intelligent, this is pronounced the most objectionable of all other qualities connected with the life of a slave. In fact, it undermines the whole fabric of his chattelhood; it prepares for what slaveholders are pleased to pronounce the unpardonable sin when committed by a slave. It lays the foundation for running away, and going to Canada. They also see in it a love for freedom, patriotism, insurrection, bloodshed, and exterminating war against American slavery (53).

Although Bibb provides only implicit agreement with this "rationale," Douglass recognized the truth of this explanation in the words of his former master Thomas Auld, who in forbidding his wife from teaching him anything, offered the following words:

If you teach that nigger . . . how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy (57).

Ironically, this "special revelation" drove Douglass to learn to read in every possible instance because he believed that what Mr. Auld spoke was true; learning would be his way to freedom. He also found, as mentioned earlier, great comfort in leading "fellow slaves" onto the path of literacy.

The second major motif that emerges is that the Sabbath day was a day for literal escape. James Pennington, in one of the more lucid examples of the view of the Sabbath, writes: "It was the Sabbath: the holy day which God in his infinite wisdom gave for the rest of both man and beast" (119). [18] A few sentences after this statement of confession, Pennington discusses his escape from slavery. The Sabbath day provided enough "free" time to establish distance between himself and his slaveholder. Bibb also discusses plans for the potential escape of Malinda, his wife, an attempt that was scheduled for a Sabbath as well.

Both motifs can be viewed under the larger umbrella of "freedom," spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and literally. For authors of the autobiographical slave narratives, the Sabbath, if practiced correctly, was a symbol for freedom in all of its manifestations. The narratives of the 1840s demonstrate, even more than Prince's 1831 treatise, the significance of a just appropriation of the Sabbath law. It was an attempt by African Americans to persuade their generally white abolitionist audiences that not even this biblical commandment was followed consistently within the slaveholding communities of the South and West Indies. It was an appeal to the first Testament, however, as Jesus' own teaching was never mined for any valuable insight it might have offered to their dehumanizing situation.

Adjustments to the "pattern": the 1850s (Randolph & Douglass)
In the 1850s, described as the most "desperate decade" in African American history, [19] authors of slave narratives maintained a strong emphasis on the significance of the Sabbath day for the enslaved. According to William Andrews, it was during this decade that these authors "would move further outside the margins of propriety in search of greater narrative freedom and more usable truth." [20] We now, turn to two representatives of the genre in the 1850s, Randolph and Douglass.

In his 1855 Sketches of Slave Life or Illustrations of the Peculiar Institution,[21] Peter Randolph describes the nature of life for those who are enslaved. References to the Sabbath occur in several different contexts. His first references to Sabbath emphasize that this was frequently the only time that the enslaved had for themselves. Hence, they engaged in a range of activities, from making traps and capturing possums to supplement their meager food rations (19-20), to visiting friends and family on other plantations (28), to engaging in recreational activities (31), to participating in religious services (30-33).[22]

For Randolph the latter concern, worship, was the most important part of Sabbath and for the enslaved it took place in two distinct contexts. Many enslaved people met secretly, slipping away to the swamps where they were free to worship as they pleased. There Randolph reports activities that resemble contemporary worship in African American congregations, including therapeutic and cathartic interactions of members and singing, climaxing in preaching that leads to an ecstatic experience where "there fall to the ground twenty or thirty men and women," which was punctuated by a passing of the peace. They also have what appears to be a fatalistic surrender, but it can best be described as an apocalyptic hope as expressed in the statement, "Thank God, I shall not live here always." In this regard their focus was on heaven, "where all is joy, happiness and liberty." (30-31)

The other typical context for worship was in buildings on plantations sanctioned by the slaveholders. There the enslaved were subject to a gospel of servitude centered on the text from Ephesians 6, "Servants obey your masters." Ministers employed by the plantation owner would warn the captive congregation, "It is the devil...who tells you to try to be free." Such messages received the sanction of the plantation, but were viewed by the enslaved as attempts to thwart the spread of Christ's Gospel. Recall Randolph's words, "let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them." In effect, the enslaved were denied even on the Sabbath access to the authentic Gospel. Thus, even on the Sabbath, as a rule the enslaved people's access to God was restricted as though such access was dangerous to the interests of their tormentors. Reminiscent of Bibb's words a decade before, Randolph notes, "if the slaves were caught praying to God, they are whipped more than if they had committed a great crime. The slaveholders will allow slaves to dance, but do not want them to pray to God" (32). [23]

Also, in 1855, ten years after his initial attempt, Frederick Douglass again took upon himself the task of developing his autobiography by means of the slave narrative. Several scholars, among whom are William Andrews and Robert Stepto, have offered detailed analyses of the distinctions between these two versions. For this presentation, we wish to draw your attention only to Douglass's alterations to the Sabbath day motif in the 1855 edition.

