Preaching God’s Word to Slaves
“What to do about slave morals…And how to build up in slave parents a sense of responsibility for their children…and how to inculcate habits of honesty and responsibility, when in the first place one believed the black man innately had “thieving” propensities and was innately “irresponsible,” and in the second, felt he should possess nothing about which to be responsible. It was in this dilemma that many planters looked upon religion as a prime morale-builder and outlet, too, which could bear dividends in the sanctions it furnished for enforcing good conduct. A certain Bishop Mead of Virginia put the matter in this way in a sermon he specifically wrote for masters to use with their slaves. “Think within yourselves what a terrible thing it would be, after all your labors and suffering in this life, to be turned into hell in the next life….to go into far worse slavery when this is over, and your poor souls will be delivered over into the possession of the devil, to become his slaves forever in hell, without any hope of ever getting free from it.”
For a long period of years Jerry served as preacher and pastor for [William Lumpkin’s] slaves. As religious head, Jerry could sternly reprimand his fellow slaves who were “unruly” or “impudent,” or “slovenly,” or neglectful of their duty toward the master. Master and mistress stood by as they could to give comfort when death visited a slave’s loved ones, but it was Jerry who buried their dead, preached an eloquent funeral sermon, and gave them assurances of a happy hereafter over the river Jordan, where all who were faithful in the sight of God—and master—would someday go. It was he who saved their souls, converting them in the first place and then—a very slave John the Baptist—taking them down into the water of Syls Fork Creek each August at the annual baptism. My grandparents were not alone in seeing Jerry’s influence an exceedingly valuable possession. Neighboring planters coveted it, with the result that three others joined with Grandfather to build a church on the Lumpkin place where Jerry could be preacher for the four plantations’ slaves.
Jerry, it seems, suffered a single handicap. He could not read. Hence he could not read the words of his Bible. The story goes, however—for what it is worth—that Jerry surmounted the difficulty by reason of a phenomenal memory. Each Sunday morning my grandmother would make her way to the back veranda, or in winter to her rocking chair in the dining room. Jerry would be standing there waiting for her. His bare head bent a little and listening intently, he would watch her while she opened the Bible and read him a chapter. It was his own Bible she used. She had once given it to him at his urgent request, gladly complying with his wishes, confident as she was that the gift comforted him only by its possession. Having read the chapter slowly and distinctly, she would mark the place and hand him back his Book. That afternoon, standing on the rostrum of his little slave church, having led his congregation in song and wrestled lengthily with God in prayer, Jerry would open his Bible at the place Grandmother had marked for him. Then, it was said, there would pour from his lips the entire chapter his mistress had read aloud to him in the morning. He would “read” it word for word and from it take his text and preach his sermon.”
(The Making of a Southerner, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, 1991, UGA Press (original 1946), pp. 33-35)