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Christianity and Slavery;
In a Course of Lectures Preached at the Cathedral and Parish Church of St. Michael, Barbados.

By Edward Eliot, B.D.
Archdeacon of Barbados.

London: J. Hatchard, 1833.

Lecture IV. Causes of the Infrequency of Marriage among the Slaves

(Preached at the Cathedral, Barbados, March 4, 1832.)

HEBREWS xiii. 4.

Marriage is honourable in all.

MARRIAGE is a divine institution, coƫval with the creation of man and woman. Have ye not read, says our Saviour, that he which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh. From the beginning then--from the first introduction of man and woman, the original parents of the whole human race, into the world--marriage was instituted and enjoined by God himself. There can be no error here. It is not an human institution, and therefore subject to the uncertainties and imperfections which ac company every thing that originates from man. God Almighty, of wisdom infinite--whose prospective vigilance nothing can escape--saw that it was good, and gave it his absolute and unqualified sanction.

It is doubtless, in consequence of this Original ordinance of the Almighty, transmitted by tradition through succeeding generations, and retaining a portion of its influence even where all traces of the command have been lost, that marriage, under certain characteristic forms, has been recognized in almost every nation of the earth. [The bond of wedlock hath been always more or less esteemed of, as a thing religious and sacred. The title which the very heathens themselves do thereunto oftentimes give, is Holy. Hooker, Book 5.] Often, indeed, has the spirit of the institution been disregarded, and an unauthorized laxity of practice introduced in the dissolution of the engagement, for inadequate reasons, or for nullifying, it, by granting to the husband a plurality of subordinate wives or concubines. But with very rare exceptions, and these arising only from circumstances connected with the lowest stage of human degradation, marriage has prevailed among all nations.

I speak, of course, of the general usages of mankind. And it. is painful to declare that the slave population in these colonies are to be classed among the exceptions. I should, perhaps, not exceed the truth, if I were to say that they are especially and singularly marked by the absence of those public ceremonies--those outward and ostensible bonds which legalize the marriage state. Among those, the- union of the parties is secured by no bond more-durable than that which caprice dictates. Mutual inclination, however temporary and unstable, brings them together, and with a change of feelings the union is dissolved; and their offspring, untaught by example, and wanting the moral influence and authority of the parents, readily acquire the same habits of unrestrained indulgence.
But how, it may be asked, can an intercourse, unhallowed by any religious rite, unsanctioned by any civil form, irregular in its origin, and debasing in its effects, prevail in countries which bear the name of Christian, and where the ministers of the gospel have authority to teach the commandments of God?

It becomes my duty to answer this question, and I entreat your indulgence while I publicly state the causes (and I have not lightly or carelessly investigated the subject) which appear to me to have operated most influentially in diminishing marriages among your slaves, and in encouraging among them polygamy, or mutual separation at pleasure. On such an occasion I must speak plainly and unhesitatingly, for the evil notoriously exists, and the minister of the gospel is bound to endeavour, by every legitimate means, to lessen, and, if possible, to remove it.

I take notice of the practice as general, not as universal; for within the last few years a partial change has been experienced in this, and in some of time sister colonies. Though the slave marriages have been lamentably few, compared with the amount of our negro population, still we may rejoice that the first impulse has been given to the extrication of this portion of our inhabitants from their unchristian and debasing habits. It is more, however, in the towns, and among the domestic slaves, than on estates in the country, that the diminution of the evil is beginning to be apparent. [The Codrington estate in this island is an exception. I believe about twenty-five marriages have been solemnized there.]

I. The cause which I would first assign for the almost universal practice of concubinage on plantations, is the indifference, and in some cases even the opposition of the master to the marriage of his slaves. There prevails a vague and indefinite fear that the introduction of the marriage rite will materially alter their condition, and lead to privileges incompatible, with servitude. We are often told even by proprietors, who are uninfluenced by the prejudices of earlier times, and who study in many important details the welfare of their dependents, that they are not opposed to intermarriages on the same property, but that marriages between slaves of different plantations are open to abuse, and therefore ought to be discountenanced.

The apprehension is obviously groundless, for the present system of irregular concubinage affords the same facility of ingress on an estate which would accompany a legitimate marriage. It is notorious. that attachments are: frequently formed between slaves of neighbouring or even distant plantations; and the evil assuredly would not be increased if these attachments were sanctioned by the legitimacy and permanency of the marriage rite.

