Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Some time after the rebellion, local slaveholders decide that the slaves should attend religious services “to keep them from murdering their masters.” Linda is invited to attend a new Episcopal service for black people. Reverend Pike, the pastor, reads from a text that states “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters…as unto Christ.” In his sermon, he calls the congregants “rebellious sinners” and harangues them for shirking work and drinking alcohol, saying that God will punish them.
While Linda often quotes the Bible’s insistence on equality and dignity, Reverend Pike chooses to lecture on a passage that seems to reflect his pro-slavery beliefs. Linda suggests that by conflating slaveholders with Christ, he’s bordering on sacrilege, as Christ is supposed to be completely without sin and slaveholders are known for their iniquitous deeds.
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Everyone is “amused” by the sermons and they return for a few more Sundays but eventually get bored and switch to Methodist services, which are full of singing and dancing. Linda feels that these people are more “sincere” Christians than the “sanctimonious” Reverend Pike.
In passages like this, Linda emphasizes the malleability of Christianity – it can be followed sincerely or twisted to serve self-serving agendas. Thus, it’s important for individual worshippers to analyze the ideas with which they are presented, rather than simply accepting them.
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Once, Linda attends a Methodist service and sits next to a mother who is broken-hearted, having just seen her youngest daughter sold away from her. The service leader is the local constable, who trades slaves and is frequently employed by other slaveholders to whip disobedient slaves. When he asks her what’s wrong, she shares her grief, saying that “I’ve got nothing to live for now” and praying to die. Linda sees that while other congregants are crying in sympathy, the constable is trying not to laugh. He tells her that the sale of her daughter is the “dispensation of [God’s] divine will.” The slaves begin to sing a hymn; Linda says that, hearing them, one might almost think them happy people.
This is a truly appalling episode. The fact that the worship leader can’t empathize with the simple, universal grief of a mother who has lost her children shows his utter inability to conceive of her as a human. It’s impossible to cultivate sincere faith within an atmosphere that denies slaves such basic respect. Accordingly, Linda will develop her faith independently, rather than accepting the ideas presented to her by white clergymen.
Themes
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At one point, the Episcopal clergyman leaves and is replaced by a pastor who is much kinder to the black community, holding meetings expressly for them in which he sincerely discusses Biblical texts and treats them as “human beings.” Soon, the white parishioners become disgruntled, resenting the energy and respect he devotes to these meetings. When the pastor’s wife dies, he frees their five slaves and leaves the town.
Even though there are individual clergymen sympathetic to the plight of slaves, they can’t advocate in the face of social hostility. After a certain point, Linda argues, it’s impossible to reform a system through individual effort within that system.
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Linda becomes friends with an elderly slave, Fred, who has recently joined the Baptist church and wants to learn to read. She warns him that this is now against the law, but he is serious about his intent and proves a quick learner, reading the Bible after a few months of study. Linda says that there are thousands of people “thirsting for the water of life” like Fred and forbidden, by law, from accessing it. She points out the hypocrisy of sending people to teach “the heathen abroad” but forbidding black people in America from learning to read.
Fred’s sincere desire to learn from the Bible, rather than to appropriate passages for his own use, contrasts with the behavior of clergymen like Reverend Pike. The fact that slaveholders try to prevent this meaningful engagement with the Bible means that they themselves are violating the Christian principles they urge on people elsewhere in the world.
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Linda says that missionaries should “talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa,” alerting them of the sinfulness of selling children, abusing young women, and disobeying God by harming their brethren. Whenever religious readers raise such subjects in the South, they are ostracized and driven away. Often, clergymen visit the South feeling that slavery is morally wrong, but allow themselves to be persuaded otherwise by slaveholders who invite them to luxurious plantations and show them the dwellings of favorite slaves, who are intimidated into expressing contentment in their lot. These men then return to the North and defend the institution, knowing nothing of the moral depravity it actually causes.
Southerners are accustomed to regarding their own society as the norm and questioning the practices of other cultures. Linda warns against this normalization of slavery, saying that it should be treated as a pernicious violation of norms. Linda is employing tropes of “civilized” and “uncivilized” societies, traditionally used to disenfranchise people of color, to empower them instead – at least, those who are living in America.
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It seems to Linda that there is an important divide between “Christianity and religion” in the South. For example, Dr. Flint is religious and always donates money to the church, but “the worst persecutions [she] endured from him were after he was a communicant.” He openly admits to her that he joined the church to shore up his social position and put an end to gossip about his character. Gallingly, he encourages Linda to join the church as well.
Here, Linda draws a fundamental distinction between religion as used for social advancement and as practiced out of sincere faith. While this distinction isn’t unique to the South, it’s worth noting because it allows slaveholders to see themselves as moral people even as they commit blatant moral crimes against slaves.
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Related Quotes
In response to this, Linda says she would be happy “if I could be allowed to live like a Christian.” Dr. Flint says that the best way for her to be virtuous is to obey him, and she retorts that this isn’t what the Bible says. He explodes, raging at her that she has no right to tell him what she wants and doesn’t want.
Linda sees the Bible as a vehicle towards empowerment, but Dr. Flint considers it a tool of domination.
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