Angels on the Plantation

Slaves,their Religion, and Life on the Plantation.


Slaves spent a majority of their time on plantations. With their lifestyle being so harsh in these working environments, it had a strong impact on their family structure, their living conditions, and their religion. Enslaved African-Americans were not as privilege as whites back then, and their living conditions and lifestyles reflected that. Family organization was strongly impacted. It was nearly impossible for an enslaved family to have a normal family structure. The living conditions were at the bare minimum, with a non sufficient diet, and clothing that reflected their labor. Slaves were treated and seen as a form of property rather than an individual. With that being said, religion played a huge role in slavery and it was essentially all they had. It was important for slaves to have a strong faith in God and each other in order to live and feel connected.

Family, Living Condtions and Religion

According to the National Humanities Center, slavery affected family life in many ways. Belonging to another human being brought unique constrictions, disruptions, frustrations and pains (NHC). Slavery not only inhibited family formation but made stable, secure family life difficult and even impossible most times. In terms of family life, enslaved people could not legally marry in any American colony or state. Instead, laws considered slaves as property and commodities, rather than legal persons who could enter into contracts which is what marriage is and was at the time. This meant that until about 1865, the vast majority of African Americans could not legally marry.

Some of the enslaved people lived in nuclear families with a mother, father and children. In these cases, each family member belonged to the same owner. Others lived in near-nuclear families where the father had a different owner than the mother and children. A father might live several miles away on a distant plantation and walk to see his family as an obligation to help them with labor rather than his personal needs.

In terms of working life for the families, enslaved people usually worked from early in the morning until late at night. The vast majority of plantation slaves labored in the fields, while a select few worked in the owners homes. Women would have spilt their time dealing with work on the plantation and with their own needs. On large plantations or farms, it was common for children to come under the care of one enslaved woman who was designated to feed and watch over them during the day while their parents would work. When the enslaved children reached seven or eight years old, they were also assigned tasks that included taking care of owner’s young children, running errands, taking lunch to their owners, and eventually working in fields with the adults (NHC).

Living Conditions

As plantation production expanded and the planters’ domination grew, slaves in mainland North America faced high levels of discipline, harsher working conditions and great exploitation than every before. The degradation of black life in mainland North American had many sources, but the largest was the growth of the plantation. In terms of the conditions for slaves, many of the material aspects of the slavery were predetermined by the status of the slave. Living conditions for enslaved people were determined in large part by the size and nature of the agricultural unit they lived. Most agricultural units in the South up until about two decades before the Civil War were small farms with 20-30 slaves each. The conditions of slaves under these circumstances were most easily grouped into the experiences of field slaves and house slaves. Many of the plantation slaves spent most their time on the farms, while others spent most their times serving in their owner’s homes. According to the text, most lived on vast estates deep in the countryside, cut off from the larger Atlantic world.

The types of food that the slaves were given consisted of mixtures of corn meal, lard, some meat, molasses, peas, greens, and flour. These meals were distributed every Saturday. Vegetable patches or gardens (if the owner allowed it) were also added to the rations. On other days, the meals were usually prepared in a central cookhouse by an elderly man or woman that was no longer capable of performing the normal tasks that other slaves were required to do. In general, the slaves diet was very high in fat and starch and was not very nutritionally enriched. With that being said, many of the enslaved people did not get enough to eat, and some would resort to stealing food from their master.

Clothing was most often distributed once a year around Christmas time by the master. The clothing each slave received was based on their sex, and age as well as the labor that the slave was required to do. For example, children were often not fully clothes until they reached adolescence because not a whole lot was required of them until they got older. Elderly slaves who could not do much physical labor were not given the shoes or extra layers of clothing during the winter time that younger, fieldworkers received. With that being said, many field workers were not given enough sufficient clothing to cover their bodies. House slaves tended to be dressed with more modesty that were sometimes clothes that their owners once wore.


Until about the 1800’s most slaves in the U.S. had not been converted to Christianity yet. After that, the religion the salves took on emphasized individual freedom and direct communication with God. This was the first large scale conversation that took place within the enslaved men and women. At first, it was hard to reach to reach many of the slaves, so only a small percentage of the slaves were called to Christianity. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Baptist and Methodist ministers appealed to the slave and free black population that preached hope, redemption, and worship. Worship included spirit possession, call-response singing, shouting, and dancing. Slaves sang spirituals whose lyrics were about salvation and references to biblical figures like Moses, who led people to freedom. Sometimes these songs functioned more as expressing resistance and encoded messages about secret gatherings and possible escape routes.

Many people feared “slave insurrection” or better described as a form of slave rebellion. Therefore, there were prohibitions on black churches meeting openly in many parts of the South. With that being said, the black church movement flourished in the North. In the church, they taught that blacks were considered sister and brothers of the whites, and considered equal in the eyes of God. The goals of the church were to help black gain the right to be appointed as Baptist and Methodist ministers, but it didn’t prevent discriminatory practice within the church such as segregated seating.

During the Antebellum period and after the Civil War, black churches throughout the nation offered African Americans refugee from oppression and focused on the spiritual, secular, and political concerns of the black community. Later on, the church continued to exist at the center of black community life. When freed, African-Americans and former slaves rejected the second-class status that they had been offered by white co-coreligionists and withdrew in large numbers from biracial congregations. Another reason African Americans withdrew from biracial churches is because they limited the rights of black congregants.

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To conclude, slavery impacted family life in many ways. The experience of slavery was never a comfortable one, with the living conditions that many of the slaved endured were harsh on them physically and mentally. The kind of labor assigned, the quantity and quality of food and clothing received and the type of shelter provided was not what the slaves deserved. These living conditions not only impacted the physical and psychological state of the slave, but also impacted every aspect of the lives. As you could imagine with the harsh lifestyle of slaves, it was important for them to maintain their faith and religion as a community. For many of them, faith and God was all that they had.