MEMO FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE
TO: Cardinal Dolan and Eric Metaxas
FROM: Frederick Douglass
SUBJECT: Religious Freedom in America
Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that in these United States of America something of a controversy has arisen around the First Amendment freedom of religion clause. I have heard your cries of injustice I must say that I agree with your concerns with regard to the HHS Mandate. It does seem that the current law would restrict religious freedom by narrowing the definition of religious organizations in an overly narrow way. However, I must say that I find your protestations about this injustice extraordinarily out or proportion to the history of religious freedom in this country. I saw on this newfangled thing called “twitter” that on June 16 Mr. Metaxas said he believes this mandate is an “unprecedented abridgment of religious freedom itself"and I know that Cardinal Dolan and many of his fellow Bishops have likewise portrayed this Mandate and its narrow definition of religious organizations in a similarly apocalyptic manner. It does make me wonder about the state of education in America and whether my grave fears about the loss of memory concerning African Americans in this land have come true. So allow me for just a moment to remind you of the state of religious freedom in this land back in my times on this earth.
You would do well to recall that the HHS Mandate you so rightly denounce has already made specific provisions for houses of worship and other specifically religious institutions to gain exemption. In fact, it would seem that your main gripe is that this exemption is too narrow. If that is your main concern, then how in God’s good Name can you compare this situation with the gravity of the situation that African American Churches faced in your land? Surely you know that we were not even given the control over our own churches and allowed to choose for ourselves our own religious traditions? Surely you are aware of a wave of legislation that followed Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion? Here is how one of your current day scholars describes what my people faced in terms of restrictions on relgious freedom. Do you really think that what the HHS Mandate proposes is worse than this?
So, instead of abolishing slavery, Virginia decided to revise and severely strengthen its already existing slave codes so that the potential for another slave uprising would be almost impossible. Virginia’s new codes made patrols and militia stronger, eliminated slave schools, slave religious meetings, and slave preachers.8
The idea of abolition did not appeal to the other southern states, so they, like Virginia, passed new restrictive slave laws and codes in hopes of preventing another slave rebellion. States like Georgia and South Carolina heavily relied on slavery for their economic success and thus it was a crucial element to their well being, they could not just get rid of it…Southerners attempted to keep blacks enslaved and suppressed by making their already existing slave codes much harsher and by enacting new laws.10
After Turner’s rebellion, the actions and movements of slaves were severely monitored…Religious meetings or gatherings of slaves were also closely monitored. All blacks were forbidden to preach or hold religious meetings. In fact, in Georgia, a law was passed that forbade blacks to congregate and preach. The Act of December 23, 1833, Sec. 5, 1833 Ga. Laws 226, stated that “no person of color, whether free or slave, shall be allowed to preach to, exhort or join in any religious exercise, with any persons of color, either free or slave.” And if a slave or a free black was found preaching, he or she was “sentenced to be whipped and imprisoned at the discretion of the court: provided, such imprisonment shall not exceed six months, and no whipping shall exceed thirty-nine lashes.”12 If a black person wanted to attend a religious meeting, he or she could only do so at night with his or her master. They could also only receive religious instruction from their master as well.
“At the time of the old Prophet Nat, the colored folks was afraid to pray loud, for the whites threatened to punish ‘em dreadfully if the least noise was heard...if they heard any of the colored folks praying or singing a hymn, they would fall upon ‘em and abuse ‘em and sometimes kill ‘em. The brightest and best was killed in Nat’s time”.–Lydia Maria Child, a slave during Nat Turner’s rebellion.13
Laws such as this were enforced because whites feared that if blacks were given an opportunity to congregate and preach together, as they had with Nat Turner, then another insurrection could possibly occur. Many southern whites believed that the black preachers were filling the minds of slaves with notions of freedom and equality. They believed that the black preachers were teaching slaves that blacks should have just as much rights as whites and that “the black man was as good as the white man...and that all men were born free and equal.” The preachers were also accused of preaching that “white people had rebelled against England to gain their freedom and so had the blacks a right to do so”. The black preachers were also accused of circulating abolitionists pamphlets, some of which had been written by the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. A portion of the black population was able to read these pamphlets because they had been taught how to read by their masters and because they had attended school. Thus, several states, including Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama, passed laws that forbade slaves and free blacks form learning how to read and write.14