According to the author of the preface to the 1855 edition, James McCune Smith, a leading African American abolitionist of the day, Douglass's new version appealed to a different kind of audience, one whose ideology understood more clearly (than their white [Wm. Lloyd] Garrisonian counterparts) the interrelationship between the enslaved of the South and the "free" Blacks of the North. Douglass's own intellectual development had moved critically into this circle and away from Garrison. [24] We find evidence of this shift even in the altered descriptions of the stories about the Sabbath schools: mentioning schools for free African American children in the South in an analogy to Nat Turner. [25] The latter reference to Turner highlighted a significant change in Douglass's thinking, since it took him a few years to accept violent slave insurrection, proposed by Henry Highland Garnet and others, as an option if necessary. [26]

Equally striking was Douglass's 1855 expanded explanation of the ideology behind the slaveholders' disruption, which is particularly pertinent to our discussion because it was one that Douglass shared. As he stated it, "if slavery be right, Sabbath schools for teaching slaves to read the bible are wrong" (266; online version). Yet, Douglass rightfully reasoned that this ideology placed the Protestant principle, of every person searching the Scriptures for him/herself, in jeopardy (266). His expanded edition dealt with a number of contradictions both in the slaveholders' religious views and in his own role. [27] One could imagine how these "contradictions" also impacted Northern perceptions of African American society. Despite this more comprehensive view of Douglass's thoughts regarding the significance of the Sabbath for literacy, freedom, and community (a stronger emphasis in the 1855 edition), and Randolph's extensive description of the brush harbor meetings, neither Douglass nor Randolph recalls any idea from the stories of Jesus' reading of the Sabbath for these insights.

Conclusion
The nineteenth century was filled with dynamic discussions and debates surrounding proper observance of the Sabbath day. General reformers in the North, including Lyman Beecher and other ministers, formed the General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath in 1828. [28] Yet, apparent economic realities (greed?) and political tensions were reasons (excuses?) that slaveholders used to continue to enforce labor on the Sabbath unevenly throughout the Southern states.

From the perspective of the enslaved, the Sabbath functioned as a slaveholders' "tool," by which they deliberately attempted to maintain the status quo. Slaveholders preferred an unorganized, but highly intentional, reprieve instead of opportunities for the development of the enslaved's intellectual, moral, and religious well-being. What was available was either (1) to hear the preaching of the slaveholding gospel or (2) to engage in activities, like "drinking" and "gambling," that did not aid in intellectual development.

Yet, the African American appropriation of Sabbath law derived from a self-affirming hermeneutic. The Sabbath for these persons represented a time for liberation as manifest in the activities of worship, religious education, literacy programs, and even escape. Despite slaveholder intentions to provide structured worship that supported the status quo or encouraged morally questionable activities, enslaved and free Africans interpreted the Sabbath as the moment during the week in which they encountered the liberating God of Jesus who mandated the cessation of business as usual and provided opportunities for escape, whether temporary or permanent, from their circumscribed existences.

We end with a consideration of the work of Mary Ann Shadd, [29] who argued against slavery in a 1858 sermon, "Break Every Yoke and Let the Oppressed God Free." In it, in a creative modification of traditional views of Sabbath, she advocates liberative Sabbath labor, an obedient response to God that is literally the labor of love. [30] She, then, appropriates Jesus' reinterpretation of Sabbath law, advocating a similar hermeneutic:

