Slaves working on the Mount Vernon plantation practiced a variety of religious traditions and experiences, including influences from both African and European traditions. Some slaves at Mount Vernon participated with organized Christian groups to some degree. At Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, for example, at least eleven slaves "belonging to Coll. George Washington," both adults and children, were christened in the 1760s.1
A description left by a notable eighteenth-century visitor to Mount Vernon suggests that the slaves at Mount Vernon had contact with at least three other Christian denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. By 1790 about one in twenty-three African-Americans in Virginia had joined a church. Of this number, 80% were Baptists and Methodists.2
In addition to worshipping with local congregations, there are indications that Mount Vernon's slave community developed at least one spiritual leader within their own community. According to a runaway slave advertisement from the spring of 1798, a slave named Caesar—a Custis family slave from Washington's Union Farm, who was thought to be forty-five to fifty years old—was a well-known preacher among the local slave population in the later years of the eighteenth century. As a community and spiritual leader, Caesar may have played an important role in helping the enslaved people on the plantation to deal with the hardships of their lives and to find a measure of hope and meaning in their experiences.3
There were also several remnants of religious traditions from Africa at Mount Vernon, including both Vodoun and Islam. The names of at least two female slaves at Mount Vernon indicate a Muslim influence on the estate, if not the actual practice of Islam. Two women, presumably a mother and daughter, called "Fatimer" and "Little Fatimer" were included on George Washington's 1774 tithables list.4 The names appear to be a corruption of the popular Muslim woman's name Fatima, meaning "Shining One" in Arabic. Even if slaves were not actually practicing Islam, this child's name provides evidence that some knowledge of Islamic traditions or a familiarity with the Arabic language could still be found in the larger African-American community at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
1. Information transcribed from the Register of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, by Linda H. Rowe, Historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in a letter to Susan Fincke in the Education Department at Mount Vernon, dated 29 May 1997.
2. Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, ed. Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), 32; Thad W. Tate, The Negro in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 157.
3. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 2, ed. W.W. Abbott (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 615n.
4. George Washington, "List of Slaves at Mount Vernon, 18 February 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4 eds. Dorothy Twohig and Donald Jackson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 277, 282-3.