The Religious Life of The Negro Slave.
RELIGION does not obliterate the constitutional peculiarities of a man, or do away with the force of habit or training. It indeed changes a man by implanting new affections, and imparting new motives and hopes, but without impairing the individuality of the person. The life of the negro slave in America is a peculiar one; and hence Christianity in him must manifest itself in many respects in a peculiar manner. I propose, from an experience of fourteen years in the cotton-growing States of the South, spent in daily intercourse with the slaves, to present a few sketches illustrating the religious life of the slaves. I shall select for my subjects only those who are purely negroes; for the mulattoes differ in all respects, physically, intellectually, and morally, from those of pure African blood. I present facts which came under my own observation, and describe persons whom I have known. The reader will judge whether my influences are correct, and will draw others for himself.
In the church with which I was connected the colored deacons were elected by vote at some regularly called meeting of the colored people. They were four in number, and so selected that their homes were in the different neighborhoods where the colored church-members resided. Each neighborhood had thus really its own bishop, who was no less a bishop because called deacon. His duties of oversight, direction, watch-care, and advice were quite apostolic in their nature and extent.
Nothing was more suggestive than a meeting for the election of a deacon. Often no white person except the pastor would be present; for the law which, in many Southern States, requires at least three slaveholders to be present at all religious meetings of the blacks, has no real existence but on the statute-books. Even in South Carolina I have known of hundreds of such meetings without even one white person being present. In meetings like this, however, where business is to be transacted, the pastor is necessarily present. By consulting with the deacons concerning the candidate to be elected he ascertains his Christian character and standing, and whether the church will be pleased with the election. He then calls upon the singers for a hymn, and the meeting is regularly organized.
The usual devotional exercises, prayer and singing, occupy about half an hour. These are generally conducted by the negroes — the pastor being a quiet participator in the worship. When the time usually allotted to devotional exercises has expired the pastor rises, explains the nature and duties of the office of deacon, and announces the name of the candidate, who, after full consultation with the church-members, has been presented by the colored deacons as a worthy recipient of their suffrages.
The question is then put whether this brother shall be considered their deacon, and the response is given by uplifted hands. The vote is usually unanimous — none responding to the call, "Those of a contrary mind by the same sign."
This is a great day for that colored individual. He has reached a position on the records of his people. There is no hour by day, and hardly an hour by night, that he is not conscious of his dignity. You would know him any where as a father in Israel. Such gravity of deportment, such a staid respectability of appearance, such order and sometimes neatness even in dress, mark the deacon as a model for his neighbors. And then for the virtues of honesty, sobriety, and correctness few white deacons are more consistent. These deacons thus chosen have great moral influence over the people; this they always regard as legitimate authority. The natural superstition of the negro here comes in to aid the deacon; and they readily believe that spiritual power has been conferred by the imposition of official dignity. As this power is, however, very much abridged in its exercise by a law of the church requiring a vote of the whites in order to the expulsion of a member, it resolves itself at last into simple influence. The negro deacon, who is connected with a white church, can not say as did the colored pastor of the colored church in the city, whenever opposed by his flock, "I cut your head off," meaning he would expel them. The utmost limit of executive power of the colored official in the country is to report to the white deacons and have the offender brought before the white church for trial.
But in all things pertaining to pastoral duties the deacons are most faithful. They visit, pray with, and exhort the sick, rebuke the impenitent, counsel the weak, conduct social meetings for prayer, wherever such meetings are permitted by the proprietor of a plantation, and especially have vigilant watch over the young, striving to keep them in the path of rectitude. Without their assistance and influence the white pastor would be wholly ignorant of the moral and religious condition of this part of his flock; with their assistance the colored part of the church is almost always the most active and best disciplined.
