“Now That’s Scripture”: The Significance of Religion in 12 Years a Slave

Religion in American History

This month, I blogged about the way that religion is used in the film 12 Years a Slave. The film does an incredible job of capturing so many aspects of life in the antebellum South and integrates religion in a very appropriate way.

 There were as many interpretations of the Christian religion in the South as there were slave owners and slave communities. This film accomplishes the difficult task of conveying that diversity while also portraying religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South.

Check out my post at Religion in American History.

I don’t always have the most spiritual Sundays. But last weekend, I admit, I had one. I didn’t experience this reawakening in a sanctuary but at a small mall movie theater in Lufkin, Texas. Sitting amidst an audience that numbered about a dozen, my husband and I settled into our creaky, cushioned seats for the matinee showing of 12 Years a Slave. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 co-authored publication of his personal story as a kidnapping victim sold into slavery, the film expands on and sometimes detours from the book’s original narrative but also provides an extremely vivid and accurate portrayal of the antebellum South. It is incredible in its incorporation of so many facets of the slave system in this period—from the kidnapping itself, to the methods of enslavement, hiring out, the white class structure, the ways labor was used, life in the slave quarters. The film is a document not only of the trials of Northup and the millions of enslaved women, men, and children who lived through the horrors of bondage, but also serves as a document of where we stand as a culture today. It has taken decades, and the attempts of many actors and filmmakers, to finally arrive at this picture. This film is landmark in its holistic portrayal of the system of slavery in as an institution, culture, power structure, and moral blight. One of the things that makes the film so successful, however, is the particular emphasis it places on religion.
There are many tools that appear in the film. The whip and lash are seen throughout as a tool used by slaveholders and overseers to control the slave population. The noose is used to punish or kill runaways and those who disobey. Hands are used to pick cotton, play instruments, and soothe the wounded. Knives are used to harvest crops, craft corn-husk dolls, and threaten those who are smarter and stronger. The fiddle is a tool that reminds Northup of home and humanity, but is also an object of dehumanization through forced entertainment. But perhaps one of the most powerful tool woven into this story is religion. By the 1840s, Protestantism had wound its way into the southern states and onto plantations, where slaveholders adopted biblical justifications for slavery and used religious teachings to bolster the idea of planter paternalism.  With a compelling narrative and imagery, 12 Years a Slave effectively captures the diverse religious beliefs and superstitions of slaveholders as well as the adaptation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans.

There was no singular form of Protestant Christianity in the slave South—not among slaveholders or slaves, whites or blacks. The variety of interpretations of the Christian message and Bible is threaded throughout the film. One of the initial glimpses of paternalistic religion is with Solomon’s first master, Ford. In a scene taken right out of classic southern history texts (Wyatt-Brown, Genovese, Burton), Ford stands before his white family and slave “family” to preach a message on Sunday morning, reading the Scripture “I am the God of Abraham” to the plantation household. The tranquil scene is disturbed, however, with an overlay of the vocals of Ford’s white overseer/carpenter singing about catching and hanging a runaway. The juxtaposition highlights the fragile nature of Ford’s hold on his slaves as well as the role religion plays in promoting a precarious paternalism. Ford is a “good” master, protecting Northup from the murderous overseer, but his faith does nothing when it comes to intervening in Solomon’s condition or that of any other slave on the plantation. In another, similar scene that demonstrates the bizarre paternalism of the plantation, Ford preaches on God’s love for His children while Eliza (his slave) weeps for the children who have been ripped from her by her “generous” master.

Unlike Ford, Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps, demonstrates an abject cruelty towards his slaves. However, in keeping with what we know about the antebellum South, he also uses religion to undergird his authority on the plantation. For Epps, Christianity is both the solution as well as the threat. Scripture supports the institution of slavery and he is eager to share passages from the Bible that justify his holding human property. Every lash of the whip is his by heavenly right, according to Epps’ reading of the Word–“Sin? There is no sin,” he proclaims as he brutally whips Patsy, who he has singled out for both his favor and wrath. The film depicts the violent side of Christianity in a slave society, but it also contrasts that brutality with the paranoia that belief bred amongst many slaveholders. Epps sends his slaves away at one point because he believes that they are bringing about a biblical plague that is affecting his cotton crops. He speaks of prayer and “clean living” but he is also guilty of raping his slaves, depriving them of basic needs, and other unspeakable acts that he justifies by dehumanizing the men and women who live on his plantation. Epps so perfectly depicts the notion that many slaveholders were suspicious of both their slaves and their God. These kinds of superstitions and fears lasted in to the Civil War, when some white southerners believed God was punishing them for the sin of slavery. The retribution of the war is portended by Bass, a Canadian hired hand who declares that the day of reckoning is upon the South. Bass also shames Epps by asking “in the eyes of God, what is the difference” between black and white (to which Epps replies a la George Fitzhugh that is like comparing a man with a baboon).

Slaves, too, held their faith close and many turned to their Christian faith as a symbol of community and shared suffering. While there are fewer instances of slave religion in the film, the moments are poignant and extremely moving. After a member of their community dies, men and women gather around his grave and join in a chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Religion is depicted as a comfort, an act of defiance, and as an expression of a common experience. This scene is also the first time where we see Solomon Northup participate in the singing of a spiritual and it seems to mark his emotional connection with the enslaved community of which he has become a member. There are no hush arbors or ring shouts in the film to further illustrate the many ways that slaves crafted their own beliefs to resist their bondage, but even this one, well-placed and meaningful chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” sung in unison provides insight into the appropriation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans. (And this spiritual offers necessary contrast to the earlier singing of “Run, Nigger, Run” by the merciless overseer. While Northup and the enslaved community on the plantation do not physically run, they are mentally and spiritually fleeing the dehumanization of their bondage.)
When you go to see 12 Years a Slave, certainly you will be struck by the heartbreaking acts of cruelty endured by Northup and other slaves as they are ripped from their families, stripped and sold to the highest bidder, lashed for possessing a simple sliver of soap. And you will most likely be in awe of the determination and resilience of Northup and the many enslaved individuals that he encounters. One of the most necessary and important aspects of the film is its realistic portrayal of slave agency as they pushed back against the everyday problems they encountered on the plantation (from helping fellow slaves escape punishment to obtaining a piece of paper and improvised ink). But woven throughout this compelling story is an omnipresent religious narrative that speaks to the power of belief in a society in the balance. There were as many interpretations of the Christian religion in the South as there were slave owners and slave communities. This film accomplishes the difficult task of conveying that diversity while also portraying religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South.