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The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation

"We'll Soon Be Free"


We'll soon be free,
We'll soon be free,
We'll soon be free,
When de Lord will call us home.

-- verse from a song sung at a plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina

Slaves worshiped with great enthusiasm. Religion, after all, provided a ready refuge from their daily miseries and kindled the hope that one day their sorrows might end. Planters actually encouraged religious observances among their slaves hoping that exposure to Christian precepts might make their laborers more docile, less prone to run away, and more cooperative and efficient workers. But slaves turned biblical scriptures to their own purposes forging a theology that often emphasized the theme of liberation. It was easy for them to see, for example, in the figure of Moses a useful model for their own dreams; like the Israelites, they too were ready to cross a River Jordan into a promised land of freedom. The religious services held in the quarters provided slaves with so many positive experiences that, even as they were being exploited, they managed bravely, but perhaps not too surprisingly, to feel that they were free within themselves. In this way slaves began to achieve a degree of liberation well before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union soldiers arrived bringing them the news.

Slave worship on a South Carolina plantation (22.1)
(Reproduction of a drawing from the Illustrated London News, December 5, 1863)

Slave chapel at Mansfield plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina (22.2)
(Photograph by Charles N. Bayless, 1977

Some planters provided special buildings for Sunday services and even hired preachers, frequently white men, to lead the worship. Former slaves found these proceedings dull and reported that only when they returned to their quarters could they expect to hear some "real" preaching; that is, rhythmic chanted sermons backed up by inspiring gospel hymns.

Mose Hursey, former slave from Red River County, Texas (22.3)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1938)

I heard them [slaves] get up with a powerful force of spirit, clapping they hands and walking around the place. They'd shout, " I got the glory. I got the old time religion in my heart." I seen some powerful figurations of the spirit in them days. Uncle Billy preached to us and was right good at preaching . . .

-- Mose Hursey, former slave from Red River County, Texas describing a Sunday service in the slave quarters

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