Christian Spirituality in 19th Century Boston

Curated by Bianca M. Vranceanu

A Brief History of Christianity in Boston

Since the 1630s, Christianity has had a significant role in Boston’s history. During the 17th century, religion was largely introduced to slaves by slave owners as they taught their religious practices to them. This was especially significant and influential to younger slaves and servants (Reddie). Puritanism was the main Christian practice of that era. The Puritans believed in preaching as a way to spread the word of God. Their preaching was inspired by scripture and everyday experiences. Their sermons often expressed political motives, as they desired a society that glorified God. Puritanism was largely practiced in groups, rather than individually (Puritan New England: Massachusetts Bay). With this, they established meeting houses so they could practice faith within their community. In Boston, up until the American Revolution, Puritanism dominated society and non-believers were shunned and punished. Due to this, Christianity was embraced by many. However, after the Revolution, the Massachusetts Constitution guaranteed that individuals could practice any religion freely (The Pluralism Project). This led to an increase in the practice of other denominations of Christianity in Boston. The black community embraced Christianity freely and by the 19th century, they had refined their practice of Christianity and this led to the establishment of several independent African-American Churches in Boston (The Pluralism Project).

The Significance of Christianity in the Black Community in 19th Century Boston

Christian spirituality was a significant factor in the black society of Boston in the 19th century. The practice of religion united many of the faithful and these deep connections allowed for open communication about their role in society. Initially, slave owners believed that the introduction of Christianity to their slaves would make them acquiescent in their role in society. However, as black people read or learned about biblical literature, their understanding of God shaped their belief that all people should be treated equally. They believed God loves everyone equally, no matter their race, gender, or creed. They began to identify the hypocrisies that Christian whites believed in mercy, grace, and righteousness, yet there was a dramatic societal divide caused by racial oppression (Smith). This realization catalyzed a paradoxical relationship with God for many; they struggled with understanding the different roles in society that were mitigated by race. With this, a key characteristic of forgiveness developed in Christian spirituality in the black community (Smith). They believed that the challenges they faced of racial oppression and slavery were recognized by God and their suffering would not be permanent. Religion inspired the black Christians to reflect on their treatment in society and motivated them to strive for social change. They gathered in their community churches and meeting houses to discuss racial oppression and searched for ways to abolish the racial divide (Garry). Christian spirituality was the impetus that inspired black people to fight against racial oppression.

Prominent Black Christians in 19th Century Boston

Many notable black public figures used religion to appeal to their audiences in their lectures, speeches, and novels. Christianity had an immense influence on the social culture of black Boston, especially in the sense of racial uplift. The following public figures used Christian spirituality in their works to emphasize the need for social change and promote racial uplift.
Maria Stewart: In 1832 and 1833, abolitionist and black nationalist, Maria Stewart had six articles published in The Liberator, which was a popular abolitionist national newspaper (MacLean). In her articles, Stewart used religion to appeal to her diverse audience and strengthen her message, as faith was shared among both races. Stewart portrayed God in two different ways in these articles, first as gentle and protective of those who were oppressed and second, as violent and wrathful for those who sinned (Lewis). Though contrasting, there is a fundamental connection between the two portrayals. She appealed to the black community as she enforced the notion that God is aware of the oppressive state in which black people suffer and despite its horrors, God protects the faithful. She also emphasized that God will punish those who go against the basic beliefs of Christianity; this argument was directed to her white audience. She drew attention to the fact that both white and black Christians believe in the same God; therefore, God sees them as equal. Stewart held the white community accountable for their actions and uses religion to be a motivator for change. In her Lecture at Franklin Hall, Stewart encouraged her audience to reflect on their status in society and to recognize the need for change. Her lecture was stylized, mirroring that of a Christian sermon/preaching style. She created a sense of unity in her audience by using religious language and references; this galvanized racial uplift.
Notable Quote:
“My beloved brethren, as Christ has died in vain for those who will accept his offered mercy, so will it be vain for the advocates of freedom to spend their breath in our behalf, unless with united hearts and souls you make some mighty efforts to raise your sons and daughters from the horrible state of servitude and degradation in which they are placed.”- Stewart, Lecture at Franklin Hall
Stewart appealed to her audience through religious diction, which promoted unity among the community through faith. She encouraged her audience to join forces and fight for their equality, so that their children would have a better future. Her words inspired racial uplift among her audience, and she incorporated religion to make her argument justified and accepted by the community.