One of the most zealous and vigilant of these worthy and faithful church officers was Uncle Peter. Peter was the oldest deacon of the church. He was also the most active and influential. In
480dignity and precision of manner he was never surpassed by any deacon of any age, nation, or color. No one ever saw him do a childish or trivial thing, at least in a trifling manner. In the field, in his family, wherever he was, he was the same formal, precise, dignified official; a terror to evil-doers, if not a shield to them that did well. In appearance Peter was one of those small, straight, wiry men who have not a curve in their spines, nor a relaxed muscle in their bodies. There was nothing of the plantation about him, but in every thing he was an orderly, staid, respectable village servant. He had the air of a butler, or confidant and head-manager of some demure widow. Like many other small men Peter had a very large wife, chosen as if for the purpose of adding to her husband's dignity. In dress he was a model of plainness and cleanliness. The usual church costume was a low-crowned broad-brim, blue cotton suit, low shoes, and an inevitable umbrella. The walk to and from the church was a model scene of propriety and family decorum. With the large wife on one arm, "the cotton umbrella, used as a cane, and a young Peter trotting circumspectly by the paternal side, nothing could be more decorous.
As a deacon and official Peter never was known to err by an undue charity toward the offending. He was a great man for "discipline." But he was as conformable to the letter of the church law as was ever judge to a statute "made and provided." He never would overlook a fault, had no allowance to make for the weak, no charity for them when strongly tempted, and was stern and inflexible in view of all their excuses. But let them profess repentance and ask forgiveness, Peter was always lenient. The law said "Forgive," and the repentant must be forgiven. So without the least shadow of sympathy or feeling, Peter moved for their forgiveness. The whole air of the man meanwhile expressing the absolute impossibility that any temptation could ever affect him.
Peter's weakness was his "ambition," i. e., temper. He was too quick, too sensitive, to be a model deacon. He came near producing great discord in the church from his over-sensitiveness to insult, as he would characterize any disrespect toward himself, or any want of deference to his authority. Meeting him one morning on my way to church, and learning that the meeting was intentional on his part, as he was under a "great grievance" about some church occurrence, I paused to hear him. After blowing his nose, wiping his face, and settling his countenance into respectful repose, Peter commenced in his very precise manner:
"I doesn't wish, Sir, to produce any objections in de church, but I never can serve de table again wid Brudder John."
"Why not? What is the matter with John?"
"Well, Sir, I isn't molishus; but Brudder John unconsiderate; he make no consideration for respect ob one's feelings."
"What has happened?"
"Well, Sir, I wishes to make no discouragement in de church; but one ob us must go out. I can't serve wid John any more."
"What has he done?"
"Well, Sir, he hab no consideration. I appoints him to go and see Sis Sally Laborde, about Green, and consecrate de everdence. He not done so. He say I promise to see her myself. I say No; he promise to see her. And, Sir, he up and give me de lie-bill."
"Lie-bill, Sir. Never had a lie-bill before, Sir, and from a brudder and deacon in de church. I mus call de church togedder, Sir, pon dis casion; Brudder John and I can't serve togedder at de table."
In all this there was a great sense of injury, arising wholly from the wounded dignity of the senior deacon. The "lie-bill" was in time repented of, and Peter was obliged to exercise forgiveness.
It was by Peter that I had my attention directed to the philosophy of "collections." The incident which occasioned the exposition of that philosophy was one not only illustrating the sphere of action in which the negro deacon moves, but was alike creditable to Peter's good management and good heart.
On one of the neighboring plantations lived a sister named Becky. Now Becky was too old and infirm to attend the meetings, and was entirely dependent for spiritual consolations upon the visits and prayers of the deacons. It was also customary at certain seasons, after preaching, to make collections for Sis Becky and a few others, who, like her, were dependent for their luxuries upon the liberality of their brethren. Two or three times during the year Peter would remind the congregation of their duty to those who were thus poor and dependent, and announce that "de collection for de poor members would be receive on dis present occasion." It was after one of these announcements, and the accompanying collection, which, having been taken by passing round the hat, was a scandalous failure, that I received from Peter the following instruction. The "change" had just been counted, and was in the act of vanishing into Peter's handkerchief when I approached the table.
"Got sixty-five cent, Sir, bekase de principles of de contribution not understood."
"De colored folks, Sir, is peculiar — dey needs perswasion. If you pass de hat nobody observe de consequences. But when dey comes forward to de table, de obserwations is perspicwos, and dey gibs berry much wid dere anxiety."
This seemed true in philosophy, and was trot in fact. The next Sunday Peter managed the collection, and several dollars were contributed to supply Sis Becky with sugar, flour, and other creature comforts.
