Faith and Family: Some Thoughts on Marriage and Jesuit Slaveholding

[This is a partial rendering of a talk I gave at the 2018 American Historical Association-American Society of Church History meeting in Washington DC. In fact it’s mostly the part of the talk that I didn’t actually give in person — some initial thoughts on sacramental marriage and slavery under the Jesuits.]

Since September, I’ve spent most of my time scouring the more than 120 boxes of material in the Maryland Province Archives, and number of other related collections, housed in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown University Library in search of clues about the enslaved community owned by the Jesuits in Maryland between the mid-18th Century and the massive sale of that community in 1838 to to Henry Johnson and Jesse Batey of Louisiana in 1838. My research began in 2016 with an intensive investigation of the community of 280 people sold in 1838, by focusing on the handful of documents that were directed related to that single transaction. Now, having spent significant time with the bulk of the rest of MPA and a number of key related collections, I am in the process of creating a data set that will hopefully yield significant findings about the lives of this particular community of enslaved people.

The collections include a range of useful types of records. In reviewing the records, I have been in search of evidence of family status and formation, life cycle events such as birth, marriage, and death, shifts in freedom status and ownership, travel, health events, daily conditions, and labor and economic transactions. The plantation and Georgetown College account ledgers have been particularly fruitful because they list individual day-to-day transactions about supplies, clothing, hiring, and healthcare in minute detail. They also occasionally include inventory lists of the people present at the various sites. The ledgers are necessarily uneven in their coverage and detail because they were created by many, many hands as the Jesuit personnel who managed the farms changed over time. As a twentieth-century historian, it’s been easy for me to get frustrated with the variable ability of these men to settle on a system for double column book keeping, but the truth is these ledgers contain tremendous amounts of important data. Additionally, there a good number of contractual documents to support major transactions, such as sales. The proceedings of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergyman include any resolutions approved by the directors, which include planned sales, dispute resolutions, and other kinds of major transactions. These proceedings are sometimes confirmed and expanded through individual correspondence among the Jesuits. Finally, the archival collections contain extremely important sacramental records, which provide the bulk of the data for reconstructing family and kinship networks.

Having combed through these materials, I have extracted every instance of an event involving an enslaved person and I am in the process of building a linked open data repository that includes those events and the people involved in them. This network of communities includes enslaved people owned by the Jesuits, enslaved people owned by non-Jesuits, free people of color, and a cast of white people, Jesuit and non-Jesuit, who are party to these events. While my research continues and I expect things to shift as I go forward, at the moment I have isolated roughly 930 individuals. I expect that number to go down as I go through the process of disambiguating and combining people based on analysis of corroborating documents. Many of these individuals have the same first name and no last name, but each is differentiated by a unique ID. Together these individuals are participants in over 1,300 events, including life cycle events, religious events, material provisions, health incidents, travel, labor and economic transactions, and inheritance, sales, or manumission transactions.

Of the records available in the MPA and related collections, the sacramental records are the most immediately revealing. Again, baptism, marriage, and burial records exist for most sites, but they do not cover all locations or the full time period between 1717 and 1838. Nonetheless, the records that do exist serve as a basis to map out the family and kinship networks that are formed and sustained among this community of enslaved people.[1] First, the records reveal 200 birth events, with the earliest occurring in 1730. Of those 200 births, there are 85 documented baptisms between 1750 and 1833. Second, the records suggest the existence of 92 couples, people listed as parents of a child or participants in a marriage ceremony. Of those 92 couples, 26 include a partner who is abroad or who is not listed. Most of these couples are identified with one child in the records, but there are also larger families: 23% of couples have more than 3 children/births. There are also clearly multi-generational families present from the 1750s onward, which I am just starting to map out. Finally, there are only 14 documented marriage ceremonies, clustered between 1813 and 1835. In comparison to the number of individuals I have identified, the documentation of the conferral of the sacraments is comparatively slim. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those sacraments weren’t conferred; they easily could have happened elsewhere, or just not been documented.

Sacraments: The Difference that Catholicism Makes?

Despite the relatively slim documentation of sacramental marriages, it is clear from individual correspondence that the marriage bond and the family unit attracted more attention from the Jesuits than other issues related to the enslaved community. While the Jesuits had lots of conversation about their own economic situation and their inability to manage their farms and their enslaved property profitably, they do not speak about the enslaved people in personal terms in these exchanges. In fact, the main issue that provokes the Jesuits to discuss individual enslaved people and their fate almost always involves questions of marriage and family.

