The Great Awakening, then, planted the seed of a more experiential type of Christianity that blossomed suddenly late in the eighteenth century. Black Methodism in the U. S. grew from 3,800 in 1786 to nearly 32,000 by 1809. Membership in black Baptist congregations increased as well, from 18,000 in 1793 to 40,000 in 1813.
Southern whites were not necessarily comfortable with this. Though a few masters argued that slaves "do better for their masters' profit than formerly, for they are taught to serve out of Christian love and duty," others kept their slaves distant from the Christian preaching. Francis Henderson, a fugitive slave, said his master had refused him permission to attend a Methodist church saying, "You shan't go to that church—they'll put the devil in you."
And Francis Asbury, the famous Methodist bishop, complained, "We are defrauded of great numbers by the pains that are taken to keep the blacks from us."
By 1820, one white Presbyterian minister, Charles C. Jones, could still moan, "But a minority of the Negroes, and that a small one, attended regularly the house of God, and … their religious instruction was extensively and most seriously neglected."
A slave conspiracy in 1822 and a revolt in 1831 didn't help matters. The conspiracy was led by Denmark Vesey who, as one co-conspirator confessed, "read in the Bible where God commanded that all [whites] should be cut off, both men, women, and children, and said it was no sin for us to do so, for the Lord commanded us to do it." The slave revolt, the bloodiest in U.S. history, in Southampton, Virginia, was led by Nat Turner, a prophet and preacher, who said he had been directed to act by God. After such incidents, masters were even more reluctant to let blacks gather alone for any reason.
Still, the southern conscience, pricked by northern abolitionist agitation, prompted increasingly more slave owners to take the Great Commission seriously. Slave owners wanted to prove that slaveholding could be a positive good for both owners and slaves.
In 1829, the South Carolina Methodist Conference appointed William Capers to superintend a special department for plantation missions—the first official and concerted effort of the sort. Four years later, Charles Jones began a ministry to evangelize slaves and to convince others to do likewise.
Jones, called "the apostle to the negro slaves" was, in fact, a slave owner. He came from a distinguished Georgia family and eventually owned three plantations and 129 slaves. A man with one compassionate eye and another fierce with purpose, Jones urged his southern brethren to "look to home" first. "The religious instruction of our servants is a duty," he wrote in 1834. "Any man with a conscience may be made to feel it. It can be discharged. It must be discharged … as speedily as possible." This would not only win the approval of God and their own consciences, he argued, but also the respect of the North.
After the major denominations—Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist—split over slavery, efforts to evangelize slaves accelerated. Southern whites were eager to show northerners that a gentle, Christian society—slave and free—could flourish in the South.