As indentures, slaves volunteered to work a minimum of seven Years, after which point they would receive their freedom. Most of the original thirteen colonies, like Massachusetts prohibited slavery.
In Its first Constitution, the Body of Liberties, explicitly illegalized it. As the New World grew, corporations supported by the Crown began to use forced labor or chattel slavery to establish colonies while the religious colonies maintained the use of indentures. In fact, the men of faith mandated slaveholders Christianize their servants by teaching them how to read the catechism.
Fearing the evangelizing of slaves would lead to their liberation because Christian law taught it was sinful to enslave a Christian, the rebellious slaveholders refused to abide by the laws and banned the Bible and all books from all of their servants and slaves.
In the eighteenth century, slavers finally bowed to the political pressure imposed by religious groups like the Propagation of the Society of the Gospel. They allowed the slaves to learn the catechism through rote, without the use of books.
However, it was too late. While the slavers blamed the slaves unbreakable spirit of seeking freedom to a “Slave run-away” cat disease they called drapetomania, the slaves gave the glory to the Bible and to its liberating powers. As a result, they began holding church in secret, in places called Hush Harbors.
Whenever slaveholders left their books and Bibles unguarded, they would take them and “steal away” into the hush harbor where they learned how to read, plan escapes and discern parables.
“Hush Harbors,” were primarily located in places like the Dismal Swamp or ravines, ditches and thickets. Because of the fear of being caught and brutally punished they never held clandestine church Services in the same place. Encrypted directions lead believers to the sites. The first people to arrive at the meeting used a broken tree bough to point towards the hush harbor. The slaves then hung quilts to create a tabernacle. In an effort to suppress the sounds, the slaves dampened the quilts and filled a kettle with water.
To Learn More about the history of The Black Church Listen to our podcast, an interview with National Smithsonian Historian Sherry Dupree