In her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs describes the youth of her alter-ego, Linda Brent, as a slave in the American South. The narrative often meditates on the existence of slavery within a society that purports to fulfill Christian principles. Linda observes the hypocritical Christianity practiced by her owners and the white community, who use religion as a justification for slavery. At the same time, she describes the sincere religious convictions that allow slaves to preserve dignity and strength even in the midst of constant degradation. In doing so, Jacobs affirms her own Christian faith while arguing that religion can be used to excuse evil just as easily as to promote justice.
Linda observes that her owners and much of the white community around her use Christianity to increase their social status and consolidate power over their slaves. Early in the narrative, Linda recalls that her first mistress taught her the Christian commandments to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to treat others as she wants to be treated. However, the mistress’s religious commitments don’t stop her from leaving Linda to the Flints in her will, plunging her into decades of turmoil. Linda concludes that “she did not recognize me as her neighbor”; the mistress’s piety has enabled her to feel righteous without alerting her to the injustice of owning slaves.
Linda notes ironically that Dr. Flint frequently goes to church and always donates to the collection box, but the devout image he cultivates in this way has no bearing on his willingness to own slaves and his predatory behavior towards Linda. This hypocrisy is characteristic of many slave-owning men in the narrative. Another time, Linda and some friends begin to attend services organized for slaves by the local Methodist church. The pastor, Reverend Pike, reads from a Biblical text that urges servants to obey their masters, and during his sermon harangues the assembled group to work harder and faster, because God sees their “laziness.” Here, the church establishment is actively mobilized to give legitimacy to the institution of slavery.
At the same time, Christianity is an enormous source of emotional strength for Linda and other members of the black community. In one particularly disturbing incident, Linda describes a white woman jeering at the bedside of a slave who is dying while giving birth to her master’s illegitimate child; she says that there is no heaven for “the like of her and her bastard,” but the woman responds calmly that “God knows all about it, and He will have mercy on me.” In this situation, religious faith allows the slave to respond to these appalling insults with calm resolve, and to meet her death with tranquility.
As she grows up, Linda is guided by her grandmother’s strict religious teachings. It’s her emphasis on the importance of chastity that makes Linda so determined to stand up to Dr. Flint. One of the narrative’s most touching moments comes when Linda and her grandmother pray together before her escape; in this case, Christianity cements their bond and gives them courage before a decisive action.
Although Linda at first feels she’s violated the precepts of religion by having an illegitimate affair, she later says that “God alone knows how I have suffered; and He, I trust, will forgive me.” Here, her sincere faith helps her cope with the social stigma of unwed motherhood; for Linda, Christianity is not about gaining social status but maintaining her dignity and self-respect in the face of constant oppression.
Because she lives in an extremely religious society and is a devout Christian herself, Jacobs invokes Christianity throughout her narrative. For her, religion provides moral support and the promise of divine justice, which is particularly important given that society offers no such things to people like her. However, even as she extols the virtues of Christianity, she is highly critical of people who use Christianity not for personal growth or to help others, but for the self-serving end of justifying slavery.
Christianity Quotes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.
I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach…
Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters. Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave…
You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master…if you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master. You must obey God’s commandments.
There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south. If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church, no matter if it be the price of blood, he is called religious.
We knelt down together, with my child pressed to my heart, and my other arm round the faithful, loving old friend I was about to leave forever. On no other occasion has it ever been my lot to listen to so fervent a supplication for mercy and protection. It thrilled through my heart, and inspired me with trust in God.