On this daySep 23, 1667

Virginia Assembly Declares Baptism Does Not Free Enslaved People

On September 23, 1667, the colony of Virginia passed an act declaring that enslaved people who had been baptized were not exempt from bondage and ensuring enslavers that baptism would not require them to end a black person's enslavement. 

The traditional British policy that forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians initially did not threaten the empire's participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Because many Africans practiced Islam or African folk religions, the British considered them non-Christian heathens who could lawfully be held in slavery. When some colonial missionaries began to teach Africans about the Christian faith, enslaving colonists in the Americas grew concerned that they would not be able to continue to enslave Africans who converted. As a result, many enslavers did not permit enslaved people to learn about Christianity or be baptized.

The new law ensured enslavers that religious conversion would not interfere with their property rights over enslaved African people, and was a further step in establishing North American slavery as a permanent, hereditary status centrally tied to race. The law also contributed to the development of Christian interpretations of slavery that aimed to find -- or manufacture -- scriptural support for the buying and selling of human beings.

Even after the Virginia colonial law was enacted, many enslavers within the territory chose not to baptize or offer religious teaching to enslaved Africans because they feared that promoting literacy and group assembly among enslaved people could breed dissatisfaction with their lives in bondage, and lead to conspiracy and rebellion. Later laws addressed these fears by forbidding enslaved people from gathering together, even for religious services, without white supervision. When allowed to attend religious services in white churches, enslaved Africans were often required to sit in a separate, segregated section of the church.

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