Religion played a central role in debates over slavery in 19th-century America. Yet few people know how a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey reimagined the role that the Bible played in these debates.
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 monument includes a statue of Vesey. He holds a hat and bag of carpentry tools in one hand, while clutching a Bible to his side with the other. The inclusion of a Bible in Vesey’s monument subtly acknowledges an important, if often overlooked, element of Vesey’s story.
Vesey was born in West Africa or the Caribbean sometime around 1767. He was enslaved in his early teens by Joseph Vesey, a ship captain who trafficked enslaved people. Eventually, Joseph Vesey settled in Charleston. When Denmark won $1,500 dollars in a local lottery, he used his winnings to buy his freedom and set up a carpentry business in 1800.
Sometime in the late 1810s or early 1820s, Vesey became involved in what was then known as the African Church, a forerunner of today’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first AME congregation in the South. Since Vesey could read, write and spoke multiple languages, he led weekday evening classes for his church. At his trial, several witnesses testified that Vesey appealed to numerous biblical texts to promote revolting against enslavers.
At the time, Charleston’s proslavery clergy assumed the Bible endorsed slavery. In sermons and publications directed to local congregations and politicians, they often quoted lines from the King James version like “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” (Ephesians 6:5) or “Servants, obey in all things your masters” (Colossians 3:22) as biblical support for slavery. When sentencing Vesey and his co-conspirators to death in 1822, Lionel Henry Kennedy, the magistrate 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 men.
Vesey, however, interpreted the Bible as commanding enslaved people to resist rather than obey their enslavers. At the trials, some witnesses claimed he often compared their enslavement to the story of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Vesey was certainly not the first to make this comparison. Antislavery literature and sermons in the early 19th century drew on this story frequently. In classic biblical epics about the exodus such as the films “The Ten Commandments” or DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” the story ends with the Israelites at Mount Sinai after Moses dramatically parts the Red Sea and the Egyptian army drowns.
Yet for Vesey this was just the beginning of the story. Vesey read the exodus story as extending beyond the escape from Egypt. He noted that at Mount Sinai, Moses declared, “He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Vesey saw this command as not only a direct prohibition of slavery, but also a justification for killing enslavers.
Vesey not only identified the Israelites with enslaved people in America. He identified their enslavers with the inhabitants of Jericho. After Moses’s death, Joshua led the Israelites in the battle of Jericho. Vesey highlighted a biblical command for the annihilation of Jericho’s residents in Joshua 6:21: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” As Vesey read the story of the Israelites’ journey after they left Egypt, he found texts that commanded the massacre of their enemies. Like Jericho, Vesey saw Charleston in his day as a city that had similarly come under divine condemnation and faced a biblically endorsed massacre.
Vesey rejected the idea that the texts cited by the proslavery clergy represented what the Bible had to say about slavery. He charged local clergy with willfully ignoring the texts he understood to condemn slavery. One enslaved witness named Bacchus Hammet testified that, on the night of the revolt, Vesey instructed his men to confront proslavery clergy with the texts they ignored and ask them directly: “Why they did not preach up this thing?”
Proslavery Charlestonians abhorred Vesey’s interpretations since he used the Bible to condone the slaughter of enslavers. At Vesey’s trial, Kennedy, an enslaver himself, derided Vesey for “attempting to pervert the sacred words of God into a sanction for crimes of the blackest hue.” Charleston’s proslavery advocates 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 the Black abolitionist James McCune Smith in Frederick Douglass’s paper invoked Vesey as a role model. Smith called for enslaved people to fight for their freedom rather than wait for others to emancipate them. In 1863, Douglass himself declared “Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston” when 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 to unsettle standard proslavery interpretations of the Bible and his important role within the religious history of resistance to enslavement.