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Did the practice of raising a finger originate with slaves signifying they'd received permission to leave from their masters?

Published Dec 7, 2004

Claim:   The practice of raising a finger when leaving the Sanctuary originated with slaves signifying they'd received permission from their masters to absent themselves.

Status:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

Have you ever attended a church service and saw someone hold up a finger as they are exiting the sanctuary during the service? What does it mean?

During the slavery days when the masters took their slaves with them to public gatherings, the slaves would always sit in the balcony. When the slave had to go to the bathroom or wanted to be excused for any other reason, they would hold their hand up and keep it up until their master acknowledged that they saw their hand and gave them permission to leave or in other words "excused them to leave". After the slave was given permission to leave, they would hold up one finger as they were leaving to inform anyone that saw them leave that they had been excused. So it means "My Master has excused me".

That is where the "holding up one finger while leaving the Sanctuary" carried over from. Which goes to show that you should investigate rituals before you follow them.

The next time you see someone holding up their finger, just tell them: "It's okay to leave the plantation, you've been freed"

Origins:   This dubious account first came to us in e-mail in October 2004. Frankly, we don't yet know what to make of it — we're as yet unable to locate information about the origin of raising a finger when exiting a house of worship. According to a number of our readers, the practice does indeed take place in some Baptist and AME (African Methodist Episcopal)

houses of worship among those who need to enter or exit during the sermon or at other points in the service where the congregation is being addressed (e.g.; church announcements, scripture reading). In those instances, those on their way out or in hold up a finger. The custom seems to be more common among elderly parishioners, a datapoint that serves to indicate the observance hails from an earlier time.

Although the e-mailed account names the area being exited as the 'sanctuary,' it is better identified as the nave. A strict definition of 'sanctuary' as it relates to church buildings describes it as the region around the altar used by the clergy and choir (often enclosed by a lattice or railing or in some other fashion set off from the congregation). However, a great number of folks have come to understand the term as meaning the whole of a church's open area, both the chancel (where the service is conducted from) and the nave (where the parishioners sit).

There are problems with this supposed origin. First, if a master had brought some of his slaves to a public event and seated them in that building's balcony, he wouldn't have been keeping an eye on them throughout whatever it was he'd come to see. Given that his attention would have been directed towards the figures enacting whatever public affairs drama was underway (e.g., political speech, criminal trial), he wouldn't have seen upraised hands among his servants, ensconced as they were on a higher level and probably to the back of him. Also, it would have bordered on unthinkable for slaves to risk disrupting public functions with their comings and goings, yet the premise of this origin has it that this practice was so commonplace as to have inspired a widely understood ritual of their raising their hands to seek permission to leave, getting it by way of a nod from their masters, then holding up a finger to signify to others that permission for the act underway had been duly sought and granted.

Holding up a finger as a way of broadcasting certain intelligences is one of the many non-verbal ways we communicate specific messages to others. The gesture described (index finger pointing upwards, other fingers curled into a loose fist, the palm facing those being signaled, and the hand presented at approximately face height) conveys three starkly dissimilar interruption-related messages, with context dictating which meaning carries the day. In all three, the raised digit might well represent a '1,' signaling announcement by the finger-raiser that his request, demand, or absence will not be of lengthy duration (i.e., "This will just take one minute, so bear with me"):

  • As a command that others refrain from speaking, making noise, or engaging in disruptive behavior (e.g., someone on a cell phone will make this signal to his face-to-face companions to indicate his expectation that they not speak to him while he is attending to his call, a mother engaged in conversation with a neighbor will use this non-verbal sign to silence a child intent upon piping up, someone addressing a group will direct this gesture to those who look about to interrupt).
  • As a request for permission to briefly interrupt another, that is, as a non-verbal way of asking that the person holding forth temporarily yield the floor for the purpose of the finger-raiser's posing a brief query or adding a short observation (e.g., an employee unclear on one small point would so ask a long-winded co-worker droning on at the weekly staff meeting to momentarily shush himself for just long enough for a key question to be asked and answered).

  • As a way of apologetically excusing oneself while simultaneously communicating that the action either contemplated or underway will not be impeded (e.g., someone suddenly in need of a visit to the powder room will abashedly raise the finger even as she speeds off to her destination).

The meaning of the finger raise as practiced among Baptist and AME congregations most likely falls into the third category listed above, that of the apologetic excuse, the "Whoops, I'm sorry but I really need to be attending to something else right now, but I promise to be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail." It therefore signals a self-generated act, not a permission gained from another.

To us, the backstory about slaves announcing their absences having been duly sanctioned sounds contrived to make a religious point by way of a pun. Just as the "Who will take the son?" legend draws on word play to make its point (the person who takes the portrait of the deceased son gets the bulk of a wealthy man's estate, the person who accepts Christ as his savior inherits the kingdom of God — on both levels they "take the son"), so does this story turn on "My Master has excused me." What supposedly started as slaves' way of saying their owners had granted them leave to go relieve themselves now signifies churchgoers have been forgiven by God; that is, washed clean of their sins by virtue of the services just attended.

Our readers speculate those lifted fingers serve:

  • To signify to those assembled that the one departing is sorry for interrupting.
  • As a gesture to God ("giving him the glory," as one reader put it).

The e-mail about the supposed practice of holding up a finger to communicate one is on a duly sanctioned foray makes the point "Which goes to show that you should investigate rituals before you follow them." An extremely well-traveled urban legend about a cooking secret handed down from generation to generation spins on this same axis.

Barbara "secret squirreled" Mikkelson

Last updated:   9 December 2004


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