The argument that Catholicism softened the edges of slavery in Spanish and Portuguese Central and South America was central to Frank Tannenbaum’s 1946 comparative work.[2] In that rendering, Catholic teaching about the equality of human beings in the eyes of God, and about the sacramental nature of marriage helped to create a culture that slavery that was less oppressive than that of the British West Indies and North America. Since Tannenbaum published Slave and Citizen, an abundance of work has been done documenting the horrors of slavery regardless of locale. Herbert Gutman’s groundbreaking work on the Black family is particularly relevant here. More recently, Tera Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock, show in detail the capricious ways that marriage was used and manipulated by slave owners.[3] Slavery under Catholic masters was still enslavement, regardless of whether those owners showed more respect for marriage and family than others might have. Nonetheless, we can still inquire into the ways that the experience of slavery in a Catholic environment might be different than other situations.

Beginning in the 1790s, the records reveal a number of transactions in which the Jesuits were clearly selling enslaved people to allow for family unity. In 1790 on Bohemia, Perry Greenwood purchased Nell and their son Perry for very little money. Also on Bohemia in 1793, Pat purchases Mary and their two children Hannah and Isaac. (This may be the same Pat (ID: 5068) who in 1797 was sold by hire of himself in 1797 and required to retire 10 miles from Bohemia.)[4] In 1810, Philip Bussard purchased Liddy, but really her husband Bill contributed to the payments.[5] These transactions do not contain the deliberations that surrounded them, but they do suggest that the existence of a family bond might encourage the Jesuits to be willing to sell.

Furthermore, the Jesuits and their ecclesiastical leadership articulated stances that make clear that they view slave marriages as valid sacramental bonds that need to be respected (“as much as possible”). These conversations often involve the application of a set of principles about who should be allowed to contract a marriage, based on the freedom status of the parties involved and the likelihood that that couple would remain in tact.

In 1814 Brother Joseph Mobberly, SJ, reported to Giovanni Grassi, SJ, who is the President of Georgetown College at the time, that Fr. Rantzou, SJ, newly arrived as manager of St. Inigoe’s Manor, had completely disregarded the prohibition against marrying Jesuit-owned enslaved people and free people that Francis Neale, SJ, had promulgated as a settled position of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clerymen.[6] Two years later, Leonard Archbishop Neale, Francis Neale’s brother who is not a Jesuit, instructs the priest overseeing a new mission in Norfolk, VA, that enslaved people “are to be taught to live continently & in the honorable state of marriage. You cannot marry slaves belonging to different masters without first obtaining leave from both & a promise not to separate man & wife afterwards.”[7] These general principles played out in the decision making about the requests of individual enslaved people. In 1816, Fr. Grassi responded to Brother Joseph Marshall’s inquiry about a proposed marriage by affirming the stance: “I have no objection that Charley may marry the woman he mentioned to me, for as far as I can recollect she is not a free woman, and lives almost on the plantation ^and belongs to a person fixed in the place^. You can inquire if such is the case, and then allow him permission to marry in a [Christian] manner.”[8]

In addition to regulating the contract of new marriages, these principles also governed the ways that the Jesuits interacted with non-Jesuit slave owners. The reunion and security of marriages and families played into their decision process at many turns, but these considerations were also always tempered by financial limitations. For instance in 1817 when Mr. Herbert proposed selling his enslaved woman, who was married to Clem, to the Jesuits, Grassi responded with a proposal that involved an exchange rather than a sale:

I will observe that the demand of Mr. Herbert for Clem’s wife seems to F. Neale quite extraordinary, and such that it is not in our power at present to accept. I expect that the people of the late Rd. Mr. Ashton are arrived at St. Inigoes. You say that Mr. Herbert wishes to have a man ^or a woman^: if among the nigroes above mentioned there was any one, who would suit Mr. Herbert, then an exchange could take place for Clem’s wife leaving to impartial judges as arbitrators to determine their price etc.[9]

This kind of negotiation occurred within the framework of slavery, and the possibility of purchase for term or manumission was never raised as an option. But, the commitment to securing the integrity of marriage, even within the institution of slavery persists. As such in 1826, Francis Neale, in a letter to Francis Dzierozynski, SJ, mission superior, presents purchase or exchange as an imperative:

Mr. Ed. Hamilton, who has a servant man married to one of our servant women informed me yesterday that he is determined to part with his man & begs of me to take him, not for any particular fault or for no other reason than because the servt does not wish to live with him. To hinder the separation of man & wife we must do one of these two things, either exchange an other man for him or pay $400. Hamilton tells me this prices is offered.[10]

Ambrose Archbishop Marechal took these principles further than many Jesuits. In counseling Jerome Mudd, SJ, he explained:

There are masters so lost to every soule of Religion & humanity, as to refuse obstinately to grant leave to their slaves to get married. In these distressing circumstances, it is the general opinion of Divines that a missionary can lawfully marry them in private & without witnesses. It has been in this country the practise of very pious & well informed clergymen; nor ^do^ I think they are to be blamed for it.[11]

Supporting the secret conduct of marriages speaks to a prioritization of the importance of sacramental marriage over local practice and legal prohibition.