But can any apprehension on the part of the master justify the authorized violation of God's commands? Whenever we disobey the known will of the Almighty, either directly or indirectly, either by doing ourselves what is wrong, or by encouraging others to do it, we have just cause of alarm, and we may with reason dread some evil consequences to ourselves.

Under the head of opposition I may notice the ridicule with which the marriages of slaves are often treated by those who exercise authority, either direct or subordinate over them. The sneers and derision which in many instances accompany the extension of this sacred rite to a negro slave, as if it were no more in tended for him than for the beasts of the field, are surely without excuse or palliation. The white overseer or bookkeeper, who thus gratuitously insults the rational beings placed under his control, will be the first to condemn himself when his heart is open. to religious impressions, and when he seriously reflects that the objects of his contemptuous ridicule are equally heirs of immortality with himself.

2. I am bound to declare (for it is imperative on me to speak without reserve or partiality) that slave marriages are retarded by the bad example which prevails in our colonies--by the licentious and unhallowed connexions which are openly formed between the superior and his dependent--between the white man and his black or coloured concubine. In the name of our common Redeemer, and on the authority of his holy precepts, I call on you, my brethren, no longer to encourage so daring an offence against the laws of God. On your own account, (if there be any present to whom my words are applicable,)--on your own account--for bear in mind the declaration of Scripture,--that no fornicator shall inherit the kingdom of Christ and of God.' I en treat you renounce the unholy and de basing state of concubinage for marriage, which the same inspired authority pronounces to be honourable in all; and I charge you to remember, that by your present deeds of impurity, you are leading others, the ready followers of your example, into sin, and are preparing for yourselves the woe which is awfully denounced against those who put a stumbling-block in another's way, and cause him to offend.

Am I addressing a Christian congregation, and must I meet the argument that in the offence so strongly and repeatedly prohibited in the scriptures, our innate propensities give a latitude which renders void and of none effect the law of God? Shall the licentiousness so prevalent in the land be justified on the plea that the natural appetites of men prompt them to the sin; and that as God implanted in us these appetites, he will not be extreme to condemn their indulgence? The profligate maintainers of this doctrine forget that the same plea may be urged in defence of almost every crime committed by man upon earth. For whence arises sin of every degree and complexion, unless from the unrestrained indulgence of our natural passions? Murder, theft, adultery--every outrage committed against man, and every impiety conceived and practised against God, may be traced to the corruption of the natural heart. It is blasphemy to in sinuate that God encourages these sinful propensities. Every precept from the Almighty imposes a direct and absolute restraint on them; and when men rush "into wretchiessness of most unclean living," it cannot be denied, that the will of God is resisted, and his holy commands perversely disregarded.

3. It will perhaps be urged that if even the master is anxious to put an end to the prevailing sin of concubinage among his bondsmen, and by his own example discountenances their licentiousness, his efforts will be frustrated by the opposition of the drivers and other influential negroes on the estate. It may be maintained that the persons entrusted with a petty and subordinate authority, are accustomed to regard a plurality of concubines, and a transfer of affection from one female to another, as among the chief perquisites of office, and that they will sturdily oppose any measure calculated to restrain their present indulgences.

I will admit that without the salutary controul of a superior, they have the power, by frequent and vexatious annoyances, of rendering the marriage-state a source of suffering to both the man and his wife. But in their condition of dependance on a higher authority, this evil can only exist where the master or his deputy is passive, or where the supposed usefulness of the driver, estimated merely by his zeal in enforcing discipline among the slaves, is allowed to supersede every consideration of his moral worth.

It is imperative on masters who are influenced by a regard to their Christian duties, and I may likewise add, to their secular interests, to ascertain well the moral character of the persons entrusted by them with a delegated authority. The evils resulting from the present demoralized condition of slaves in the West Indies, extend far beyond the slaves them selves. A disease is tolerated, which though commonly supposed to be confined to the extremities of the body politic, is, however, like many diseases of the natural body, easily communicated to the nobler parts, until a moral foulness is spread throughout the entire system. The property of the master suffers from it; the character oft he master suffers; and, above all, the favour of the Most High, who willeth that righteousness should ex alt the individual as well as a whole nation, is often sensibly withdrawn in the present life, and in the life to come it assuredly is not to be expected.

