What emerged from diverse traditions and the slaves’ adaption to the American environment was a distinct syncretic African-Christianity–and this development is traced more broadly by Blassingame and other historians. In a study of a very different South Carolina community, Orville Burton offers a rather different picture of the slave religion. He points to the revolutionary potential of some aspects of slave Christianity, notably in its emphasis on the theme of deliverance. But he also stresses the role of religion as an instrument of racial control in the hands of the whites. In his early efforts to assert his authority as a slaveholder, James Henry Hammond set out to break up black churches and stop black preaching, and urged his neighbors to do the same. He replaced the slave’s own meetings with regular white-controlled services, conducted by itinerant white preachers. But this was another battle where Hammond was unlikely to win a complete victory over his slaves; they continues to hold their own meetings, and Hammond remained fearful of the leadership and organization they provided in the slave community and of their potential challenge to his power.
The transformation in our understanding of slave religion achieved by Genovese, Raboteau, Levine, and others–like all such major reinterpretations–has aroused anxiety in those who fear that it may be pushed too far, and frustration in those who are anxious to press on still further. A leading member of the first school thought is John Boles, an acknowledged authority on the religious history of the South, who examines slave religion in this broader context.
In his view, the underground church with its worship conducted away from their masters has been “insufficiently understood and greatly exaggerated.” Boles does not deny the existence of the importance of religious activity within the slave quarters and among the slaves themselves, but sees it as an extension or supplement to a more public worship. According to boles, many more slaves participated in the worship of white or mixed churches than in their own private gatherings. The emotionalism, the style of preaching, and the active participation of the congregation, typical of black services had their parallels in Southern white churches. The services in a white rural Baptist or southern white churches.