On Bondage

“All slaves want to be free — to be free is very sweet.”
–Mary Prince (p.214)

(Note: All page numbers in this post reference The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published by Mentor, 1987)

The slave narratives are windows into a world where human beings are bought and sold as property and abused in every way imaginable, without justice or mercy. It is not a pleasant place. They are mighty hard reading.

Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography is the most famous of these, and I was very much moved when I first read it many years ago. Over the last few months I have also read the narratives of Mary Prince (not pictured), Harriet Jacobs, and Olaudah Equiano (also known as Gustavus Vassa), all of which fascinated and horrified me. The depth of depravity they describe in their slave masters is simply stunning. As Mary Prince said to her British audience:

“Oh the horrors of slavery! — How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate. […] I have been a slave — I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.” (p.200)

The compilation of narratives which I studied described these horrors of slavery, from the pen or tongue of eye witnesses, for 515 pages. These are people whose productive labor was stolen from them, who suffered ailments from excessive physical work punctuated by whippings and beatings (Prince described maggots growing in the flesh of one slave after being flogged with a briar), who were deprived of family associations, who felt revulsion at the moral depravity all around them, but nevertheless sometimes succumbed to it. They were living, sentient, intelligent human beings, suffering at the hands of their brothers and sisters of the human race.

Can it really be true that such evil existed in the world, and even in the land where I was born? Oh, yes. It is true. And what is worse, slavery still exists in the world today, and is no less evil now than it was 160 years ago.

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A common theme in the slave narratives is the role of religion in the awful ordeal. Christian slave masters seemed to forsake their professed religion, or even to use it as a facade to provide cover for the most unchristian deeds. Here are a few poignant quotes from the slaves on this point:

Douglass: “What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […] I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” (p.326)

Equiano (after describing his abduction from Nigeria, the harrowing Atlantic crossing, and the heartless cruelty of the slave auction in Barbados): “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, ‘learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?'” (p.38)

Prince: “I have often wondered how the English people can go out to the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies, they forget God and all feeling of shame.” (p.214)

Jacobs (after describing several acts of depravity committed on poor slaves by a man in the neighborhood): “The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman. He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower.” (p.380. Jacobs wrote an entire chapter on the subject, XIII — The Church and Slavery, p.397)

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By contrast, the slaves themselves are inspired and sustained by their Christianity, hoping and praying for miracles in their lives. Theirs is an effective faith because it is sincere:

Jacobs (visiting the graves of her parents on the evening before she ran away): “I knelt down and kissed them, and poured forth a prayer to God for guidance and support in the perilous step I was about to take. As I passed the wreck of the old meeting house, […] I seemed to hear my father’s voice come from it, bidding me not to tarry till I reached freedom or the grave. I rushed on with renovated hopes. My trust in God had been strengthened by that prayer among the graves” (p.417).

Douglass: “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.” (p. 273)

Equiano: “A poor Creole negro I know well […] used to tell me many melancholy tales of himself. Generally, after he had done working for his master, he used to employ his few leisure moments to go a fishing. When he had caught any fish, his master would frequently take them from him without paying him; and at other times some other white people would serve him in the same manner. One day he said to me very movingly, ‘Sometimes when a white man take away my fish I go to my master, and he get me my right; and when my master, by strength, take away my fishes, what me must do? I can’t go to anybody to be righted; then,’ said the poor man, looking up above, ‘I must look up to God Mighty in the top for right.’ [sic]” (p.79-80)

