"Marsa never sot Aunt Rebecca down": enslaved women, religion, and social power in the antebellum south.

Author:Stevenson, Brenda E.
Position:Critical essay

Annie Williams, the unofficial biographer of Aunt Rebecca, had been a slave of Robert Coles of Powhatan County, Virginia, during the antebellum era. When interviewed decades later as a part of the Virginia Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort, her description of some of the religious practices of her owner, his family, and his slaves emerged. According to Williams, Coles was a religious man who prayed with his family "ev'y single night." His prayer meetings were mandatory for his slaves who had to "come to de parlor same as de whites." Among this body of black participants, one woman's presence struck Williams as particularly noteworthy. (1)

Aunt Rebecca was an elderly enslaved woman who, not only attended the meetings, but actively participated. She often would give lengthy, passionate prayers garnering the attention and respect of other congregates. Williams was struck by this phenomenon for two reasons--Aunt Rebecca was a woman, and she was a slave. It was especially unusual, Williams suggested, because of Rebecca's gender: "Aunt Rebecca used to git up an' pray regular," Annie explained. "Didn't let women do much prayin' in dem days." (2)

Annie's conclusion regarding the lack of prominence of women in southern religious traditions was largely correct. It was especially so for slave women. (3) "[B]ut Marsa never sot Aunt Rebecca down," she continued. "Pray sometimes fo' half-hour an' white folks would sit there jus' as 'spectful as if she was de white preacher." (4) So too, no doubt, did the other enslaved men and women who were present. Williams clearly was impressed with the respect from her master and his family that Aunt Rebecca commanded, becoming keenly aware of the apparent transformative power that Rebecca's religiosity had on the elderly slave woman's social status. While praying, neither slaveholders nor slaves responded to her as a social inferior. Traditionally, a southern enslaved woman's race, gender, and certainly her slave status would have isolated her fundamentally from this type of social reception among slaveholding whites. Yet, Master Coles clearly was moved by Rebecca's passionate expression of her Christian faith--he and his family enjoyed hearing her pray. They also, no doubt, wanted her acceptance of "their religion" to be an example to their other slaves. What's more, Robert Coles probably felt secure that Rebecca's prayers would not undermine his command as master. He was, after all, present at these meetings and could have stopped them if he felt the need to do so. Moreover, Rebecca's gender may have reassured him that her prominence was quite a limited one. The phenomenon of Aunt Rebecca's reception as a spiritual leader among the Coles's slaves was equally complex, but for different reasons.

In many instances, Rebecca's gender would have limited her accessibility to public power within her slave community, particularly in slave communities where women were not in the majority. Yet, her advanced age, her obvious knowledge of religious text, and perhaps both the "memory" and contemporary "practice" of female "leaders" in traditional African religions allowed social space for female religious leadership in slave communities, even in those communities where their masters did not order them to attend worship services. (5) No matter how Aunt Rebecca came to her position on the Coles's estate, her social visibility and acceptance at this biracial meeting that cut deeply across entrenched social and cultural lines was more than a little impressive. Indeed, it is clear that from both the perspective of her master and that of the enslaved, Aunt Rebecca was an important bridge, socially and culturally, between the white and black worlds they inhabited. This unique role meant that she experienced a heightened social presence and status, a kind of social power, albeit situationally bound, that was rare for enslaved women.

