Timeline

1667

September 23rd, 1667

Virginia Assembly Declares Baptism Does Not Free Slaves from Bondage

British policy forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians. Because many Africans practiced Islam or African folk religions, the British considered them non-Christian heathens who could lawfully be held in slavery.

British colonists in the Americas were concerned, however, that if enslaved people converted to Christianity, they could not lawfully remain enslaved under British law. As a result, many slave owners did not permit enslaved people to learn about Christianity or be baptized.

On September 23, 1667, the colony of Virginia passed an act declaring that slaves who had been baptized were not exempt from bondage and ensuring slave owners that baptism would not alter the condition of a slave’s bondage.

The law allowed Christianity to spread among enslaved people without threatening slave owners with the risk that they would be required to emancipate slaves who were baptized. Yet even after its passage, many slave owners chose not to baptize their slaves or teach them Christianity because they believed religion promoted literacy and congregation of groups of enslaved people for worship, which in turn could encourage rebellion and conspiracy. Later laws forbade slaves from gathering, even for religious services. Slaves were sometimes allowed to attend religious services in white churches but had to sit in a separate section of the church.

1669

October 20th, 1669

Colonial Virginia Enacts Law Permitting “Owners” to Kill Rebellious Slaves

On October 20, 1669, the Virginia Assembly enacted a law that removed criminal penalties for enslavers who killed enslaved people who resisted authority. In the preamble to the law, the assembly justified it on the grounds that “the obstinacy of many of them cannot be suppressed by other than violent means.” The law provided that an enslaver’s killing of an enslaved person could not constitute murder because the “premeditated malice” element of murder could not be formed against one’s own property.

In subsequent years, Virginia continued to reduce protections for enslaved people against killing by their enslavers. In 1723, the assembly removed all penalties for the killing of enslaved people during “correction,” meaning that an enslaved person could be killed for an “offense” as minor as picking bad tobacco. The willful or malicious killing of an enslaved person could constitute murder but the law excused the killing of an enslaved person if the killing was in any way provoked. In effect, enslavers could kill enslaved people with impunity in colonial-era Virginia. Laws in the other colonies were similarly weak when it came to protecting the lives of enslaved people.

Following the American Revolution, many states created penalties for killing enslaved people. But the loophole permitting the killing of an enslaved person during “correction” or to prevent “resistance” remained. As a result, enslavers were rarely punished for killing enslaved people throughout the history of slavery in America.