Peter prided himself, not without just cause, on the thoroughness and infallibility of his discipline. He knew every colored member of his
481church, and kept himself accurately informed concerning the habits and indulgences of those whom he had any reason to think open to suspicion. No deed of darkness, however secretly performed, but sooner or later reached the knowledge of Peter. As soon as there was any ground for scandal, the colored deacons went to work to sift the rumor, and bring to light any tangible wickedness. They were as expert in following all the windings and doublings of the delinquent as a trained detective. The negro's accurate observation of the doings of their fellows, and the sort of freemasonry which exists among them, were made available for the good of the church and the enlightenment of the deacons. If the reports were mere scandals, nothing was said to the white members; but if the delinquent was fairly proved guilty, the white deacons were called in, and the evidence submitted to them; and if thus confirmed, a report was made to the white church, and expulsion of the offender followed.
Peter's appearance during preaching was perfectly impassive. He was outwardly a carved statue of faded ebony. Over his face passed no emotion, and he rarely changed his position. When called upon to pray at the close of the sermon, he rose with dignity, kneeled slowly, and with erect trunk and motionless head delivered, with great simplicity of manner and profound humility, a series of very touching and pathetic petitions.
The keynote of all these petitions was gratitude. There was not much confession; perhaps Peter's idea of dignity in a church officer did not permit such humiliation. There was much magnifying of the great honor and glory of Christ's people: nothing of doubt or uncertainty concerning the future, nor much fear of being overcome by the trials of life nor the allurements of the world. There were quite vivid contrasts, in which the abjectness and deprivations of this "subluminary life" were compared with the future glory which was to be revealed. And the growth in grace, and increase in holiness of the soul, were felt to be possible things; and the bestowment of power to exhibit their manifestation before others was most fervently implored. The subjects of Peter's prayers were presented with great symmetry of arrangement. The people, the families, our dear children and relatives, our fellow-servants, the church members, the church officers, the pastor — all had a share of his fervent supplications. Especially was the pastoral office magnified, as bringing light and comfort to the ignorant and debased. For the pastor himself Peter always implored greater unction and fervency; and he enforced these petitions by scriptural language as he understood it. The metaphors were not quite as clear to the pastor himself, who hardly knew, in the fulfillment of the petition, what would legitimately be expected of him. The petition was after this order (when the pastor's turn came): "And now, O Lord! bless our brudder, thy ministering servant, our pastor and great under shepherd, who gib us de bread ob de gospel instruction, and may de family all hab de abundance ob de blessin. Be de matter an de manner when he preaches, and, abub all, de Lord make him as fiery as a serpent and as harmless as a dove."
What the association of ideas was, unless something pertaining to fiery serpents, the pastor never could imagine.
There was also a style of expression in these petitions which was wholly peculiar to Peter. He had a manner of involving or rolling up his sentences in the form of climaxes, which was never heard from any other church officer. This was, however, more an intellectual idiosyncrasy than official peculiarity, and therefore the other deacons never aspired to it. The facility with which it was done, and the extent to which it was carried, always led me to the conclusion that Peter studied the thing. There would be in a prayer perhaps a dozen such arrangements as the following:
"O Lord, send, and descend, and condescend wid dy Spirit."
"Cause de sinner to turn, and return, and overturn, till he break down at de foot ob de cross ob Calvary."
"Help us to see, and foresee, and oversee dese tings."
Such an ingenious arrangement of triplets, coming as they did so frequently and appositely, and in the fervency of his supplications, could hardly have been spontaneous. Peter, with all his good qualities and even stoicism, evidently had a weakness — he studied effect.
"White deacons are often and every where made objects of ridicule. But I have never heard from white scoffers even, when the character of the negro deacons was canvassed, any expressions of contempt. They were too humble and too useful to be derided. As a class they are far more free from reproach than are the negro preachers. They are more stable and respectable; and if possessed of less of that genius which, though often brilliant, is no less erratic, and sometimes vicious, they have also less temptation to gratify vanity, and to court by public displays the admiration and applause of their fellow-servants.
This was a church composed entirely of blacks, most of whom were slaves. The congregation numbered quite a thousand persons. The building and lot were owned by the church, and the title-deeds were held in their name by responsible individuals. The pastor had been sold from. Virginia to Louisiana, was a mechanic by trade, and the church had purchased his freedom.
