This was hotly contested. There were a lot of “official” theological descriptions of Heaven, and even more “unofficial” traditions of imagining Heaven, in 18th- and 19th-century America. And race and segregation were right at the center of these debates!
In the early colonial period, Protestants in America and Europe wondered whether the race would even exist in Heaven. They mostly agreed that Heaven was a kind of temporary holding tank for souls, which would receive new, perfected bodies at the end of history.
Questions about race played out in theological disputes over bodily resurrection. For example, in a printed sermon from 1636, radical Protestant minister Martin Day describes his English and American audiences clamoring for answers:
“In what kind of stature they shall rise in? What color shall they have? What employment shall they be raised for? Whether a child shall rise as a child? Whether an old man shall rise in his old age? Whether crooked and deformed men shall rise crooked and deformed?”
In eighteenth-century America, these debates intensified. They converged with new scientific ideas about race (as a fixed biological reality), and with new Southern Protestant theology and political philosophy.
Many white Americans (North and South) began debating whether the biological fixedness of race extended to spiritual realities. There’s a great snapshot of how this played out in Samuel Sewall’s diary entry for April 3, 1711.
Sewall was having dinner with his fellow justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court, and the conversation turned to “Negroes” in heaven. Sewall argued that Heaven was populated by disembodied souls, and when the bodily Resurrection took place, they “should be white.”
John Bolt found this “absurd,” because the race was a temporary, physical thing: the resurrected body would be “perfectly translucent… void of all color.” For Bolt, the radical Protestant ideals of spiritual equality meant that racial difference was a temporary, earthly thing.
But for Sewall, and many other colonial elites, blackness was a burden and a curse. Just as a blind man would be given sight in Heaven, black people would become white. Or, as African-American poet Phillis Wheatley put it: “Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined and join th’ angelic train.”
Puritan preacher, gentleman-scientist, and part-time ghost hunter Cotton Mather articulated the normative view for eighteenth-century Northerners: Heaven was a place for souls awaiting resurrection.
The souls were transparent and their resurrected bodies would be “luminous”: raceless, genderless, clothed in white. At the same time, Mather and other preachers had no problem using racialized metaphors about sin and hierarchy. Blackness was “loathsome,” sinfulness created a “savage wilderness-condition” in the individual’s soul, etc.
And, just like Wheatley, these ministers essentially saw blackness as disability and disability as both a temporary suffering and spiritual degradation. Heaven would perfect everyone, giving them bodies that weren’t literally white-skinned, but had all the dignity and safety that whiteness conferred on earth.
After the Second Great Awakening, though, Southern Protestantism began charting a different course. Race science and theological ideas about polygenesis created vicious debates about whether the races were spiritually different (essentially different).
Most mainstream religious leaders argued that racial differences were natural, biological, and definitional for time on earth, but the afterlife would have different rules and different forms.
Such rules were certainly not familiar extensions of life on earth. Heaven was a fantastic, alien place– at least when Heaven was described to white elites.
Southern ministers and theologians tended to switch up descriptions of Heaven depending on their audience. When addressing the slaveholding elite, ministers emphasized Heaven’s hierarchical nature.
These ministers rejected popular Northern descriptions of Heaven as a happy home. Instead, they drew imagery from John’s Revelation.
They describe Heaven as a huge city or sometimes a fantastic plantation, a place of peace and luxury made possible by God’s unchallenged sovereign rule. In many Presbyterian adaptations, Heaven is literally a golden-tiered city with God (unchanging, rigid, all-powerful) sitting at its apex and radiating pure white light.
Spirits in Heaven were described as whirlwinds, crystals, and diamonds. The new resurrected bodies would not necessarily look human (but more angelic, in the old school eyes-wings-fire-and-terror model). But individuals could recognize people they’d known and greet them.
Scholarship that looks at the correspondence between white slaveholding women, and Confederate soldiers’ letters describing heaven, find almost no mention of black people in Heaven because servants won’t be needed there. Instead, White Southern Heaven is a place of stability, order, peace, nobility, and worship.
Southern ministers used apocalyptic imagery because they wanted the slaveholding class to do two things: allow their slaves to adopt Christianity (and not go to hell), and be better masters.
But, when the same ministers were giving sermons to enslaved people, they often added descriptions of segregation in Heaven. (One minister famously told his enslaved audience that there would be a dividing wall separating blacks from whites in heaven, echoing the dividing walls of the Jewish Temple).
White ministers trying to get black converts would also describe Heaven as a place of family reunion, but not of racial equality. The white version of heaven for black audiences was a place where scars were healed, families came back together, but black people still worked in God’s kitchen.
Segregated Heaven did not gain much traction among enslaved blacks. (Also it outraged Northern white ministers, who described Heaven as a happy household of God and all his post-racial, genderless children).
Against visions of White Southern Heaven and Segregated Heaven, enslaved blacks created their own version of Heaven. They embraced white ministers’ promises of family reunion, singing, “When we all meet in Heaven, There is no parting there.” But enslaved blacks mocked the idea that “when [whites] go to Heaven the colored folk would be dar to wait on em.”
They defined Heaven in terms of freedom, rest, community, and justice. Heaven had “no auction blocks, no slave drivers, no traders, no whips.” God’s justice would condemn all cruel masters to Hell, where they would eternally suffer the violence they’d inflicted on others.
And Jesus himself would welcome slaves to a huge celebration of singing, shouting, dancing, and feasting. Completely rejecting the view of God as a benevolent sovereign upholding Heavenly order, enslaved blacks imagined dancing with Jesus and arguing with God about earthly suffering:
“When I get to heaven, gwin be at ease
Me and my God gonna do as we please
Gonna chatter with the Father
Argue with the Son
Tell him bout the world I just come from.”
Black Heaven contained good white people (e.g. not slaveholders), and excluded wicked blacks who had lied, stolen, betrayed fellow slaves, or engaged in evil witchcraft. These wicked people would be trapped with their masters and mistresses in Hell.
White Northern ministers (and novelists, playwrights, etc) imagined Heaven as a post-racial utopia where everyone was essentially white. White Southern ministers imagined Heaven as a peaceful, authoritative city ruled by God.
Black people were segregated in another part of Heaven, worked in the kitchen, or just weren’t part of the picture. Enslaved Blacks imagined Heaven as a giant party that centered on Black experiences but included some whites too.
2. Gary Scott Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination. Oxford UP, 2011.
3. Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. Oxford UP, 2014.
4. Fay Botham, Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law. UNC Chapel Hill, 2009.
5. Paul Harvey, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016