There is too a fitness of time for any work for the benefit of God's human creatures. We are told to keep Holy the Sabbath day. In what manner? Not by following simply the injunctions of those who bind heavy burdens, to say nothing about the same but as a man is better than a sheep, but combining with God's worship the most active vigilance for the resurrector from degradation violence and sin of his creatures. In these cases particularly is the Sabbath made for man and woman if you please as there may be those who will not accept the term man in a generic sense. Christ has told us as it is lawful to lift a sheep out of the ditch on the Sabbath day, i[f] a man is much better than a sheep. (320)

Granted there are problems with the syntax of the final sentence. However, it is clear that she is utilizing Jesus' liberating re-reading of Sabbath law here, suggesting the necessity of engaging in abolitionist work on the Sabbath.[31]

The sense of "rest" that Jesus had is one that the enslaved would have shared. As Frederick Douglass and Henry Bibb clearly implied, "rest" on the Sabbath was not at all incompatible with the establishment of schools for the purpose of moral and religious instruction. The opposite of "rest," that is, to "break the Sabbath," was in Bibb's words to act in ways opposite to the attainment of literacy and knowledge. Nor is this sense of "rest" incompatible with an opportunity to escape on the Sabbath, as James Pennington so aptly described.Yet, despite this apparent link between Jesus' view and the enslaved's view of the Sabbath, African Americans rarely recalled Jesus' own actions and teaching on the Sabbath. Rather, they re-defined the First Testament concept of "rest" as activity that involves the well-being of the human person. The Sabbath day was, for all intents and purposes, the only potential day for such "liberating" and "communal" activity.Perhaps, the enslaved of the nineteenth century did not follow Jesus' words onSabbath practices, but they at least intuited his pragmatic hermeneutical practice. For just as Jesus reclaims the precursor text in order to express his attempt to co-opt the biblical text for his own use, nineteenth century African Americans chose the biblical ideology that best suited their desires and practices for liberation of the mind and body and thereby sought to secure a sacred moment wherein they could reclaim pieces of their stolen humanity. Whatever else the Sabbath day may have meant to African Americans, it was also intended to be a time for liberation and a time for community. In fact, Sabbath ideology, which facilitates the development of the early Black church and corporate autonomy, may just be the birth of African American independence!

Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., Union Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, rsadler@union-psce.edu
Emerson B. Powery, Lee University, Cleveland, TN, epowery@leeuniversity.edu

Notes:

1. The examples of the "Jesu-centric" nature of African American Christianity are manifold. For a compelling discussion of this phenomenon, see Kelly Brown Douglass, The Black Christ (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), particularly pp.1-34. Douglas illustrates this well on p. 22, "Essentially, through the cross the slaves'experience and Jesus' experience converged. The suffering of slavery and the suffering of the cross were synonymous. The crucifixion confirmed to slaves that they were one with Jesus, and more importantly, that Jesus was one with them." See also, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Richmond: Friends United Press, 1949); and Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond: Friends United Press, 1975), 26; also James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 54.

2. As Wimbush writes, "(M)ore careful attention to the manner in which the images and language of the Bible were used can shed more light on the question of the oppositional character of African American religion. I would argue that study of both the selection of biblical texts/stories and their redaction by these early African Americans can force entirely different and more illuminating categories upon the discussion" (Stony the Road We Trod, 88-89).

3. The notion of the "acceptance-reversal pattern" is an acknowledgment that early African American authors were often forced to appropriate concepts and interpretive schema from their oppressors, depending upon the very hypotheses that were often used to legitimate their oppression. However, far from reifying their subjugation, these authors frequently use these ideas and schema subversively, redeploying the "master's" weaponry to validate their humanity or to strive for their liberation. (The result resembles Lévi-Strauss' concept of "bricolage," though I would suggest that this was a deliberate and intentional effort to subvert the meaning of the dominant party's ideology. Not the work of a "bricoleur," these early African American authors were in fact skilled craftspersons actively seeking to reassess the tenets of their opponents' ideology.)

4. As Jeffrey Tigay notes, "[i]t is as if the entire household is required to rest so that there can be no occasion to make the servants work. This one day a week the servant is treated as the master's equal." (69) (The goal is to create empathy for the servant or to lead the Yahwistic community to offer their slaves temporary relief from their servitude.)