482They paid him, in weekly collections, a yearly salary of something more than a thousand dollars. His character as a preacher and pastor will appear from the narrative; and though he is not a representative of the whole body of slave preachers in the Southern cities, yet he is a representative of a class. To understand the whole truth concerning the subjects before us, we must contemplate both the good and the bad, for there are bad ministers even among the slaves, though in the main the good greatly predominate.
One Sunday afternoon I entered the African church among a lively throng of worshipers. I was a little late in my arrival, and the members of the church, anxious to secure seats, were hurrying impatiently to the sanctuary. If any one has ever associated with the slave the idea of unvarying gloom, depression, and suffering, he should have seen the chattering girls and fashionably-dressed boys who were pouring through the church court-yard. The younger "girls" were dressed in pretty, French-looking costumes, many of them exceedingly tasteful. The "boys" sported kid gloves, glossy beavers, patent-leather boots, and were many of them quite exquisite. This was the Sunday costume of house servants, clerks, porters, etc., in an Anglo-French city, and is no criterion for slave costume any where else; certainly not upon the plantations. As we seated ourselves near the pulpit we saw it occupied by the pastor of the church, another colored preacher, and a white preacher from Mobile; and we were informed, greatly to our disappointment, that the "white brother" was to preach. The services were commenced by the pastor, who prayed and read the hymns, in all which there was nothing peculiar. You might as well have been in a white congregation, and in a city any where else, for all that was distinctive in those services. But soon we had something peculiar. One of the deacons sitting at the right of the pulpit, in attempting to "raise the tune," unfortunately pitched upon the wrong metre, and couldn't make the music and the words fit. Here was an occasion for pastoral authority, and it came from the pulpit as follows:
"Who dat start dat tune? Who dat don't know how sing? Stop dat, and let somebody sing knows how to sing. Brudder Peter, you sing."
Poor deacon! he was overwhelmed; he fairly wilted under the pastoral crook. But "Brudder Peter" rose most sublimely to the occasion; hitting at a dash the right tune; and the immense congregation, who really "knew how to sing," carried the rolling melody triumphantly to the skies.
And here was noticeable that peculiar element of negro worship which you can hear but in their meetings — devotional singing. Here the negro is within the sphere of his spiritual manifestations. His singing is not artistic; not wonderful for its vocalization; but you can hardly keep from weeping under its influence.
There is about it a peculiar pathos, and it is the pathos of devotion. There is nothing which thus affects you at their "corn-shucking." There they are simply boisterous and monotonous; they are not even mirthful. But let them sing of Jesus, of salvation, of heaven, and you see how susceptible they are to those religious impressions which appeal to their gratitude, their sympathies, and their hopes. You feel at once that you are listening to worshipers.
The usual prayer following the singing was by the "white brother;" and this and even the white brother's sermon were in nothing remarkable, except for dullness. But the closing exercises by the pastor were remarkable, and exceedingly effective. These exercises consisted first, of a minute and critical review of the white brother's sermon, with notes and corrections of said sermon, and a running practical application of the whole to his hearers; and, secondly, of another exposition of the same chapter, in the pastor's own peculiar style, and for all the world as if he was showing the white brother how he should have preached it. And, indeed, as to ability, there was no comparison between them. The pastor was a master. The subject had been an exposition of a chapter in James. The preacher belonged to a sect calling themselves Christians, though called by their neighbors Campbellites; and expository preaching is one of their weaknesses. The review of this performance was not highly complimentary to the expositor; and contained many effective hits, too palpably just to be ignored. Thus:
"My brudder call your tention to de fact dat God did temp Abra'am; and den he go on to tell you bout Abra'am's temptation. Now I don't like dat word temp-tation. God can not be tempted wid evil; neither temptest he any man. Suppose we read that word temp try. Ah, my brudder (turning to the white preacher), why you no say try? — After dese things God did try Abra'am. He try his people now. Who hasn't trials and triberlations from God? But I don't like dat word temp. I — tell — you" (to the congregation) "God — don't — temp — any — body !"
This was fair exposition.
