BLACK HISTORY MONTH SPOTLIGHT
Occasionally you have the opportunity to read a book that has the ability to shake you to the core, to make you question long held beliefs. Such books can be challenging and uncomfortable. During my senior year at Belhaven University, I had to read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) in my World Literature class.
Before that semester at Belhaven, I knew almost nothing about this famed 19th century slave-turned-abolitionist activist. The book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1845, many years before the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Douglass, who had fled from Maryland to New York to find freedom was taking a great risk in publishing his life story because, legally, it was quite easy at the time for a runaway slave to be apprehended in whatever free state he lived and brought back into captivity. Douglass temporarily fled to England shortly after the book’s publication.
Douglass’s story is heartbreaking from the very beginning.
So many of the things we build our identity upon, Douglass was deprived of. He never knew who his father was (though it was speculated that it could’ve been one of the white men on the plantation), and he only saw his mother on a couple of occasions. It is believed he was born around 1818, but since no records were kept of slave births, he had no birthday he could celebrate.
Though Douglass had been treated inhumanely throughout his formative years, and though American society as a whole had a dehumanizing perspective of black people, Douglass somehow emerged as a young adult with a firm grasp of his own inherent dignity and value. He believed in his own humanity, even if others didn’t.
He narrates the story of how, as a teenager, his master tried to whip him.
For the first time, Douglass decided to stand up for himself and fight back. He knew very well that he was taking his life in his hands by challenging his master, but he stood his ground, and that master never tried to beat him again.
Douglass was the epitome of a self-taught man. Never allowed to get an education, Douglass taught himself to read and write by asking white children to show him the ABCs. He would practice on a fence with a piece of chalk. He persevered, though, and later in life became such a refined writer and speaker that some audiences had trouble believing he had ever been an uneducated slave in the first place.
Despite the fact that the cruel masters Douglass knew throughout his youth were all professing Christians, Douglass came to embrace the Christian faith for himself, seeing that the real, noble Jesus shouldn’t be confused with the heartless, ignoble people who used his name. That he was able to see past the distorted religious veneer of his masters and come to understand authentic Christianity is a testament to Douglass’ remarkable open-mindedness, as well as his gift of discernment.
The thing that shook me so deeply about Douglass’s book when reading it in college was what he had to say about the religious landscape of 19th century America. Douglass, who was a committed Christian, had some very harsh things to say about the pro-slavery churches he encountered around him, both in the south and the north.
To Douglass, who had grown up under the harsh conditions of slavery being regularly beaten with a whip, by his sadistic master, American slavery represented the worst side of humanity. Churches that approved of it, Douglass said, were Christian in name only, having nothing in common with the religion of peace and freedom preached by Jesus Christ.
Douglass likened the pro-slavery churches to the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, saying that though they had an abundance of religion, they had no love for God, seeing as how they so obviously had no love for their fellow man—fellow black man, that is. As he attacked the pro-slavery churches, he was at times accused of “undermining religion," to which he replied:
“I love the religion of our Blessed Savior… I love that religion that sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of him that has fallen among thieves. I love that religion that makes it the duty of its disciples to visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction. I love that religion that is based on the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they would be done by. If you demand liberty to yourself, it says, grant it to your neighbor… It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America. It is because I regard the one as good and pure and holy that I cannot but regard the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”
Though, as Douglass himself made clear, “undermining religion” was the last thing he intended, the book caused a bit of a crisis of faith for me. I read Douglass’s gut-wrenching portrayal of slavery, then turned to all of the Old Testament biblical passages that seemed to speak approvingly of slavery, and was left wondering what to make of it all. Exodus 21:20-21, for example, says that if a master beats a slave to the point of death, he is to be punished, but that if the slave recovers after a day or two, the master is not to be punished since the slave is, after all, the master’s property. Could it really be that the Old Testament approved of the slaveholding, woman-whipping, mind-darkening, soul-destroying way of life Douglass had experienced? If so, didn’t this cast a shadow on the whole notion that God is “good”?
My father, who has ministered in the Presbyterian Church for many decades, counseled me at the time to always go back to the cross when plagued with such doubts. The fact that God sent his Son to redeem us, he said, establishes once and for all that God is good and that he loves us. My dad said that what we don’t understand—Exodus 21, for example—must always be viewed in the context of what we do understand—the Gospel of God’s kindness in sending Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins.
Intellectually, I suppose the closest I came to “resolving” the problem was by coming to believe that God laid out his expectations to his people gradually, in ways they could understand. If God’s ultimate desire was freedom and justice for all people, he would reveal this slowly in ways people could take it in. Whereas in some ancient cultures slaves had no rights, Exodus 21:26-27 says that if a master injures his servant’s eye or knocks out his or her tooth, he is let the slave go free to compensate for the injury.
By the time one gets toward the end of the New Testament one sees the apostle Paul urging Philemon to regard his runaway slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave," but “as a dear brother” since Onesimus had come to believe in Jesus. Paul’s point seems clear—it is logically impossible to regard someone as a slave, as property, while simultaneously regarding that person as a brother or sister.
Christianity in the ancient Roman Empire was “subversive," in that it introduced a sort of equality among social classes utterly unheard of at the time. Rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, all participated in the Lord’s Supper—one’s “rank” didn’t matter there. This unheard of affirmation of across-the-board human dignity set the stage for the eventual end of slavery within the empire.
Furthermore, though it is an embarrassing fact of history that many Christians have defended slavery, there are no documented cases of any slavery abolitionist movement in history prior to the dawn of the Christian era, and it is doubtful that slavery would ever have been abolished if not for the influence of the life and teachings of Jesus.
In his lifelong quest to see the captives set free, Douglass embodied a Christ-like passion to eradicate injustice and oppression wherever he encountered it. When slavery was outlawed, he didn’t retire, but continued to advocate for equality for black citizens. He advocated for women’s rights and argued for women’s suffrage even though this wasn’t a popular stance to take.
Another Christ-like trait one sees in him is that though Douglass’s rhetoric against slavery is fierce and impassioned, one never senses any bitterness on Douglass’s part. In fact, he even made a point to visit the man who had been his cruel master, when the man was lying on his deathbed.
This trait, this ability to endure unspeakable atrocities and yet emerge with the ability to really embrace life, and not simply coast through with a chronic spirit of resentment, this resilience, more than anything else, is what makes the biographies and autobiographies of African-American slaves so important for young people to read. This is why my wife and I, as we home school our daughter, have made a point to tell her Douglass’s story.
Douglass’s ability to believe so firmly in his own humanity, when everyone around him sought to dehumanize him, coupled with his ability to not turn around and dehumanize those who had hurt him, makes him a hero and role model for all Americans, regardless of one’s race.