Religion and the Enslaved

The Griot Circle of Maryland teaches field calls and spirituals on Harvest Day 2019.
The Griot Circle of Maryland teaches field calls and spirituals on Harvest Day 2019.

NPS/Tim Ervin

African Americans hosted their own religious services in the woods at Hampton and attending religious meetings with neighboring groups of free blacks and enslaved persons. One laborer, Nick Toogood (1786-1879), was said to be a “spiritual leader” among the enslaved at Hampton and was known as a powerful hymn-singer. There is documentary evidence of burial grounds for the enslaved and later free blacks on the original Ridgely properties, though the location of these sites remains unknown.

 
Historic black and white photo of the carriage house.
Hampton Carriage House (built c. 1850, image c. 1897), location of religious services led by Eliza Ridgely on the second floor.

NPS

The Ridgelys also had their own ways of promoting Christianity in Hampton’s enslaved community. Eliza Ridgely provided church services in the attic of the Hampton carriage house, under the direction of a white minister, Mr. Galbraith. She also held community gatherings, centered on weddings and funerals, in the Great Hall of the mansion. Her daughter Eliza, or “Didy,” recorded in her 1853 journal that she taught enslaved children Sunday School classes, which included learning the Lord’s Prayer and memorizing Bible verses.

For the Ridgelys, as well as other slaveholders, setting the guidelines for religious practice seemed to mean that they shared a common humanity with enslaved persons, while also providing social control and demands for enslaved persons to take on their beliefs and behavior. For the enslaved, lessons of a shared religion gave them a language with which to compel the slaveowners to behave as Christians and allow them to seek knowledge, both Biblical and otherwise.

During the Civil War, Ridgely family member Henry White recalled that enslaved children approached him for knowledge so that they could better prepare for the freedom they hoped was coming:

I still remember the younger ones, who at that time were beginning to hear of freedom and the possibilities of education, coming to me at times privately with little primers, and asking me to explain the spelling of certain words, or the meaning of certain combinations of letters, which they could not understand; begging me at the same time not to let any of the elders know that they had done so, as it was one of the principles of slavery that they should not be taught to read or write.

Slaveholders’ attempts to provide Biblical instruction and institutionalize Christianity among the enslaved was, like so many other aspects of American slavery, a process of struggle and negotiation.

Last updated: June 5, 2020

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