Prince: “This is slavery. I tell it, to let the English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery be done up for evermore. [sic]” (p.215)

~~~

With the slave narratives echoing in my mind this year, I have been forcibly struck by the recurring themes of bondage and captivity in The Book of Mormon. In the Book of Mosiah, for instance, the people of King Limhi were conquered and enslaved by an enemy army, and sorely mistreated.

“They would smite them on their cheeks, and exercise authority over them; and began to put heavy burdens upon their backs, and drive them as they would a dumb ass” (Mosiah 21:3).

Chafing under this yoke, they rose up in rebellion against their masters, hoping to free themselves from this bondage. But they were defeated soundly, and many of their men were killed. Angered again by the cries of the widows and fatherless children, they rebelled again, and then a third time, suffering terrible losses with each. Finally their spirits were broken, as they realized how powerless they were to improve their miserable situation.

“13 And they did humble themselves even to the dust, subjecting themselves to the yoke of bondage, submitting themselves to be smitten, and to be driven to and fro, and burdened, according to the desires of their enemies.
“14 And they did humble themselves even in the depths of humility; and they did cry mightily to God; yea, even all the day long did they cry unto their God that he would deliver them out of their afflictions” (Mosiah 21:13-14).

The emotional and physical suffering of Limhi’s people is similar to what is described in the slave narratives. Wherever humans oppress and abuse one another, whether within a single home or across an entire nation, there will be the same despair.

The parallel experience of the people of Alma is also instructive. Their peaceful city was conquered and enslaved by the same army that oppressed Limhi’s people. They also suffered severe oppression and persecution, and were forced to do hard manual labor. Like probably all slaves, in all places and all times, they prayed for deliverance.

“10 And it came to pass that so great were their afflictions that they began to cry mightily to God.
“11 And Amulon commanded them that they should stop their cries; and he put guards over them to watch them, that whosoever should be found calling upon God should be put to death
“12 And Alma and his people did not raise their voices to the Lord their God, but did pour out their hearts to him; and he did know the thoughts of their hearts.” (Mosiah 24:10-12).

I have read these passages about Limhi and Alma many times before, but I never really felt their pathos until I had read the slave narratives. Only the people who have suffered such infringements of their rights can know the depth of feeling expressed in their cries. But the rest of us can surely empathize with them.

God heard the prayers of both of these groups and delivered them, first from the burden of their bondage, and then from the bondage itself. Both deliverances were miraculous.

13 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them [the people of Alma] in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.
“14 And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions” (Mosiah 24:13-14).

Frederick Douglass described a similar experience, quoted above, where God revealed his future destiny of freedom. The price of liberty, in this case at least, is an obligation to testify that God is the deliverer. The ancient Israelites, led out of bondage by Moses, were under a similar charge. Alma’s people gave this testimony gladly, and so did Douglass.

Alma, the son of Alma, frequently reminded his people of the captivity and deliverance of their fathers, and at the end of his life he instructed his son Helaman:

“I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering the captivity of our fathers; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions” (Alma 36:2, see also Alma 5:5-6)

~~~

America’s history of slavery is something that many people want to put behind us, and other people want to keep agitating about. I don’t imagine that a lot of healing will happen while we cling to our resentments and counter-resentments.

But we should not forget about our past. We should remember the terrible injustice and suffering of the African slaves of the old South, the awful destruction of the Civil War which was fought to free them, and the perpetuation of legal inequality under Jim Crow laws for 100 years after the war. We should rejoice in the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act, and all of the successful efforts to make good on the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Most of all, we should thank God for what liberty we enjoy, and look to him for help as we continue the effort to heal our nation’s racial disharmony and the lasting legacy of slavery. There is much work left to be done, as evidenced by persistent racial disparities in poverty, educational achievement, crime, and health outcomes, but I am confident that God will help us. I am encouraged by the recent partnership between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and am hopeful that together we can accomplish real and lasting good in the world.

~~~

Several lessons stand out from the slave narratives and from the slavery stories in the Book of Mormon. First is the necessity of faith. However desperate your situation may appear, your faith will enable God to work wonders in your life.

Second is the goodness and power of God in freeing the slaves. He is the Great Deliverer from the bonds of servitude and from the “bands of iniquity.”

Third is the depth of depravity to which the slave masters sank, which is a cautionary tale for all of humanity. That these deeds were often done by men and women who professed the religion of Jesus Christ is shocking, and should reveal to us the danger to our own souls “when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness.” What is the inevitable result of such behavior? “Behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:37).

The unjust suffering of African-Americans for so many hundreds of years should stir the hearts of all caring people, regardless of skin color. Their cries for freedom still reverberate across the world, in dreadful harmony with all other slaves since the dawn of time. Even today oppressed people are joining their voices to this song. May God hear their cries and answer them. And may we do the same.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

Disarm

Which of our weapons are we willing to lay down?

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