In the modern era, Christianity and slavery are considered an oxymoron. But for much of Christian history, many saw no conflict between keeping the faith and keeping or trading slaves. From the first century until the Civil War, the Bible itself was often used to justify slavery.
This troubling relationship is the focus of an exhibit at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School. “The Yoke of Servitude: Christianity and African Slavery in the United States” presents more than 20 documents, including rare books, spanning from 1619, when the first slaves were brought to Virginia, until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The texts analyze the debate of this period among theologians , Christian authors and followers who either justified slavery or opposed it.
Although it has the look and feel of a professionally curated exhibit, “The Yoke of Bondage” was organized and mounted by the 10 students following “Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619‒1865 », a first year university seminar.
“The relationship between Christianity and slavery was not an easy one” and did not only affect the Church, said Seven Richmond, one of the seminary students. “This debate focused on political and economic issues that really inspired the entire Civil War. I think it’s important to realize the impact and importance of religion and how religious disagreements can lead to broader disagreements throughout a political climate.”
On display through March 15, the exhibit includes pamphlets, sermons, abolitionist speeches, poems and personal religious accounts of enslaved men and women. The works are organized by theme in four display cases, with the writings of black Christian authors at the center. This case gives voice to former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman from Boston who became the first published African American poet and was emancipated shortly after the publication of her first book. In the other cases, these are works by authors who used biblical passages to support their positions on slavery and works by supporters of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, notably an anonymous pamphlet assuring readers that good Christians could own slaves.
“We definitely look at both sides,” said Alexandrea Harriott, another seminary student. “It’s really about the Bible and how religion shaped (the authors’) ideas about slavery or anti-slavery, and dissecting what they thought and how they proved their ideas .”
To create the exhibit, students discussed and studied texts assigned by Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, to decide which ones to display and what theme they related to. Each student also selected a work to research individually.
One of the works that made the cut was Angelina Grimke’s “Appeal to Christian Women of the South,” a biblical argument against slavery published in 1836. Grimke, who grew up in the South in a wealthy and slaver, rejected it. education and moved to Philadelphia with her sister, where they joined the Anti-Slavery Society and published pamphlets advocating the equality of women and slaves.
“She was trying to go after people that she shared a common background with to try to persuade them… that she knows where they’re coming from,” said first-year Kyra Teboe. However, she said, “the pamphlet was burned because not only was (Grimke) promoting abolitionism in the South, but also because she was promoting a more radical political cause as a woman, and that in itself was problematic at the time. »
Another work on display is “Slavery, as it relates to the Negro or African Race” by Josiah Priest. Published in 1843, the book defends slavery using stories from the book of Genesis. Priest argued that God created black people to be slaves, citing Noah’s curse on his son Ham, who Priest claimed had black skin.
“It was an exciting read,” said Richmond, who picked up the book. “When I think of Noah, I think of Noah’s Ark and the flood. I don’t think about how Noah could be used to justify slavery in America. It was something really different for me.
Setting up the exhibit was part of the seminar, to give students hands-on experience from start to finish. They were of course guided. Brekus, Andover-Harvard Theological Library Special Collections staff and Weissman Preservation Center staff attended opening day as students added Velcro to the backs of posters that were to be hung, made cradles to display the texts and placed the texts in the displays.
“That’s the essence of putting on an exhibit,” said Brekus, who is also chairman of the Committee for the Study of Religion.
Students made most of the decisions about the layout of the exhibit, including how to place a series of introductory posters and how to display smaller objects. For Luca Hinrichs, that meant deciding what to display from “The Liberty Bell” by Maria Chapman Weston. Finally, he left the book closed to show the abolitionist bell stamped in gold leaf on its cover.
Besides the subject matter, students said they were attracted to the seminar by the opportunity to take a course structured quite differently from most others. that of Harvard First Year Seminar Program was officially established in 1963 to allow freshmen to try a pass-fail class with a small number of students, usually no more than 12.
“The hope is that students can really focus on learning and getting to know other freshmen without the pressure of grades,” Brekus said.
For Mason Arbery, this was appreciated. “I really like being in a small environment,” he said. Behind him, a group of his classmates were joking among themselves as they closed the top of one of the windows. “Obviously you can say we got to know each other pretty well. »