Learning Theology and Ethics from The Life of a Slave Girl

Mark Gorman

In her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, relates her birth into and escape from nineteenth-century American slavery. Born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, she finds herself enslaved to a perverse, married Dr. Flint, who continually makes sexual advances on Jacobs, which she resists. Flint threatens Jacobs and her two children, forcing Jacobs to attempt to escape. Rather than making her way north, however, she climbs into a garret over the storeroom of her (free) grandmother’s house, not far from Flint’s home. There she remains for nearly seven years. From the garret, she can monitor her children but not interact with them. On rare occasions, she descends, briefly, from the cramped quarters, which are not much larger than a grave.

Jacobs writes to confront false characterizations of slavery that were popular in the nineteenth century, especially depictions of enslavers as basically benevolent and of enslaved peoples as beneficiaries of a morally positive force. (These falsehoods persist even today. On my very first day as a pastor, in my second home visitation, a congregation member told me that mistreatment by enslavers was greatly exaggerated and that enslavers always treated enslaved peoples well because they cared about them so much. I have no idea why she said this; we had not been discussing slavery or anything related when she just blurted it out.) Instead, Jacobs demonstrates that American slavery was morally corruptive, both to enslaved peoples and to their enslavers. In particular, and perhaps uniquely among the autobiographies of formerly enslaved men and women, Jacobs bears witness to the sexual abuse, assault, and harassment rampant in the households of enslavers.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has rich theological overtones as well, a fact J. Kameron Carter helped me to see a decade ago. Jacobs reflects explicitly on a range of topics, including providence, faith, hope, theodicy, and moral theology, but also throughout the narrative her writing is soaked with Scripture, and her storytelling is rich in theological implications.

Methodism features briefly but prominently and unfavorably in Jacobs’s theological commentary. In the chapter “The Church and Slavery,” she describes a terrifying class meeting she had attended. The class leader is a constable “who bought and sold slaves, who whipped his brethren and sisters of the church at the public whipping post … for fifty cents.” During the meeting, he asks the Methodist “how is it with your soul” question. A woman responds with a grief-filled story about the last of her children having been sold the preceding week. She is in soul-wrenching agony, yet the class leader is almost unable to contain his laughter at her plight. Jacobs says that “he held up his handkerchief, that those who were weeping for the poor woman’s calamity might not see his merriment.”

It would be wrong to reduce even this sliver of Jacobs’s autobiography to an object lesson for contemporary Methodism. Nevertheless, this story of the class meeting does serve as an important warning that we cannot assume the superior formational power of Christian practices. Class meetings, reading Scripture, prayer, and the regular celebration of Holy Communion are all vital to our orthopraxy, our right practice, but they are competing with other powers of formation. In the case of the class leader, these competing powers included, at the very least, racism, greed, and the American institution of slavery.

A class meeting led by someone so corrupted by these competing powers seems to have little chance of effecting sanctification in its members. And yet, despite this, Jacobs reports that the enslaved class members conclude the meeting with a hymn that suggests spiritual formation has happened, despite the cruelty of the class leader. The last stanza of the hymn begins, “Ole Satan’s church is here below. Up to God’s free church I hope to go.” The enslaved class members saw clearly who was leading their class.

Dare we see here the power of ex opere operato (holiness is effected by the act and not dependent on the character of the worker)? Perhaps, but that hardly excuses the class leader or others like him. It omits the insight and holiness of the enslaved class members. And it does not mitigate our present need to become aware of the powers that threaten to corrupt those who lead our practices. What institutions, personal sins, and systems of evil form us in ways that are more anti-Christ than Christ? And who may be identifying them and speaking out against them today, so that we can hear and amend our ways?

Listening to the critical voices from the past of people like Harriet Jacobs can prompt such difficult questions and even help us wrestle with their answers. More than that, it helps us rectify the wrongs of those who, like that class leader, believed enslaved women and men had nothing to say worth hearing, and it may even, by the grace of God, prevent us from repeating their mistakes.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

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