The services in a white rural Baptist or Methodist church, says Boles, had more in common with black worship than wish the dignified calm of a white Episcopalian service. With the exception of a few atypical areas with a very high percentages of blacks to whites, Boles thinks it likely that “in no other aspect of Black cultural life than religion had the values and practices of whites so deeply penetrated.” In a comparable observation, Blasingame estimates that “the church was the single most important institution for the ‘Americanization’ of the bondsman.”
For much of the colonial period, slave owners had serious doubts about attempts to convert the slaves to Christianity. However, the coincidence in the eighteenth century of the rapid growth of the slave population and community and the development of the Southern evangelical churches lead to a major change. In the nineteenth century, slaves became active members of Baptist and Methodist churches, sometimes representing a third or even half of the congregation. Boles claims that the churches were by far the most significant biracial institutions in the Old South, though he acknowledges that races sat apart in hurge, and that whites dominated the churches in every way that really mattered.
It is clear, too, that slaves took what they wanted and needed from their Christian faith and worship in its various forms. The emotional and psychological strengths which enabled slaves to withstand the dehumanizing aspects of their condition came in large measure from their faith For most slaves, says Boles, Christianity provided “both spiritual release and spiritual victory. They could inwardly repudiate the system and thus steel themselves to survive it. This subtle and profound spiritual freedom made their Christianity the most significant aspect of slave culture and defused much of the potential for insurrection.” But surely the faith of the slaves also kept alive the possibility of challenge to the system and the hope of deliverance.