Marriage and Family in 1838

This focus on marriage and family integrity was most strongly articulated in the regulations laid out by Jan Roothaan, SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits in Rome, governing the proposed sale of the Maryland Jesuit’s enslaved community in 1836. Among other parameters, Roothaan demanded:

Husbands and wives, parents and children, in no way must be separated, nor, I should say, parents from the children, as much as is possible… If any slave male or female of ours, should have a wife or husband in somebody else’s possession, they ought to be joined together with all effort, otherwise they absolutely should not be sold with the intention of taking them to a far away region.[12]

For the most part, the Maryland Jesuits made and effort to adhere to Roothaan’s demands. In the days after the initial sale to Henry Johnson was executed, Thomas Mulledy, SJ, reported, “I have succeeded in getting on board ship all the negroes except those who are married off the farm. Gov. Johnson wished, very prudently, to leave those to see if he could purchase their wives or husbands, as the case may be. We start this week together to visit all the masters.”[13] Furthermore, Fidele de Grivel, SJ, confirmed the results of Mulledy’s effort by May 1839, explaining to Charles Lancaster, SJ that “… all our married people who had married out of our farms, have been sold to the masters of their husbands or wifes, or to the next neighbors of them, so that husbands & wives are together, but some children who could not be sold with their mothers, have been sent with the others to Louisiana.”[14]

Few environments could be more steeped in the principles and practices of Catholicism than those in which the slaveholders were also members of the clergy. As such, the Jesuits slaveholders in Maryland demonstrate over and over again that the question of the marital bond and family integrity entered into their thinking about significant transactions related to their enslaved people. The documentary evidence includes support for recognizing the integrity of the sacramental marriage bond, decisions to perform or refuse those marriages based on a vision of how that union would be lived out, and sales and exchange transactions to keep partners together. But, unfortunately, these considerations always took place within the framework of slavery, with very little evidence that these Catholic clergymen could envision a future for the families under their control that would involve freedom.


1. How to depict these networks remains an open question for which I welcome suggestions.

2. Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen [1946], (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

3. Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Random House, 1976), and Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017).

4. Entries from 1790-07-06 and 1793-04-04, Bohemia Day Book, 1790-1870, MPA (Box 49, Folder 3) It is possible that these decisions are influenced by John Archbishop Carroll who lives on Bohemia and who towards the end of his life drew up a plan to manumit the enslaved people there by sale for a term of years ( That plan was never formalized and executed. But, that’s a different blog post…..

5. Entry from 1810-07-06, Ledger C, 1803-1813 (I.A.1.e), Georgtown College Financial Records: Vault Collection.

6. Letter, Joseph Mobberly to Giovanni Grassi (1814-12-04), Maryland Province Archives (Box 58, Folder 9).

7. Letter, Leonard Neale to Reverend Lucas (1816-04-19), MPA (Box 59, Folder 17).

8. Letter, Giovanni Grassi to Joseph Marshall (1816-01-03), Catholic Historical Manuscripts Collection (Box 6, Folder 7).

9. Letter, Giovanni Grassi to Joseph Marshall (1816-01-10), CHMC (Box 6, Folder 7).

10. Letter, Francis Neale to Francis Dzierozynski (1826-12-10), MPA (Box 61, Folder 1).

11. Letter, Ambrose Marechal to Jerome Mudd (1827-02-28), MPA (Box 62, Folder 13).

12. Letter, Jan Roothaan to William McSherry (1836-12-27), MPA (Box 93, Folder 9).

13. Letter, Thomas Mulledy to John McElroy (1838-11-11), MPA (Box 66, Folder 3).

14. Letter, Fidele de Grivel to Charles Lancaster (1839-05-04), MPA (Box 66, Folder 1).

Comments 1

  • Dr. Leon, I appreciate your work helping us think through the theological and ecclesial formations reflected in the Georgetown Slavery Archives. This piece is especially useful in considering the ideas about marriage that are evidenced in the 1838 sale. For future writing on this topic, you might revise your citation at footnote 12 (in the gray box) to reflect that Fr. Roothaan’s directive tempered his impulse that “parents and children” in no way be separated. Rather, as indicated on the digitized letter in the archive, he crossed out this clause and included children only subsequently, keeping them with their parents “as much as possible”. It’s my reading that the ‘integrity of marriage’ was more important to the Jesuits than the ‘integrity of families’, which the subsequent sale you report seems to bear out. Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology, Fordham University

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