"Social power" within this context means merely the ability of enslaved women to have a social presence and influence that was recognized beyond traditional boundaries. Usually, the "social power" of slave women was relegated to that of her family, immediate and extended. As wives, daughters, and particularly as mothers, slave women exerted significant social influence within their black households. They were, after all, the primary caretakers and most responsible for the socialization of their children. Their children, of course, collectively were the vast majority of youth who became the generations of southern slaves. Enslaved mothers, therefore, were responsible for shaping the social dynamics of slave life--teaching through example, moral tales, lecture, and responsive punishment, the dos and don'ts of slave social life within and outside their families and communities. Elderly enslaved women also wielded some social power, derived from the African tradition of reverence for the elderly and ancestral. African American women who were religious leaders crafted a social influence that was rooted both in maternal and elderly reverence, but which also derived from the deep respect many enslaved people, and small numbers of whites, held for someone of obvious spiritual enlightenment and moral superiority. Whites, for example, viewed women as especially capable of great spiritual strength and moral purity. It was, after all, the role of the white wife and mother to lead her husband and children to Christian salvation. (6)

It is not certain what Aunt Rebecca's "social" ambitions might have been when she took the floor every night to pray at the Coles's farm. It is not definite that she had any at all or, if she was socially ambitious, that her aspirations figured into her animated presence at the prayer meetings. What is reasonable to surmise, however, is that a slave woman's religious beliefs and expression, her religiosity if you will, provided her with unique opportunities to redefine herself socially vis-a-vis others, both slaves and slaveholders. Taking on the cloak and substance of a religious persona endowed them with the power to craft for themselves a new category of socially redemptive identity, that of "religious woman."

A comprehensive definition of that term cannot be located in one isolated primary source such as the Annie Williams biographical narrative; nor can it be exhaustively detailed here. Yet antebellum slave women's texts collectively suggest that for a bound woman to be "religious," in the various sacred traditions that they were actively creating and/or sustaining, meant taking on a number of personal and personality traits that had layered meaning and significance in their lives. As women of religion, slave female converts exhibited in their daily interactions and activities that they were trustworthy, generous, pious, and selfless, yet filled with self-esteem. They believed in the ability of their God or gods to "transform" and "save" them from "evil"; and to embolden them to be fearless in the face of "evil." (7) Being a part of a "religious womanhood," therefore, gave enslaved women the opportunity to expand, both vertically and horizontally, the traditional social space reserved for them in southern "slave society." It united them in a distinct "community" that was not necessarily bound by race and class. Moreover, their affiliation with this community of religious women empowered them not only to construct different social identities for themselves individually, but also to undermine, resist, and challenge the racism and misogyny that were endemic in their lives. (8)

This essay is an exploration of three interrelated phenomena: the presence of women in antebellum spiritual communities among the enslaved, primarily those of Christian origin; the public manifestation of religious womanhood among slaves, particularly with regard to its impact on self-images and the "traditional" role of motherhood; and some of the origins and boundaries of the leadership roles that these religious women were afforded in their spiritual communities. (9)


Many antebellum slave women clearly enjoyed and appreciated tremendously their individual religiosity and that which they shared with other African Americans. The importance of religion in their lives, as individuals as well in their communities, was part of a long tradition derived from their indigenous and Islamicized African past and sustained through their introduction to Christian texts and practices. (10) It was a tradition in which they were instructed to embrace religious beliefs, practices, and public demonstrations as central to one's own and one's community identity. As a fundamental cultural marker that could be manifest and transferred visually and orally, religious beliefs and practice styles were some of the most portable, and significant, of cultural attributes for slaves across the generations. African women and men could, and did, take the ideal that religion was a central component of one's identity with them from West Africa to the mainland colonies during the era of the African slave trade, and then again along the roadways from the upper to the lower South and Southwest as part of the domestic trade in human beings. (11) As such, it is of little surprise that long after slavery had ended, ex-bondswomen remembered their preparation, transportation to, and participation in religious gatherings with a sense of pride and celebration.

"In slavery days Sundays was one day we glad to see come," former slave Alice Marshall of Nottoway County, Virginia, explained. "Yes, we went to church. Had to walk four or five miles, but we went. We took our shoes in our hands an' walked barefooted. When we got near de church door, den we put on our shoes." (12) "On Sunday's you should o' seen us in our Sunday bes' gon' ter church 'hind de missus coach," Henrietta McCullers of Wake County, North Carolina, added. "We can't read de hymns ebben...

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