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Religion in the 18th Century - Woven With Words


The Spirit and the Power: African American Religion in Berks in the Eighteenth Century


Several people contributed to this article


 All Americans, beginning with the Pilgrims, have been granted the “God-given right” to create, recreate, and express faith according to their individual wishes.  In the American laboratory of freedom and experimentation, religions have proven fluid and changing as they respond to the particular needs of followers.  This has been uniquely apparent in the 250-year experience of African Americans in Berks County. Here, in a pattern repeated throughout early America, African Americans took the alien religions of slave owners and made them their own; the unique spirit and power they infused into these religions continues to animate and set them apart.  Moreover, the foundations laid down in the religions’ formative years continue to exert a profound influence on their practice today.


 The Master’s Religion


The first “Africans” came to Berks County in the 1740s as slaves.  Where they came from is uncertain, but it is likely Maryland or Virginia, for both were centers of the slave trade in the mid-eighteenth century. Pennsylvania, too, allowed “the trade” at the time, but it was considered disreputable.  Staunchly opposed were the Quakers, who controlled Philadelphia politics—and thus, the colony.  Also firmly opposed was the German majority in Berks.  Many could recall their own experiences in the Old World; they had not been enslaved, but readily drew parallels from their serf-like existences or from having been pressed into military service.  Economics, too, figured into Pennsylvania’s opposition to slavery, for indentured servitude was usually the better economic choice.


Coming from the South in the mid 1700s, the county’s first slaves probably had experienced the revivals of the “Great Awakening,” which drew legions of enthusiastic converts to Christianity.  As most slaves by the mid-1700s were American-born, they almost certainly had been reared as Christians, which was promoted by southern slaveholders for its salvation, but also because it taught the important lesson of submissiveness.


Into the early 1800s, the African American population of Berks was small.  Local records from 1780 list 119 slaves (Johnson 1971-72, 13) and the census of 1790 enumerates 65 slaves.  A few African American indentured servants also lived in Berks by the close of the century.  The area’s iron furnaces, the heavy industry of the day, were the locus of slave ownership.  Mark Bird, proprietor of Hopewell Furnace, owned 18 slaves, making him the county’s largest slaveholder (Shaffer 1941, 112).  Beyond the iron plantations, slaves generally worked in ones or twos on isolated farms.  Geographic dispersion and small numbers were the norm in Berks County during the 1700s.


Slaves here, as elsewhere, attended church with their masters a matter of course.  “Africans” attended white churches in Berks and interracial worship was commonplace, but there were some segregated churches as well (Marcus 1954, 112).  Not even in relatively egalitarian Hopewell Village were African Americans allowed to attend white Episcopal Church services until the early 1800s (Walker 1966, 310).  There is no doubt that some African Americans here, as in Philadelphia, were relegated to seating “around the wall” or “in the gallery” (Allen 1833, 13).


It is known that racial discrimination and acts of segregation slowly built across the north as the century progressed.  By the late 1780s in Philadelphia, racial segregation had become the practiced social custom. The “Negro pew” was found even in the meeting house of Philadelphia’s Society of Friends, the strongest advocates of African American rights.  But it’s dangerous to assume Philadelphia’s social fashion was copied in Berks.  In a variety of matters, the independent Germans in Berks were renowned for staying to themselves and marching to their own beat—a trait bemoaned by no less than Thomas Penn. Berks, with its handful of slaves, may well have paid scant attention the racial mores of the Anglicized metropolis.


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