4. Another cause commonly assigned for the infrequency of marriage among slaves, is the supposed unwillingness on their part to enter into a contract, which, being indissoluble, compels the cohabitation of the parties through out life, in spite of any future quarrels or misunderstandings. I know not why this should be a subject of apprehension among the slaves, more than among our white and free coloured inhabitants, and were I to draw my conclusions from the answers which I have obtained from the. slaves themselves, I might say that it had scarcely any influence in obstructing the due solemnization of marriage among them. If such an objection really prevails, I conceive that it would require no great effort, and no undue exercise of authority to remove it. It is always in the master's power to impose on his dependents such restrictions as would give to their union the binding validity of .a duly performed marriage. The latitude at present allowed of a plurality of wives, or of a capricious change in their affections from one individual to another, might certainly be checked, and the connexion between the parties might substantially, though not according to the recognized and legitimate forms, be made permanent. The transition from this state of mutual restraint to a compliance with the marriage ceremony as a religious rite, would he attended with no opposition or difficulty.

5. To what extent the slaves of our own day are influenced by the usages which their forefathers imported originally from Africa, it is difficult to deter mine. That customs are transmitted in all communities, without much variation, from father to son, we all know: and it often requires length of time, and the introduction of a new moral principle entirely to remove them. The laws of Africa, like those of most nations in the East, sanction a plurality of wives. The practice of the present generation of Creole negroes is in full accordance with such laws. But in many respects they appear even to have degenerated from the usages of their ancestors, or to have disregarded the obligations, feeble as they are, which enforce permanency in the African marriage.

Africa, moreover, is a barbarous and a heathen country, and therefore barbarous and heathen customs necessarily prevail among the people. The slaves in our West India colonies inhabit a civilized and a Christian land, and they consequently ought to partake of the blessings which accompany Christianity and civilization.

6. I hesitate not to say that the present impure and licentious practices of our slave population are intimately blended with the ignorance in which they are permitted to live, and with the darkness of heathenism which still surrounds them. They know not the doctrines of the gospel, nor have they been taught the duties which are obligatory on every follower of Christ. The advantages of religious instruction must be afforded them, not in show and semblance only, but efficiently and influentially, before we can expect the desired improvement in their moral character and habits.

7. The want of legal encouragement to the marriage of slaves is an evil which every one who is anxious for their moral improvement must deplore. I attribute to this defect in our laws many of the hindrances which obstruct the discontinuance of their present licentiousness, and withhold them from the salutary restraints of the marriage bond. There is no legal distinction between the children of parents lawfully married, and those who are the offspring of an unhallowed and transient connexion. The parents themselves are in no way distinguished by superior respectability in the eyes of the public. They have none of the encouragements which exist among almost every other people, to induce a preference in favour of the marriage state. They are left without any security against a forcible separation by sale, or by the removal of the owners to a distant residence, or into another colony. Whether the men have one or more wives--for strange as it may appear, the term wife is in general use among them, whether they are constant in their attachments, or change with the caprice of the moment--whether they desert, or deny, or foster their offspring, is a matter of entire indifference as far as the laws of the land, or the influence of public opinion, affect them. Their habits in every thing bearing on the moral decencies of life are as little noticed as those of beings irrational and without responsibility.

"Marriage" (we learn from a high legal authority [Lord Stowell. Consistory Reports. Dairymple v. Dalrymple.]) "is a contract of natural law; in civil society it becomes a civil contract, regulated and prescribed by law, and endowed with civil consequences." I believe I may say that, with very few exceptions, and these often of a restrictive character, marriage is not regulated and prescribed by law in the case of the slave inhabitants of our West India colonies; nor am I aware that it is in any instance endowed with civil consequences. [By the law in Barbados, slave marriages are restricted to persons "being the property of the same owner." In Antigua those who are of free condition are not allowed to intermarry with slaves.] Being defective in what is justly considered essential to it as a civil contract, we cannot wonder that the slaves themselves regard it with indifference, and even, prefer the degrading licentiousness in which they are allowed to revel at present, to a restraint, which is attended with no obvious and practical good to themselves or to their children.

