Throughout 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup asserts that God loves all of his people, regardless of race. The inherent equality among men in God’s eyes means that Christianity is a source of comfort and strength for the slaves, as well as a way to understand their circumstances. 12 Years a Slave also reveals the hypocritical underbelly of Christianity in the American South, showing the way that Christianity can be terribly manipulated into a means for justifying the rightness of slavery and racism.
The narrative asserts that the core of Christianity is a loving God who cares for all people, regardless of race. At the opening of his narrative, Solomon explains how his father taught him and his siblings “to place our trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures.” Solomon’s only kindly owner, William Ford, is a Christian man who teaches his slaves that God cares for all people: “He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all.” Later, Bass, the kindly Canadian carpenter, asks Epps, “Now, in the sight of God, what is the difference, Epps, between a white man and a black one?” Through his rhetorical question, Bass attempts to show Epps that there is no difference in God’s eyes. In contrast, Solomon attributes Edwin Epps’ son’s brutality and racism to what he’s learned by observing his father, as well as his failure “to comprehend, that in the eye of the Almighty there is no distinction of color.”
12 Years a Slave illustrates that religion can provide a sense of hope, strength, and understanding. When Solomon wakes up from being drugged and kidnapped, he realizes that he has been enslaved, and immediately turns to God: “I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head…and wept most bitterly.” Similarly, during the process of being officially sold to a slave owner, Solomon prays to God for strength: “To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles.” In addition, Ford shows his slaves how religion provides a way to understand one’s present life and the future, eternal life: “He sought to inculcate in our minds…dependence upon God—setting forth the rewards promised unto those who lead an upright and prayerful life…he spoke of the loving kindness of the Creator and of the life that is to come.”
However, the narrative also points out that Christianity can be used to justify slavery and wickedness. For example, Ford’s brother-in-law, Tanner, also reads the Bible to his slaves but uses it to impress upon them obedience to the slave owner. He dramatically reads the verse, “And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Tanner’s commentary on the verse is that slaves who “don’t take care—that don’t obey his lord—that’s his master—…shall be beaten with many stripes.” Tanner twists the teachings of Christianity to perpetuate slavery and justify the beating his slaves. Similarly, when Bass tries to explain to Epps that race makes no difference in God’s eyes, Epps is adamant that it makes “All the difference in the world…You might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon.” Bass tries instead to explain to Epps that the Declaration of Independences means that “all men [are] created free and equal,” to which Epps responds that “all men” doesn’t include slaves or monkeys—suggesting that he also sees the God of “all men” as the God of all white men.
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup asserts that God is a loving, caring God of all people, and that race plays no part in God’s affections. Because of this, Northup frequently turns to his Christian faith as a source of strength or comfort in the midst of his suffering. In this way, Northup urges his reader to align themselves with God by abolishing racism and fostering equality, which is the core purpose of 12 Years a Slave. Northup also draws attention to the ways that Christianity can be distorted for the sake of justifying slavery and racism. In doing so, Northup strengthens the moral sentiments of the Second Great Awakening, which was a Christian movement unfolding around the same time. Northup emphasizes, as the Second Great Awakening did, that slavery is immoral and does not align with Christianity and God’s word.
Christianity Quotes in 12 Years a Slave
My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing. Then I lifted up my hands to God, and in the still watches of the night […] begged for mercy on the poor, forsaken captive. To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles […].
Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It […] relieved me of many days’ labor in the field […] and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master. […] It was my companion—the friend of my bosom—triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. Often […] it would sing me a song of peace.
It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—“Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!”
If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.
The secret was out—the mystery was unraveled. Through the thick, black cloud, amid whose dark and dismal shadows I had walked twelve years, broke the star that was to light me back to liberty.