The white preacher had also made another point in which he was open to correction; and the pastor corrected him — thus:
"My brudder also tell you bout de las day; and bout de angel Gabriel blowin de trumpet to wake de dead and call de people to judgment. Ah, my brudder" (turning to the preacher), " where you read dat bout angel Gabriel blowin de trumpet? I tell you" (to congregation. "dere ain't one word in dis blessed book 'bout angel Gabriel blow de trumpet! God gwine to blow His own trumpet — DE TRUMP OB GOD! Anqel Gabriel nothing to do wid it!"
This was also fair criticism.
The practical application also was not wanting. In alluding to what the preacher had said during his exposition about the government of
483the tongue, he gave his fair hearers the full benefit of the application — thus:
"My brudder also speak about de guberment ob de tongue! de guberment ob de tongue!! DE GUBERMENT OB DE TONGUE!!! Ah, my sister, you got a BIG slap dar!"
This was a hit, as was evident from the sensation.
Then came what I suppose was the showing of how the subject should have been handled by his white brother; any how it couldn't have been better illustrated. And in the resume which was given of the sacrifice of Isaac, and the results of Abraham's "trial," some of the negro peculiarities when under preaching were manifested. Especially was this true during the very graphic description given of the prospective sacrifice. There was but little of the negro syllabication or intonation in the finest parts of the description. How the man accomplished it I have never been able to conjecture, but the description of the offering of Isaac was intensely affecting. We were all in tears. Such pathos, such descriptive eloquence, such simple imagery, such analysis of the father's emotions when the rescue came, such an overwhelming effect when all this in a sudden burst of appeal was applied to the hearers, and their deliverance by Christ. Such pathetic tones when alluding to the sacrifice on Calvary, and "no ram in the thicket there." It was a most extraordinary exhibition.
As for the hearers, it was very easy to see what most moved them. At the description of their rescue by Christ — the coming from heaven as a substitute — the injunction that "no hand should be laid upon the lad," and the assuring, exhilarating parts of the discourse — they would first begin a gentle swaying, rocking motion — as the intensity of their emotions increased they would throw up their hands and half shout, as if their enjoyment was irrepressible. Then would come down the pastoral crook with, "Now look at dat. I'm shamed ob you! dese white bredren here too! You won't let me go on wid de glories ob salvation. You gin shoutin. I hab to keep you on de tribulations to keep you quiet!"
Here was the explanation of the whole philosophy of the effect produced upon his impressible hearers. In their simplicity they were literal believers. They believed the promises and assurances of the preacher without caviling; and they shouted over their certain salvation. They believed that they were to reach heaven throuph tribulation, and they were saddened at the allusion. It was the exhibition of what is one peculiar element of the negro character — his simple receptive nature, and his earnest emotional faith. "He believeth with the heart," and "receiveth the truth as a little child." Here, too, was illustrated the character of the preaching which is to affect the negro. The white preacher was didactic, dry, and powerless; and the same is true of all the white preaching which I have heard addressed to the negro. None can move the negro but a negro. He alone understands the avenue to their emotions and sympathies, because they are identical with his own.
As in most white churches the contribution-box came at the close of the exercises. But who would have expected a plate full of silver from slaves! They were as liberal as princes, though it was only their usual Sunday collection. The contribution amounting to about thirty dollars.
These services as I then witnessed them, and as I afterward had occasion to learn during a two years residence in New Orleans, were a fair specimen of negro worship in that city. So orderly was the congregation that they were not even watched by the authorities. Such exclusive meetings among the negroes were, however, peculiar to that city. At services which I have attended in Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond, the congregations were under much greater restraint, and were therefore more formal in their manner of worship. I have selected my illustrations from the church in New Orleans because of this, preacher and audience were alike unrestrained, and showed the negro's peculiarities when under the influence of the civilization and refinements of a city.
In some respects the church, whose public worship we have already noticed, will better illustrate the slave's character as affected by religion than will even the country churches. This was purely a colored church; in the country such a thing is rarely if ever known. There the whites control, and in all important matters of church government the negroes are voiceless. Here, however, the negro was supreme. From pastor to sexton no white influence was allowable.
The negro's idea of a democratic form of government, and also of church government (Baptist), was here well illustrated. So was also a tendency, which has been thought by many to be in the negro an invariable accompaniment of power, viz., to change simple authority into despotism. Certainly no religious association was ever more strictly ruled than was the church now under consideration. And if the "pastoral crook" was sometimes made a rod of iron, it may have been necessary in order to make the pastoral authority effective. As to the facts which were developed those who hear them can form their own opinions.