Pauline Hopkins: Pauline Hopkins was also an influential public figure during the 19th century. Through her editorial work, fiction, and a substantial body of nonfiction that addressed black history, racial discrimination, economic justice, and women’s role in society, she emerged as one of the era’s preeminent public intellectuals (PEHS). She used religion to provoke thoughtful reflection in her audience and to challenge the idea of race as a cause for differences in equality. In her novels, she used religion to point out that God sees all of humanity as equal. Her work was effective because she influenced her audience on topics of the importance of racial equality and racial uplift. In her acclaimed novel, Of One Blood, Hopkins examined the perception of race in society and how race influences peoples’ opinions of one another. Hopkins challenged the differences in social statuses that race causes. Hopkins advocated for racial equality and through her works, emphasized that race should not be a factor which creates separation in society, as God perceives everyone as equal.
Notable Quote:
“To our human intelligence these truths depicted in this feeble work may seem terrible, — even horrible. But who shall judge the handiwork of God, the Great Craftsman ! Caste prejudice, race pride, boundless wealth, scintillating intellects refined by all the arts of the intellectual world, are but puppets in His hand, for His promises stand, and He will prove His words, "Of one blood have I made al! races of men."- Hopkins, Of One Blood
This final comment in the novel emphasized that society should regard everyone as equal; though there may be differences in external features, internally everyone is the same, everyone is made from the same blood. This is powerful because Hopkins helped her audience identify that the color of their skin does not differentiate them in the eyes of God. They deserved to be treated equally in society. Hopkins inspired acceptance of race in the community at large, but also in the individual reading the novel.
David Walker: David Walker was a leader in the black Boston community. He was a devout evangelical Christian who used religion to appeal for equality among races. Walker is remembered for writing and distributing a pamphlet called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. In this pamphlet, he encouraged the black community to revolt against racial oppression and break free from slavery. He also accused white Christians for their heinous behavior, calling them savages for treating black Christians inhumanely. Walker’s Appeal spread throughout the nation, as he used underground networks to transport his works across America (Memorial Project). Through doing this, Walker created national momentum in the black community and inspired them to push for social equality.

Notable Quote:
“God will not suffer us, always to be oppressed. Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity”.- Walker, David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World
Walker uses Christian spirituality to appeal to his audience. He assured the black community that God was aware of their oppression and it was not eternal; he claimed their future was promising. Walker’s words empowered the black Christians and inspired them to fight for their deserved equality.
Frederick Douglass: Frederick Douglass was an activist, author, and public speaker. He was active in the abolitionist movement and fought to end the practice of slavery ( Editors). One of his most notable published pieces was his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass which was published in 1845. In this autobiography, Douglass recalled his experience as a slave and questioned how white Christians could treat black people so unjustly and cruelly. Douglass used Christian spirituality to hold white Christians accountable for their actions.
Notable Quote:
“I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land... I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of 'stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.' I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me...Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”-Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Douglass questioned how white Christians could treat black people so horrendously. He claimed that white Christian slave owners were hypocritical, as their actions were in opposition to their faith. He characterized the white Christians as devils in disguise and condemned their duplicitous ways of life. Douglass raised awareness in the black community of the treacherous and unacceptable behavior and actions of the white Christians. By doing so, Douglass emphasized that slavery should be abolished and that black people deserved equality in society.

Effects of Christian Spirituality for the Black Community

Christian spirituality in the black community led to the identification of the social mistreatment they faced due to their race. It induced open communication about racial oppression and the need for racial uplift and equality in the community. During the 19th century, black people relied on their faith to secure their humanity in such inhumane circumstances (Elliot). Black public figures came forth and spoke to the masses about the importance of abolishing slavery and gaining equality in society. In their pieces, the public figures would use religion to gain support from their audiences and appeal to their audiences in a way that was meaningful and encouraged change (McKinney). Christian spirituality had a significant role in the abolitionist movement; religion was a uniting factor between the black community and because of this, they recognized their godly right to be treated equally in society.

Maria Stewart

Pauline Hopkins

David Walker

Frederick Douglass

Works Cited

African American Trail Project, 19th Century. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Black Abolitionist-David Walker "I will Stand My Ground!". (n.d.). Retrieved from
Harvard University. (n.d.). Christianity in Greater Boston. Retrieved from, F. R. E. D. E. R. I. C. K. (2019). Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. S.l.: 12TH MEDIA SERVICES.
Elliot, M. (n.d.). Four hundred years after enslaved africans were first brought to virginia, most americans still don’t know the full story of slavery. Retrieved from
Frederick Douglass. (n.d.). Retrieved from Douglass
Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from, P. E. (1996). One blood. London: X Press.Lewis, J. J. (n.d.).
Biography of Maria W. Stewart, Activist and Abolitionist. Retrieved from, M. (n.d.).
Maria Stewart. Retrieved from, R. I. (1971). The Black Church: Its Development and Present Impact, 452–481.Memorial Project. (n.d.).
Retrieved from
Puritan New England: Massachusetts Bay. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Reddie, R. (n.d.). Atlantic slave trade and abolition. Retrieved from
Smith, T. L. (1972). Slavery and Theology: The Emergence of Black Christian Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America, 497–512.
The Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from