Slavery and Freedom
Africans and their descendants have lived in Delaware since 1639.  Until the late 1700s, most blacks in Delaware were enslaved, although some were free.  As human property owned by whites, slaves had hard lives, no rights, and almost no access to education or religion.  Ideas about slavery began to change in the late 1700s.  Economic conditions, the ideals of the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, and Methodist and Quaker religious beliefs led many slave owners to free their slaves. By 1800, over 50 percent of Delaware’s black population was free.  However, Delaware never passed a law to end slavery.  In 1860, nearly 1,800 Delawareans still lived in bondage.  Slavery in Delaware ended when the 13th Amendment became part of the United States Constitution.

Free blacks did not enjoy the same freedom as whites.  They could work and own land, but had no political rights, were treated differently in the judicial system, and endured many other restrictions on their activities.  State laws passed in 1832 and 1863 limited even religious meetings. Despite the limitations, Delaware’s free blacks developed their own institutions and community life, starting with churches. 

 

Sale of Nancy from William Turner and Ebenezer Turner to Benjamin Coombe

Sale of Nancy from William Turner
and Ebenenzer Turner to Benjamin Coombe
June 15, 1818
Delaware Historical Society Collections

Manumission of Hester Hazzard by David Hazzard

Manumission of Hester Hazzard by David Hazzard
July 10, 1797
Delaware Historical Society Collections

 

Hester, aged 12, will be free after 13 years, at the age of 25. Hester is referred to by only her first name, but that she will have a last name after she becomes free. In this document, David Hazzard also transfers Hester to David West,reflecting a practice that was legal in the slave system.

 

 

Legal Status of Delaware’s Black Population, 1790-1860

Year Enslaved
Number
Percentage Free
Number
Percentage Total
1790 8,887 69.5 3,899 30.5 12,786
1800 6,153 42.7 8,268 57.3 14,421
1810 4,177 24.1 13,136 75.9 17,313
1820 4,509 25.8 12,958 74.2 17,467
1830 3,292 17.2 15,855 82.8 19,148
1840 2,605 13.3 16,919 86.7 19,524
1850 2,290 11.2 18,073 88.8 20,363
1860 1,798 8.3 19,829 91.7 21,627

 

Early Religious History
Early Delaware provided only limited religious choices even though it offered a variety of faiths and did not have a state-supported church.  Churches were scattered over the landscape and clergy were always in short supply.  Many early white Delawareans did not attend church because the preaching and rituals did not meet their spiritual needs. 

Blacks had even less access to religion, either their own African beliefs and customs or the Christian faith of their new culture.  However, in their limited free time, they gathered on their own—away from whites—to hold prayer meetings, tell stories, and maintain African culture.  This is commonly known as the invisible institution or the invisible slave church.

Slaves generally became acquainted with Christianity only if their owners allowed them to attend services or receive religious instruction.  Most churches did not try to win the faith of blacks.   

 

The Arrival of Methodism

John Wesley

 

The religious landscape in Delaware began to change with the introduction of Methodist preaching in 1769.  Methodists followed John Wesley, an Anglican who wanted to reform the Church of England with evangelistic preaching, personal conversion, and a structure of small-group meetings. However, most Anglican clergy opposed Wesley’s reforms, so his followers set up their own class meetings and societies.  Such was the case in Delaware as well.  Methodist preachers traveled constantly to spread the word of salvation freely available to all regardless of race or economic status.  This was a welcome message for people, white and black alike, who did not feel welcome in other churches.  Many Delawareans joined the Methodist movement.

John Wesley
Delaware Historical Society Collections

 

 

Barratt's Chapel, Frederica

 

Barratt’s chapel, erected in 1780, holds a special place in the history of American Methodism.  Early Methodist meetings were considered to be a supplement to regular worship at the local Anglican church and not a replacement for it.  However, this did not work out well. On November 14, 1784, at a service at Barratt’s, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury administered Holy Communion, the first time this had been done by a Methodist clergyman.  This was a major step in the development of the Methodist church as a separate denomination.

Barratt’s Chapel, Frederica
Early 1900s
Delaware Historical Society Collections
 

 

Methodism's Appeal to Black People

The simple, Bible-based message of the Methodists spoke directly to black people, offering love, hope, equality under God, deliverance, and a sense of purpose.  These were liberating, transformative ideas for people whose lives lacked all of these things.  All one had to do was accept what God freely offered through personal conversion.  Unlike other churches, Methodism allowed blacks to preach, providing the only venue in which they could freely express themselves and be leaders.  Also unlike most other churches, early Methodism took a stand against slavery.  For all these reasons, blacks found a spiritual home in the Methodist movement that they did not find in other churches, and many of them joined the faith.

 

Harry Hosier

 

 

 

 

Harry Hosier, Courtesy of the United Methodist Publishing House

One of the greatest early black preachers was Harry Hosier,
who made several preaching journeys on the Delmarva Peninsula
with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  

 

 

Quotation from Richard Allen, Life Experience and Gospel Labors

“One night I thought hell would be my portion.  I cried unto Him who delighteth to hear the prayers of a poor sinner, and all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried.  My soul was filled.  I cried, enough for me—the Saviour died.”

Delaware History Museum   |  Mitchell Center for African American Heritage   |   Old Town Hall   |   Research Library   |   Willingtown Square    |   Read House & Gardens  

(302) 655-7161  deinfo@dehistory.org
505 N. Market Street, Wilmington, DE 19801
copyright 2016
 
The Delaware Historical Society is the statewide, non-profit organization that explores, preserves, shares, and promotes Delaware history, heritage, and culture to strengthen our community.