8. . I am obliged to add another cause of. the infrequency, of marriages among our slaves, which comes more immediately home. to ourselves of the ministry, and which involves a serious, though I would hope not a wilful dereliction of duty on the part of the clergy in the West Indies. I allude to their not having pressed with the required zeal and earnestness, as well from the pulpit as in their private ad monitions, the duty of the master to encourage, and the still more cogent duty of the slave to desire, the legitimacy and the permanency of the marriage bond, I may perhaps be told that in many instances this interference of the minister would be liable to misapprehension, and would be ungraciously received. But where a religious duty is openly and avowedly neglected, and the evils consequent on such neglect are glaring in the community, the minister of the gospel should be the first to raise a warning voice, and to declare the judgments of God against unholy and impure livers. He is placed as a watchman to announce to the objects of his spiritual care the evils impending on the wilful transgressor of the divine law: and woe be to him, if from the fear of offending man, or from any motive of secular interest, he is unfaithful in his charge. When I say unto the wicked, (saith the Lord,) O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand.

I have now mentioned some of the more ordinary, and I believe the more influential causes which have proved, and which still continue to prove an hindrance to the marriage of slaves in the West Indies. They are all such as may easily be removed without any harsh interposition of the master's authority, or any curtailment of the master's equitable rights. I have spoken freely, and I would hope intelligibly, on this important subject; for my design has been to lay open the enormity of the evil, and to enforce the conviction that it is clearly an abomination in a Christian land.

On the authority of Gods holy word then, I earnestly implore every owner of slave property in the West Indies to exert his influence in checking, and if possible altogether suppressing the shameful concubinage which prevails on his plantation. I implore him to bear in mind that marriage is the ordinance of God, and that the Almighty himself limits it to two persons; they twain shall be one flesh, and the man shall cleave, not unto his wives, but unto his wife. What God has thus joined together, let not man put asunder. What our common Creator has thus established as a law for the human race, let not man presume to alter.

I am satisfied that suitable encouragement on the part of the master, supported by the example of his subordinate agents on the plantation, would soon turn the negro mind to a serious consideration of the duty of legitimate wedlock. But advice and individual encouragement will, I am afraid, lead to no permanent change in the existing habits of the slaves, unless they are in earnest taught the duties of our religion, and unless their marriage is endowed with those civil consequences which have ever been held necessary to give it validity as a civil contract.

And can we doubt that good will arise from marriage becoming general among our slave population? Surely there is good in a permanency of attachment, and in an identity of interests between the man and the woman. There is good also in the mutual confidence of the parties; and in their united endeavours to foster and protect their offspring, and to bring them up by example as well as by precept, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. There is good in imposing a check on the vagrancy of sensual indulgence, and in encouraging a wholesome increase of the population which is at present stunted and retarded by the immoralities of our people.

But let me not, in pressing these considerations on both master and slave, dwell only on inferior motives, or urge the secular advantages attending the marriage state, as the sole or principal inducement to its adoption. It is the will of God that a man should leave father and mother and cleave to his wife. It is the mandate of Christ that a man should not put away his wife and marry another, except it be for the previous crime of adultery; and we dare not oppose that will, and disobey that mandate without practically renouncing the religion taught us in the Bible. We dare not encourage or sanction illicit or unhallowed concubinage, without arrogating to ourselves the right of deliberately opposing the known commands of the Almighty.

I am aware that the slave in these colonies has hitherto laboured under peculiar difficulties in entering into the marriage state. I have already dwelt on some of the impediments which the prejdices of a former age have transmitted, with a very partial decrease, down to our own times. I may hope, however, that no master who admits the Christian obligation of giving unto his servants that which is just and equal, will, in the present day, interpose his authority to prevent the marriage of his slave. Wherever toleration exists, though unaccompanied with any positive encouragement, it is the duty of the servant to avail him self of it, and to remember that marriage is honourable in all, in the lowest as well as in the highest of God's rational creatures upon earth; but that fornication should not even be named, with any approval, much less be practised among them.

And as for those, whatever be their complexion or condition, who have hither to disregarded the religious obligation of marriage, and, with the connivance of an evil world, have lived in an unhallowed intercourse with their partners, avoiding every tie, whether civil or religious, which may give permanency to the connexion, let the words of the apostle sound fearfully in their ears, whoremongers and adulterers God will judge. Assuredly God will judge those, who left to their own free will, and without any of the restraints arising from servitude to an earthly master, persevere in a conduct opposed to his known commands.

Far be it from me to alarm any one needlessly with the judgments of the Almighty, or to interpret the language of Scripture in a sense more terrifying than the words literally express; but I read in the hook of inspiration, and you also, my brethren, may read, that whoremongers shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.

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