5. Most of the texts used in this analysis are nineteenth century autobiographical narratives written by African Americans. The majority of these individuals began their lives in bondage in the American South and gained their freedom after spending the early portion of their lives in bondage. These texts frequently describe the nature of slavery, its effects on the subject, the institutions that governed the lives of those enslaved, and significant events in the subject's life. They are not simply dispassionate rehearsals of these events, however. They are frequently composed as political documents, used to further the Abolitionist movement by demonstrating that slavery was an inhumane institution that robbed human beings of not only their liberty, but even their very lives. For the sake of this paper we will assume that these narratives represent the general sentiments of most African Americans during the antebellum period.

6. Henry Highland Garnett, "An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America," in Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham, eds. , Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory 1787-1900 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998), 198-204. Hereafter, LEV.

7. Garnett, "An Address" 201.

8. Born free in 1811, he was well educated in the South at a school for free blacks (LEV, 173).

9. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. In Six Women's Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988; orig. London: F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831). The editor, William Andrews, includes it in the autobiography section of his work, To Tell a Free Story, although it was not penned by Prince, because it does represent the first such narrative related by an African woman in the Americas (xxix). By this classification, Andrews concludes that it was not significantly altered by the editor (iii). As the editor states in the preface, "No fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added. It is essentially her own, without any material alteration farther than was requisite to exclude redundancies and gross grammatical errors, so as to render it clearly intelligible" (iii).

10. She also mentions briefly the brush harbor meetings, although she does not specifically mention the Sabbath day.

11. Compare Henry Bibb on "breaking" the Sabbath.

12. John Blassingame. "Introduction." The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series Two: Autobiographical Writings. Volume 1: Narrative. Eds. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1999), xxiii.

13. For Douglass, evidence of this dependence can be found in his speeches from 1841-1845. According to Blassingame, Weld's announcement of the intention of the American Anti-Slavery Society to publish more testimonies and narratives about slavery may have instigated Douglass's own narrative ("Introduction," xxiv-xv). This was not the cause, however, for the production of his second narrative.

14. Weld's list is cited by Blassingame, "Introduction," xxv. If the authors were dependent on Weld's suggestions, would that hinder their more direct dependence on the biblical narrative?

15. The Douglass references stem from the Bedford edition; the Bibb references come from Taylor's edition. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations are derived from these editions. Mr. Wilson, the white sympathizer in Douglass's story, was a Quaker, who taught in a local school for whites and who represents "some who continued to argue against slavery and for teaching the slaves to read the Scriptures" ("Historical Annotation," The Frederick Douglass Papers, 138).

16. The 1855 edition, My Bondage and My Freedom, omits the more inclusive "and women" of the 1845 edition (265; online edition).

17. Douglass also highlights that "degrading sports" were sponsored by the slaveholders (84).

18. The quote continues, highlighting what normally happens on the Sabbath: "In the state of Maryland, the slaves generally have the Sabbath, except in those districts where the evil weed, tobacco, is cultivated; and then, when it is the season for setting the plant, they are liable to be robbed of this only rest" (119; Taylor edition).

19. Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 132. Painter's description is due to significant events of the period, including the following (several of which Painter does not mention): the Fugitive Slave Law Act of 1850; the regional splits in both the Democratic (1848) and the Whig parties (1854) due to slavery; the abolition of the slave-trade, not slavery, in Washington, D.C.; the appearance of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); the Dred Scott case of 1857; and economic shifts, like the rise in cotton production and profits, which increased the demand for more slaves.

20. "(B)y the end of the 1840s, the slave narrative had begun to make its first tentative steps away from its white readership, whose embrace meant suppression as well as success. The most self-conscious black autobiographers were beginning to wonder openly whose truth they were to speak, thus revealing the strains to which the genre's traditional social and moral proprieties subjected them. In the next decade their successors would move further outside the margins of propriety in search of greater narrative freedom and more usable truth" (Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 166).

21. Full citation (1855).

22. Absolom Jones's "A Thanksgiving Sermon," delivered on January 1, 1808, also addresses the Sabbath as a time when enslaved Africans were able to forage for food, but were denied spiritual nourishment (LEV, 76). Here he notes:"He [God] has seen them return to their smoky huts in the evening, with nothing to satisfy their hunger but a scanty allowance of roots; and these, cultivated for themselves, on that day, which God ordained as a day of rest for man and beast. He has seen the neglect with which their masters have treated their immortal souls; not only in withholding religious instruction from them, but, in some instances, depriving them of access to the means of obtaining it."

