Preparing The Way
Table of Contents
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.
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
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.
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.
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.