I was one day sitting in my study striving, almost hopelessly, to shake off the enervating list-lessness and lassitude produced by the sultriness of the tropical noonday when three visitors entered. They were negroes, but fine-looking, well dressed, and evidently belonging to the upper class of intelligent house-servants. They introduced themselves with great respect and formality, apologizing for their intrusion, and urging as an excuse the necessities of their errand, and the need which they felt for advice upon matters connected with their church relations. They belonged to the church whose critical pastor had already in my presence manifested his wonderful power over the emotions of his hearers. And it now appeared that this was but a faint shadow of his administrative power which, though less openly, was not less resistlessly wielded.
It appeared from their representations that their pastor was more effective in the pulpit than above reproach in the moralities of private life, and that a recent event had so excited the indignation of a part of his flock that they wished to leave him and join the little white church of the same denomination in that city. The points of the statement were eliminated as follows:
"You are in good standing, why not ask for your letter of dismission?"
"We daresn't do it. He cut our heads off" (meaning expulsion from the church).
"But he can't do that. It is against the rules of his own church."
"Oh, Sir, you don't know! He do any thing. He get us up in dat room, way up de stairs — and he do any thing."
"Are your church-meetings private?"
"Oh yes, Sir! De deacon stand at de door, an he let the members in. He let in dem he wants."
"Why do you wish to leave?"
"Cause, Sir, de scandal be so great."
"Why, Sir, bout Sis Julia."
"What about Sister Julia?"
"Why, you see, Sir, dis mornin de neighbors hear a big noise in de back yard, an dey runs and dere Sis Julia was fightin Sis Mary. Tearin de cloves, and dey jess holler so loud you hear em in de street. Sis Julia say she jess good right to go see her brudder as Sis Mary. An dere dey was fightin bout it. Some of de peoples went in to find Brudder Sanders, and dey find him way up in de garret, under old mosquito net, an he fraid to come down."
How were the mighty fallen! Here was our pungent critic, our fearless reprover of unmetrical deacons, our Boanerges and Apollos both in one, hiding in abject fear behind an old mosquito netting in his garret. Evidently here was a great scandal, and the more respectable part of the church didn't wish to be involved in it. It was bad for the pastor; but it spoke well for the people to wish to cleanse their sanctuary from such a scandalous shame.
Here, too, was a great discovery. Aside from the pastoral delinquencies, here was a new thing suddenly brought to light — nothing less than a spiritual despotism. The sense of powerlessness on the part of these three intelligent men was really touching to witness. They were determined to leave the church, and yet they were in actual terror at the thought of their own hardihood. The detail of their subsequent difficulties, the tediousness, the utter failure of all representations and appeals to justice in behalf of those men need not be narrated. The pastor was determined to have them retained under his authority, where they could be controlled; and individual rights were not to be entertained. By threats, and his own fears of exposure, the doughty pastor was at last induced to relax the reins of authority, and let these poor fellows have letters of dismission from his church; and after he had pledged himself to grant them liberty, such was their abject fear of his power that they doubted their own good fortune while it was prospective; and even after being dismissed they almost doubted their own deliverance.
The closing scene of the church-meeting at which their dismissal was granted was more unique than imposing. The church-meeting was held in a large upper-room over the place of public worship. This room was accessible only by a private staircase, the door of which was kept by one of the initiated. Here were now assembled the church to grant letters of dismission to the small number of recusants (now reduced to six) whose courage was adequate to the trial. After an address by the pastor, fully explaining the great indulgence he was granting, he turned suddenly to the clerk of the church with the following instructions:
"Now I'me gwine to gib letters to all dem folks what feels dem selves too good to stay here wid dere culled bredren and sister. You, Brudder Satterlee, go right ober to my house, an bring me five, six, sebben quire ob paper — five, six, sebben quire paper. I wants paper miff for all dese peoples." (He knew there were but five or six out of as many hundreds.) "Mose all de bredren an sisters gwine to leave us. I want five, six, sebben quire paper. Nuff paper to gib ebbery one letter."
