More Than Chains and Toil: A Christian Work Ethic of Enslaved Women

Examines the roles, lives, and philosophies of life of the African-American slave woman during the period of slavery in the United States and later. Dr. Martin, a Presbyterian minister, describes and dissects how the Christian religion of the slaveowner was used (and abused) by him to control his slaves, but also demonstrates how the slave women (and men) found in the same Christianity the key to their survival.

Topics: Social & Environmental Ministry and The Arts & Culture. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “More Than Chains and Toil: A Christian Work Ethic of Enslaved Women

  1. Review

    The stated purpose of this book is to examine the “lives of enslaved Black women as moral agents and their struggle to create positive meaning out of the very element which defined their lives’ work” (p. 1). The book contains helpful discussions of slavery, the Black experience (especially that of women), the impact of community, work, and the role of religion. Martin attempts to show how work provides human meaning in situations when the content and the context of work are dehumanizing for a particular group. Martin employs a womanist (her term) liberation methodology for situating the world of blackwomen (also her term), especially their seeking liberation as full human beings from structural and personal forms of oppression. The core feature of blackwomen’s lives in the United States is the negation of personhood. She draws heavily on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and others to formulate a theory, which is too complex to attempt to summarize in this review. I felt this discussion in chapter two was too abstract to be as helpful as it might have been. Much of the book is a description of the slave experience of black women. They worked at a wide array of jobs inside and outside the home, and also experienced childbearing and care in the midst of their other work regimens. They experienced public nakedness at the auction block, and medical maltreatment during and after pregnancy. Their overwhelming reality was that of suffering, evil, and toil. Their daily lot was one of emotional abuse and the threat of physical violence. The practice was that the child follows the condition of the mother, which ensured that enslaved women would become valued for their reproductive capabilities as well as being valued targets for rape and sexual liaisons with slaveholders and overseers (p. 38). As one slave put it, “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women” (p. 147). Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the actual quotations from female slaves. Some of these are fascinating and even moving, such as the story of “Aunt Marthy,” an older slave who was so revered that when she was (again) put on the slave block, no one would bid on her and she gained her freedom. In the midst of slavery, there was a network, a supportive community that provided mutual assistance, that took place through midwifery, collective cooking and laundering, child care, and spiritual leadership. Women had some social places where they could socialize, give mutual aid and encouragement (p. 71). Freedom was a vital and constant feature of the enslaved imagination, even though its actual prospects seemed remote. Slaves did not believe slavery was the will of God, and so a community of resistance developed. African-American (Protestant) Christianity had a community ethos that valued human dignity in the face of white racism. Kin and friendship ties were very important. Bonding between enslaved women and among them and their allies occurred in an underground network of subversion and resistance. The nature and meaning of work is explored in some depth in the book. Work relates to our identity as human beings, and jobs have strong real and symbolic value. Talent and labor came to be seen as a gift from God for the building of the community. Enslaved women had a work ethic in terms of their lives’ purpose and this ethic was, in part, the vehicle through which they acted as moral agents (p. 105). The work ethic gave meaning to human existence when grounded in the historic community of struggle for freedom. An attitude of self-reliance and confidence in one’s skill and craft developed. Martin discusses the Biblical view of work as a response to life rendered to God. Luther and Calvin emphasized work as a calling and vocation, but did not consider exploited work or issues of domination, subordination, or power. Some workers have no access to economic, social, legal, and political resources. So not all work can be called good. African-American women’s relation to work has been paradoxical at best and contradictory at worst. They have tended to enter low-paid, unstable work in the service sector (p. 139). Blackwomen have faced personal, cultural and institutional discrimination as enslaved women. Yet they have maintained a critical sense of the meaning of work and its value to their communities and to their religious faith. Lower-level workers have been hurt by technological change, the declining value of the minimum wage, and declining unionization. The discussion about welfare “reform” centered on the apparent lack of a work ethic and a Black behavioral problem rather than a consequence of systematic poverty (p. 145). Black motherhood seems not to be highly valued by United States society. The power of religious faith for an oppressed people is explored. Religious ceremonies tightened the social bonds among people. Out of these meetings came the Black church. Later Martin discusses how the Black church is often the first place where people receive the motivation to improve themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods. As Sojourner Truth would say, God was a God of freedom and not slavery. The slaves came to experience a loving, forgiving, and liberating God. As one female slave said, “some day we never be slaves” (p. 22). Or, “we prayed lots in slavery to be free and the Lord heard our prayers” (p. 25). Sometimes they faced beatings because of the practice of their religion. “White folks don’t want slaves to pray” (pp. 25, 47). The conversion experience indicated to slaves that they were human because they received the Spirit, and they were other than their owners’ property. The Bible was the major source of validation: it gave them a “God-consciousness.” Some of its stories, like the Exodus, paralleled their experience. It also made Jesus real as a co-sufferer who identified with them. Religious ethics should be the doing of and reflection on solidarity as part of faithful participation in Jesus Christ’s work of redemption. For what is faith in God but the fullest expression of authentic community/communion? The book deals with some important issues, though the writing style could be smoother at times. Some side observations about slavery, such as the making of quilts, gardening, the role of the midwife, and the different types of food eaten by the upper class and the slaves, are interesting. Those involved with issues of race, feminism, and the world of work should find the book of interest.Emory Burton is a retired minister of theUnited Methodist Church and a professor of sociology

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