Slave Weddings and Religion

Sudie Duncan Sides explores plantation life in the Southern states before the American Civil War.

The Southern woman of America’s nineteenth century lived in the carefully proscribed world of most American women, a world defined by men: fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Expected to be a gracious and efficient housewife, and to find contentment in the domestic sphere, she was consumed by her children and her home. If she happened to be the mistress of a plantation or farm, she also had charity work to fill time and add variety to the dull routine of her life.

The Southern woman considered herself a kind of missionary and social director, bringing the faith to the black heathen, making their lives a little easier. Her husband encouraged her home missionary work, and while he studied plantation records and the mathematics of production, she worried over the details of religious training and celebrations for the slaves. The guiltier the mistress felt about having slaves, the more seriously she took her work; for this work gave her satisfaction and a sense of having a meaning in her life.

If her husband built a plantation church for the slaves, the mistress felt proud, and she would often write in her diary about ‘our little church’, built ‘for the benefit of the slaves’. Having built the church where the slaves worshipped, the planter felt he had the right to supervise the sort of preaching heard there.

As his ‘views for the civilizing of the Negroes led him to forbid the presence of exciting Negro preachers’, he would arrange for a white preacher to come to the church once a month or, if possible, on two sabbaths. Sensing the blacks’ desire for their own preachers, however, he might arrange it so that ‘on alternate Sundays some preacher of their own race gave them a sermon and led them in prayer’.

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