“I love the religion of our blessed Savior. …” (My Bondage and My Freedom)
Frederick Douglass is a seminal figure of American history. His writing and oratory skill has etched his name into the annals of the all-time great communicators. While Douglass is arguably the most important black leader of 19th century American history due to his slave narrative, abolitionist work, and social activism the above quote signifies that history cannot separate Douglass’ work from his faith. Douglass’ Savior was Jesus and his legacy is misunderstood without reckoning with the religion he loved and the religion of the land of his birth. As a Christian leader Frederick Douglass’ faith has been referred to as “radical” for his time, but this article hopes to present a survey of some of the most important elements of Douglass’ Christianity that make him an exemplary faith figure for believers today.
“It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.”
A Theology of Suffering
The point has been observed by many that it is nothing short of a miracle that the slave master’s religion was authentically embraced by the slave. Douglass is merely one of millions of slaves who beheld and became beholden to the glorious faith in God described in the Holy Bible, amid their grievous suffering. Upon reflecting on his freedom from slavery, Douglass poignantly highlights the physical and mental burden of slavery and the difficulty of reconciling these realities with Christian belief in writing;
“I had felt myself doomed to drag this chain and this black through life. All efforts, before, to separate myself from the hateful encumbrance, had only seemed to rivet me the more firmly to it. Baffled and discouraged at times, I had asked myself the question, May not this after all, be God’s work? May He not, for wise ends, have doomed me to this lot?”
Elsewhere, Douglass recognizes his work for the cause of the condition of his people as burdensome but echoes the epistle writer James in penning that he “rejoice(s) in having engaged in the enterprise, and count it joy to have been able to suffer, in many ways, for its success, and for the success of the cause to which it has been faithfully devoted.” Douglass was aware of God’s providence in regard to his ‘lot’ as a black man in America and it appears that a deep awareness that suffering was not overlooked by God was integral to his journey of faith and activism. Douglass’ understanding of the sufferings he endured gave him an enduring faith more akin to the persecuted Christians of the first few centuries of the early Church rather than any semblance of the “living your best life now” rhetoric celebrated today. The New Testament corpus affirms this as it presents suffering Christianity as normative, therefore there is much to learn from the earthly suffering of those like Frederick Douglass to instruct us on how to live faithfully.
A Disdain for Hypocrisy
Douglass’ voice carried the prophetic edge of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Amos as he winsomely and powerfully denounced the hypocrisy of American Christianity. Douglass was a model of pointing out the many forms of godliness decorating the American landscape that denied the power of God due to their wicked prejudice. One example of the Christ-less religiosity of slave holders is Douglass’ description of his cruel ‘slave handler’ Mr. Covey
“His religion hindered him from breaking the Sabbath, but not from breaking my skin. He had more respect for the day than for the man for whom the day was mercifully given; for while he would cut and slash my body during the week,, he would not hesitate, on Sunday, to teach me the value of my soul, or the way of life and salvation by Jesus Christ”
In his famous speech What is the Fourth of July to the Slave, he movingly addresses the failure of churches to attend to the welfare of the African slave by saying “There is no power out of the church that could sustain an hour, if it were not sustained in it”. The American church was a buttress of slavery and Douglass’ faith allowed him to see the far chasm between the Christianity of Christ and that of slaveholding religion.
Opposed to Oppression
Frederick Douglass’ Christianity understood the bondage of slavery and the oppressive powers of white supremacy as incompatible with the God of the Bible. Not unlike all Christians, Douglass’ faith matured over the years as evidenced in his three autobiographies capturing his evolving views towards a Christian’s response to the injustices of his lifetime. Douglass seems to give insight into the fact that many slaves did not resist the physical abuse of slave masters for pious reasons. However, Douglass expresses a different approach in saying
“My religious views on the subject of resisting my master, had suffered a serious shock, by the savage persecution to which I had been subjected, and my hands were no longer tied by my religion. Master Thomas’s indifference had severed the last link. I had now to this extent ‘backslidden’ form this point in the slave’s religious creed; and I soon had occasion to make my fallen state known to my Sunday-pious brother, Covey”
While Douglass seems to be unsure of if his fight with Mr. Covey was pleasing to God at the time, he later would affirm his actions showing that for Douglass fighting injustice was par for the course of Christian living. In his letter to rally African American soldiers to fight in the Civil War, Douglass evokes the names of John Brown and Nat Turner as “glorious martyrs for the cause of the salve” and reminds his kinsmen of the flesh that “In a contest with oppression the Almighty[God] has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors.” (Men of Color, To Arms)
Douglass’ disdain for any hint of oppression was reflective of the liberating power of the gospel and the character of God. His sentiments even caused him to leave the African American Zion Methodist church he became a local preacher in when he perceived that they “consented to the same spirit which held” his brothers and sisters in chains. (My Bondage and My Freedom) The God of Israel doesn’t take sides with the oppressors and neither did Douglass.
“Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God” (Hope)
Douglass once said that “The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me.” This hope for “that day” when his chains would be left behind characterized Douglass’ life as slave and as a free man. With an insurmountable number of reasons, he had to give up on seeing the slave system and white supremacy give way to justice for all and the empowerment of his people, Douglass remained resolute. His speeches and writings were not merely literary novelties but were tools of apologetics against the myth of African inferiority and faith documents of hope for his people. In several of his of his works Douglass quotes Psalm 68:31 saying “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” This verse depicts a day when all nations, particularly the children of Ethiopia, will come to the God of grace and receive freedom as Christ makes them free under his rule. I think Charles Spurgeon shares Douglass’ sentiments concerning this verse in saying “Poor Ethiopia, thy hands have been long Manacled and hardened by cruel toil, but millions of thy sons have in their bondage found the liberty with which Christ made men-free; and so thy cross, like the cross of Simon of Cyrene, has been Christ’s cross, and God has been thy salvation” (Treasury of David, Psalm Commentary) While some may see Douglass’ hope as naïve it proved to motivate a life of faithful work to God and the “cause of my people.” Forty plus years Douglas life was given to this cause and he foresaw the downfall of slavery and white supremacy in America due to his belief that “The arm of the Lord is not shortened…” He ends his final autobiography where he began his first, with hope.
“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably, work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.”
Douglass, Frederick, and William L. Andrews. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
- My Bondage and My Freedom
- Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
- Men of Color, To Arms