The Formerly Enslaved Man Whose Faith Started a Slave Rebellion | comment
Religion played a central role in debates about slavery in 19th-century America. But few people know how a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey reinterpreted the role played by the Bible in these debates.
In 1822, Vesey organized an armed insurrection to free enslaved people in Charleston. Vesey and his collaborators intended to set fires around Charleston, attack the city’s white residents, and flee to Haiti. But his plan failed because two men leaked the conspiracy to their slaves. Hasty arrests and trials followed. On July 2, Vesey and five enslaved men accused of plotting the revolt with him were hanged. By the end of the summer, 29 other enslaved men were executed for their alleged involvement in the conspiracy. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death.
A monument commemorating Vesey as an anti-slavery hero now stands in Charleston’s Hampton Park. Ironically, the park is named for Wade Hampton, a Confederate general who was later elected governor of South Carolina. The memorial includes a statue of Vesey. He holds a hat and a bag of carpentry tools in one hand while holding a Bible to his side with the other. The inclusion of a Bible in Vesey’s memorial subtly honors an important, if often overlooked, element of Vesey’s story.
Vesey was born sometime around 1767 in West Africa or the Caribbean. He was enslaved in his early youth by Joseph Vesey, a ship’s captain who dealt in enslaved people. Eventually, Joseph Vesey settled in Charleston. When Denmark won $1,500 in a local lottery, he used his winnings to buy his freedom and start a carpentry business in 1800.
Sometime in the late 1810s or early 1820s, Vesey became involved in what was then the African Church, a forerunner of today’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first AME congregation in the South. Because Vesey could read, write, and speak several languages, he taught evening classes for his church on weekdays. At his trial, several witnesses testified that Vesey appealed to numerous biblical texts to encourage a revolt against enslavers.
At the time, Charleston’s slavery clergy assumed that the Bible endorsed slavery. In sermons and publications aimed at local churches and politicians, they often quoted lines from the King James Version such as “Servants, obey those who are your masters” (Ephesians 6:5) or “Servants, obey your masters in everything” (Colossians 3:22) as biblical support for slavery. When he sentenced Vesey and his fellow conspirators to death in 1822, Lionel Henry Kennedy, the judge at their trials, even quoted these texts as well as a line from 1 Peter 2:18: “Servants, be subject to your masters.” to the condemned.
However, Vesey interpreted the Bible as commanding enslaved people to resist rather than obey their enslavers. At the trials, some witnesses claimed that he often compared their enslavement to the story of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Vesey was certainly not the first to make this comparison. Anti-slavery literature and sermons in the early 19th century drew heavily on this story. In classic biblical exodus epics like the DreamWorks films The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, the story ends with the Israelites at Mount Sinai after Moses dramatically parted the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptian army.
But for Vesey, that was just the beginning of the story. Vesey read the Exodus story as going beyond the flight from Egypt. He noted that Moses declared at Mount Sinai, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, will surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Vesey saw in this order not only a direct ban on slavery, but also a justification for killing enslavers.
Vesey didn’t just identify the Israelites with enslaved people in America. He identified their enslavers with the inhabitants of Jericho. After the death of Moses, Joshua led the Israelites at the battle of Jericho. Vesey highlighted a biblical command for the destruction of the inhabitants of Jericho in Joshua 6:21: “And they destroyed everything that was in the city, male and female, young and old, and oxen and sheep and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. When Vesey read the story of the Israelites’ journey after they left Egypt, he found texts that commanded the slaughter of their enemies. Like Jericho, Vesey saw Charleston in his day as a city similarly coming under divine condemnation and facing a biblically confirmed massacre.
Vesey rejected the idea that the texts quoted by proslavery clergymen represented what the Bible had to say about slavery. He accused the local clergy of willfully ignoring the texts he understood to condemn slavery. An enslaved witness named Bacchus Hammet testified that on the night of the revolt, Vesey instructed his men to confront the ministers of enslavement about the texts, which they ignored, and to ask them directly, “Why didn’t they preach this matter?”
Charleston’s pro-slavery advocates detested Vesey’s interpretations because he used the Bible to condone the slaughter of slaves. At Vesey’s trial, Kennedy, himself an enslaver, mocked Vesey for “attempting to twist the holy words of God into a sanction for crimes of the blackest hue.” Slavery advocates in Charleston now had to contend with interpretations of the Bible that called for armed resistance to enslavement.
Decades after Vesey’s death, he became a rallying cry for enslaved people. In 1856, an editorial by black abolitionist James McCune Smith in Frederick Douglass’s paper cited Vesey as a model. Smith urged enslaved people to fight for their freedom instead of waiting for others to emancipate them. In 1863, Douglass self-declared “Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston” while recruiting black men to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War. Smith and Douglass remembered Vesey for his plot to take up arms against enslavers. On the 200th anniversary of his death, we also remember how he helped shatter standard Bible interpretations of slavery and his important role in the religious history of resistance to slavery.
Jeremy Schipper is a professor of religion at Temple University and the author of several books including Denmark Vesey’s Bible: The Thwarted Revolt that Put Slavery and Scripture on Trial.