``Negroes of ours'': Jesuit slaveholding in Maryland, 1717--1838

Date of Completion

January 1998


Religion, Clergy|History, United States|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




Among those Marylanders who owned slaves during the colonial and early federal periods of United States history were the members of the Society of Jesus, a religious order of men of the Roman Catholic Church. Jesuits had their own reasons for becoming slaveholders during the colonial period, their own manner of conducting the practice, and their own reasons for abandoning slaveholding through a mass sale of 272 slaves in 1838.^ During the colonial period, Jesuits joined other Catholic slaveholders who were anxious to demonstrate that their religious affiliation should not debar them from the full rights of English subjects. Possessing slaves became a means of exercising Catholic entitlement to own property. However, Jesuits proved ambivalent about their responsibilities as plantation managers. Preferring pastoral work to the pursuit of business, they had difficulty securing the prosperity of their estates. They often mistreated their slaves despite much rhetoric in their sermons and letters about the duties of masters to treat slaves benevolently.^ In the late eighteenth century, following the suppression of the Jesuit order by the papacy in 1773, the Catholic clergymen of Maryland chartered a corporation with the state legislature to protect their plantations. As the clergy experienced religious liberty in the aftermath of the American Revolution, they began to debate the continued utility of their slaveholding. However, they proved unable to make an immediate decision to end the practice. After the restoration of the Jesuits in the United States in 1805, there was a sharp division within the order between supporters of the American republican ethos and those who favored more authoritarian European ways. A Jesuit Brother named Joseph Mobberly argued that the farms would prosper better without slave labor, but he also joined many Jesuits in resisting the abolitionist movement itself as Protestant-inspired.^ During the 1830's, however, concern developed about nativist opposition to the Catholic Church. Jesuits feared that their possession of slaves had become fodder for anti-Catholicism. They also decided to reduce their presence in rural areas in order to free the Society of Jesus for ministry among the growing number of immigrants in the large cities of the eastern United States. In 1838, the last Jesuit slaves were sold to Catholic planters in Louisiana. Such great care was taken to guarantee that these new owners would care for the religious observance of the slaves that little thought was devoted to their financial qualifications for owning so many slaves. The result was that the slaves sank into great poverty at the hands of incompetent managers who ultimately neglected even the slaves' religious practices. ^