23. In Randolph's 1893 edition, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: The Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Life, he rehearses much of the account given in his earlier version of the Sketches. One notable exception is the inclusion of a section titled "Religious Instruction," which he provocatively begins, "Many say the Negroes receive religious education—that Sabbath worship is instituted for them as for others, and were it not for slavery, they would die in their sins—that really, the institution of slavery is a benevolent missionary enterprise" (p.196). After this he reproduces reflections similar to those noted above about the hypocritical and self-serving nature of the "slaveholding gospel" that was thrust on enslaved people by the plantation owners. Thus for Randolph, the Sabbath could be viewed as a time of either temporary escape from the rigors of slavery to the beatific secret worship in the swamps or a time of sacralized ideological violence whereby the domination system gave the inhumane conditions under which enslaved people lived God's sanction.

24. Douglass's split with Garrison was permanent by 1851 (Andrews, "My Bondage and My Freedom and the American Literary Renaissance of the 1850s," in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, ed. William L. Andrews [Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991], 138).

25. In the account on the Sabbath school initiated by the white Quaker, Mr. Wilson, Douglass provided additional pertinent information: (1) In Baltimore, there were Sabbath schools for free African American children; (2) Mr. Wilson invited Douglass to assist in the teaching of the Sabbath school; (3) In addition to the New Testament (1845 edition), spelling books were also utilized; (4) Included his former master, Thomas Auld, as one of the "mob" who disrupted and disbanded the "school"; (5) Shared the story that one of the mob compared Douglass to Nat Turner, forewarning him that he would end up like him; and (6) Addressed "the reader" directly, stressing how this disbandment weakened his faith.

26. In the account on the Sabbath school on Mr. Freeland's farm, Douglass also expanded his 1855 version to include the following: (1) Listed Webster's dictionary and the Columbian Orator as additional textbooks to the Bible; (2) Specifically mentioned reading the "word of God" (not the "will of God"); (3) An extended explanation was provided on the ideology behind the slaveholders strategy; (4) Mentioned that more than one slave from this band had secured his freedom; and (5) Addressed the reader directly again to consider the lengths to which the enslaved went to secure this type of minimal educational experience.

27. The disbandment by white slaveholders was one more attempt to stipulate the lives of the enslaved. It was insurrections like Denmark Vesey's and Nat Turner's and the interrelationship between "religion and rebellion" that "probably alerted Southern slaveholders to the need for white control of Afro-American religion" (Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 90; also 93). And, such "control" was practiced by a number of Southern clerics, whose "mission to the slaves was perhaps most prominent in the plantation region of the lower South" (91).

28. "In 1845 Douglass led his readers to believe that the Sabbath school he opened at Freeland's was the result of pressure from fellow slaves who longed to learn to read. My Bondage and My Freedom brings out Douglass's selfish motives; he 'wanted a Sabbath school, in which to exercise my gifts' as well as to teach his brother slaves their letters. My Bondage and My Freedom also does not neglect to mention Douglass's preference for self-interest over the welfare of those he would have to leave behind in the slave quarters, people he knew were likely to suffer to some extent whether he succeeded or failed in his escape. In sum, the second autobiography deliberately brings to the fore the contradictions in Douglass's role at the turning point of his life that are at most only hinted at in the first autobiography" (Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 228).

29. A freeborn African American woman, born in 1823 to an affluent African American family, she was an integrationist and the "first black woman newspaper editor" (LEV, 318).

30. "We must then manifest love to God by obedience to his will—we must be cheerful workers in his cause at all times—on the Sabbath and other days. The more readiness we Evince the more we manifest our love, and as our field is directly among those of his creatures made in his own image in acting as themselves who is no respecter of persons we must have failed in our duty until we become decided to waive all prejudices of Education birth nation or training and make the test of our obedience God's Equal command to love neighbor as ourselves" (LEV, 319).

31. Thus far, Shadd's sermon is the only example of an African American appropriation of Jesus' teaching on the Sabbath that we have found.

Citation: Emerson B. Powery , Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., " Reading Against Jesus: Nineteenth Century African Americans' View of Sabbath Law," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=403

 
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