One habit of the former slaves seemed particularly to confound those who had come to help them make the transition from slavery to full citizenship—their distinctive religious ceremonies. The missionaries did their best to teach the lessons of Christianity and to re-introduce regular worship services on each plantation. The blacks were attentive and respectful, but when the official services were over, they pushed back the furniture and organized their own religious celebration known as the "Shout." Sometimes the whites were invited to observe, although never to participate, and several of the missionaries tried to describe what they saw:
. . . when the 'sperichil' is struck up, [they] begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter, and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes the song itself is also sung by the dancers. But more frequently a band, composed of some of the best singers and of tired shouters, stand at the side of the room to "base" the others, singing the body of the song and clapping their hands together or on the knees. Song and dance are alike extremely energetic, and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous thud, thud, of the feet prevents sleep within a half a mile of the praise-house.
Disapproval was widespread. Some of the easily shocked missionaries called the practice "the remains of some old idol worship," "the most hideous and at the same time the most pitiful sight I ever witnessed," "savage," or "barbarous." Other observers considered it an "amazing and primitive manifestation of the Negro spirit . . . Some 'heel and toe' tumultuously, others merely tremble and stagger on, others swoop and rise, others whirl, others caper sideways, all keep steadily circling like dervishes . . ."
What many failed to recognize was that the "Shout" served important purposes. It was a chance for slaves to escape the rigors of the workday, and to exercise a bit of creativity and self-expression. The adults might disapprove of young people dancing "out in the world," but in the "Shout" they could turn a natural inclination into a form of worship. The songs were improvised but very creative, and provided a chance to articulate the longings that masters would not allow under ordinary circumstances. They expressed a desire for escape, even if it was through death.
The best of the missionaries saw in the "Shout" a unique combination of ancient cultural traits and the new faith of Christianity. The worst ones could not come to terms with what they did not understand.