Anti-Literacy Laws and Anti-Religion Laws Were Intertwined

Major Slave Rebellions Led by Literate Preachers

5/24/20231 min read

  • "White Southern states regulated slave religion to prevent the potential twin dangers it created: 1) a moral indictment of the institution of slavery; and (2) a pretense by which slaves could assemble for insurrectionary purposes.

  • The three largest slave revolts were led and planned by black preachers or religious leaders.

  • The revolt led by black preacher and slave Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, was one of the largest and bloodiest slave uprisings in U.S. history. By 1831, Turner had gathered roughly seventy men; in August of that year, the group attacked plantations in Southampton County, killing 50-60 whites, including women and children.

  • In Virginia, just months after Nat Turner was tried and executed, the state legislature declared it illegal for slave or free blacks ‘to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly or meeting, for religious or other purposes, either in the day time or at night.’ The law further prohibited slaves and free blacks from conducting their own funerals and made illegal the teaching of a slave to read or write.”

  • In 1834, South Carolina passed its law ‘that restricted black worship and assembly, and established criminal penalties for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read or write.’”

Nicholas May, Holy Rebellion: Religious Assembly Laws in Antebellum South Carolina and Virginia, The American Journal of Legal History, July, 2007.