• nathan byrd

Slave Order of Service

Al Raboteau talks about Black slave worship in his book Slave Religion. He refers to the mostly informal and often secret worship services organized and led by Black slaves in the US. Often these worship experiences took place at night. What was the liturgy in these services? What was the work of the people in the context of the gathering/assembly before God?

Frederick Douglass gives us a window to the music of theses gatherings. He wrote in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) of singing spirituals during his years in bondage: "A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan." We see the faith become contextual and more meaningful than the overseer religion; or, any other expression of Christianity for that matter.

From the Back of the Big House by John Michael Vlach, "we remember that 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." However, the exact order of service seems archivally illegible. Many liturgical details are missing.

Nonetheless, a survey of what is available leads us to believe that there was emphasis on subduing [Al Raboteou] the noise level while singing, praying, and preaching though these expressions came with great charismatic energy. Some say that the pattern for worship paralleled the worship services characteristics of the Second Great Awaking. While, there is a huge disconnect with European models, or North African models, the reach and power of these services are something to behold.

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