The time period between the American Revolution and the Reconstruction were one of uncertainly and instability in American socio-politics. Having valiantly won its freedom from the British Crown, the fledgling nation was taking cautious first steps toward self-assertion. But even as America’s presence as a global power was taking root, its society was beset by longstanding issues. The social issues could be broadly divided across the twin axes of race and gender. Racial discrimination of colored people and gender oppression of women were two chronic malaises.
At the time of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution, blacks were considered as unequal to whites. This is reflected in the early laws of the country where segregation and slavery were legally sanctioned. The basis of these draconian laws was the prejudiced conception of blacks as only three-fifth human (whereby whites are the benchmark of full humanity). Such unscientific beliefs garbed in the language of logic and reason had stalled black emancipation during the century in question. It wasn’t until the Civil War, with the escalating conflict between the Confederates and the Unionists that blacks saw a glimpse of hope. In light of this fact it is fair to say that the century preceding the Reconstruction were one of bleak misery for blacks. Women fared none too better during this period. In 1865, “North Carolina law granted former masters preference in the apprenticeship of former slaves’ children. Although mothers and fathers both endured the hardships of these losses, women’s experiences diverged significantly from men’s.” (Zipf, p.9)
Christian Evangelicalism offered hope of equality for blacks and women. Though it provided opportunities for liberation, it was ultimately limited by race and gender just as the democratic reform movement had hit a stumbling block. Sometimes holy scriptures were themselves invoked in justifying racial and gender oppression in Christian institutions. The biblical sanctioning of human bondage proved very convenient for perpetrators of slavery. But where Evangelicalism helped is in the Baptists’ and Methodists’ earnest resolution to convert slaves. They “welcomed slaves at their revivals, encouraged black preachers, and above all else, advocated secular and spiritual equality. Many of the early Baptist and Methodist preachers directly challenged slavery.” (Goldfield, Chapter 10, p.10-7) Looking at it as a promise of liberty and deliverance, the slaves received the evangelical gospel in loud, joyous, and highly emotional revivals. They made it integral to their own culture, “fusing Christianity with folk beliefs from their African heritage.” (Goldfield, Chapter 10, p.10-7) In this milieu, such religious communities offered the erstwhile oppressed opportunities for voice, authority, and labor within a system that also had its share of flaws. The new freedoms that could be availed of therein outweighed the disadvantages.
Goldfield, David. The American Journey: A History of the United States, Concise Edition, 2nd Edition, Pearson, 2011
Sarah Mulhall Adelman, Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America, Journal of Women’s History, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall 2011, pp. 138-161
Zipf, Karin, Reconstructing ‘Free Woman’: African-American Women, Apprenticeship, and Custody Rights during Reconstruction, Journal of Women’s History, 2000, Vol.12, No.1 (Spring)