The poor fellows had been expecting something like this address, but they were notwithstanding almost crushed by the sarcasm, and the accompanying laughter which greeted these sallies. As they expressed it, "We felt so mean, we t'ought we should sink." Soon the paper came, and after being ostentatiously displayed, and the sheets counted aloud, the pastor followed up his telling blows after this wise:
"Now all you people what don't want to stay in dis church, but wants to go and jine dat little white church, an be put way up stars, in dat little gallery under de ceilin' dare, where you set on benches lookin at de white folks on de cushion in de pew, you all jess come now and get your letter."
Nobody came. The poor fellows implicated would have given all they had to have been well
485out of the scrape. As for going up before that battery of sinning eyes and glistening ivories, and taking a letter for such purpose, they couldn't stand it. "We jess stood dere by de winder, niassa, an sweat jess like de rain was pourin." And had the artful pastor not counted too much upon his own power and upon the weak spirits of his subjects, there the matter would have ended. But it is the last straw which breaks the camel's back; and one more hit produced a revulsion rather than an extinction. Intending to give a final shot as a demolisher, he continued:
"Why don't you come, you folks wat don't like to sit down stars in pews, but want to go to de white church to sit up dere in dat little gallery? Why don't you come — forty, fifty, hundred ob you — all we got paper for — why don't you come an take letters?
Nobody starts, and the pastor continues:
"Come now; we is awaitin! All you folks wat wants to go an set down by de door when de white folks hab de communion, an wait dare till dey gets trew fore you gits some. Come now, an git your letter!" This was one blow too many; it was striking a fallen adversary, and it aroused the sense of injustice and feeling of resistance which the negro keenly experiences when imposed upon by his fellows. The six indignantly presented themselves; and the letters, with many sneers and much ridicule, were finally given. I will add, by way of completing this narrative, that a new church was formed, with the seceders as a nucleus; and that this soon outstripped the parent church in numbers and respectability. And when I last heard from them (1861) they had built a large meeting-house, and were under a white pastor, whose salary was not less than fifteen hundred dollars. These men often declared to me that they would never again be under a colored pastor; and they persisted in this during the twelve years that I had knowledge of their history.
The points worthy of notice in these facts are, the negroes idea of government, and their reluctance to be governed by each other. With them all government is absolutism. There is no medium between freedom and despotism. We may say that this is from the want of education, or that it is the effect of a peculiar education; and no doubt it is. We are not so much concerned with causes as with facts. Here was a fair experiment. A pure negro, himself but recently freed from slavery, and who we would therefore suppose would appreciate liberty. He was not uneducated, he had studied church government thoroughly, and we had long discussions concerning the limits of the power of the majority. This power he always understood and interpreted as being absolute, he brought with him books of reference to sustain his views, though he always misinterpreted his authorities. He showed the habit of a reader, if not of a student. Still he had no conception of moral influence as a means of government, Government was absolutism. It is not strange that he should have learned nothing else when a slave; but it was discouraging to perceive that he could not be taught to conceive of any thing else when a free man and a Christian pastor.
And this same feature of the negro character I have seen illustrated in almost innumerable instances, in the family, in the field, and in the church. Wherever the negro has power he understands it to be without limit. It is this indulgence of arbitrariness rather than deliberate cruelty which leads him so often to fell with a blow his favorite domestic animals, and not less frequently his own children. From this cause, too, the negro slave is himself a most intolerable task-master whenever placed in authority over his fellow-servants, and this makes his inflictions of punishment, when permitted, most severe and unsparing. To govern is to crush into powerlessness whatever opposes his will.
That such is the tendency in the exercise of pastoral authority is a sad truth, but one which we must recognize if we would see things as they exist. And it is owing to a consciousness of this fact that the second point mentioned as worthy of notice in our illustration is interesting. This point is, the reluctance which the negro feels to being governed by colored pastors.
There is the more significance in this, because the "colored brethren" are so much preferred as preachers. When in the pulpit there is a wonderful sympathy between the speaker and his audience. A sympathy which finds expression in those peculiar tones which are inimitable by a preacher of any other race, and which, in their influence upon the negro hearers, are unequaled. This sympathetic influence seems the result of both a peculiar organization and a peculiar experience. None but a negro can so preach as fully to arouse, excite, and transport the negro. But when the question is one of government, as in the pastorship, they will prefer a white pastor. This preference was not an incidental thing, but is illustrative of a characteristic trait.