Frederick Douglass was not impressed with American civil religion. “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked,” he wrote in his first autobiography:
“To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”
To Douglass, the prevailing breed of Christianity in Antebellum America was not simply errant – it’s blasphemous. “The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included!” He bellowed forth in his famous July 4th address:
“The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.—They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Beyond the unforgivable brutality of the American slave system is an even deeper crime: “This horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity,” he laments. Slaver Christianity makes a mockery of the gospel.
Unsurprisingly, a skewed gospel gives birth to a skewed praxis. In a speech commemorating Britain’s abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Douglass bitterly recounts American cynicism towards the efforts of Wilberforce and the West Indian slaves:
“Now, my friends, how has this great act of freedom and benevolence been received in the United States? How has our American Christian Church and our American Democratic Government received this glorious new birth of National Righteousness? From our professions as a nation, it might have been expected that a shout of joy and gladness would have shook the hollow sky, that loud hallelujahs would have rolled up to heaven from all our borders, saying, “Glory to God, in the highest, on earth peace and good will toward man. Let the earth be glad.” “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” Alas, no such responsive note of rejoicing has reached my ear, except from a part of the colored people and their few white friends. As a nation, we are deaf, dumb, and blind to the moral beauty, and transcendent sublimity of West India Emancipation. We have passed it by with averted eyes, regarding it rather as a reflection to be resented than as an example to be imitated. First, we looked for means of impeaching England’s motives for abolishing Slavery, and not being able to find any such, we have made ourselves hoarse in denouncing emancipation as a failure.”
Most alarming was the way that Americans’ predetermined commitment to maintaining the slave system had dislodged the nation’s Christian moorings and given birth to a corrosive moral relativism content to dissolve away the central truth claims of the faith as necessary to serve the needs of the plantation class. He explains:
“Our national morality and religion have reached a depth of baseness than which there is no lower deep. They both allow that if men can make money by stealing men and women, and by working them up into sugar, rice, and tobacco, they may innocently continue the practice, and that he who condemns it is an unworthy citizen, and a disturber of the church. Money is the measure of morality, and the success or failure of slavery, as a money-making system, determines with many whether the thing is virtuous, or villainous, and whether it should be maintained or abolished. They are for Slavery where climate and soil are said to be for it, and are really not opposed to it anywhere, though as a nation we have made a show of opposition to it where the system does not exist. With our geographical ethics, and climatic religion, we have naturally sided with the slave-holders and women-whippers of the West Indies, in denouncing the abolition of slavery in the West Indies a failure.”
There’s an irony in this, because the Christian faith was precisely the wellspring from which the abolitionists – both in America and throughout Europe – had drawn the moral framework that condemned slavery in the first place. It was also what had awoken Douglass to the fact that he was endowed with an unalienable right to freedom. As a child, he was stirred awake by the old gospel hymns that his elders sang. “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs,” he explained:
“They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness . . . To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.”
He continues the story in a letter to his former master, Thomas Auld. “When yet but a child about six years old, I imbibed the determination to run away,” he begins. The hymns had effectively deprogrammed Douglass, scraping away the slaver narrative in which he had been brought up:
“I had, through some medium, I know not what, got some idea of God, the Creator of all mankind, the black and the white, and that he had made the blacks to serve the whites as slaves. How he could do this and be good, I could not tell. I was not satisfied with this theory, which made God responsible for slavery, for it pained me greatly, and I have wept over it long and often . . . I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some of the old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slaves. The whole mystery was solved at once. Very soon after this my aunt Jinny and uncle Noah ran away, and the great noise made about it by your father-in-law, made me for the first time acquainted with the fact, that there were free States as well as slave States. From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both.”
The God to whom the old gospel songs testified had not, in fact, baptized the slanted social order of the Old South. The Christian God was on the side of the Exodus, not the Pharaohs. “Thanks be to the Most High, who is ever the God of the oppressed,” he concluded. “His grace was sufficient, my mind was made up. I embraced the golden opportunity, took the morning tide at the flood, and a free man, young, active and strong, is the result.”
The experience inoculated him from both the demoralizing arguments of the white supremacist theologians with whom he clashed throughout his life and the suspicions of radicals who came to believe that Christianity irreducibly belonged to the slaver caucus. “Some who write and speak on the subject seem to regard the anti-slavery movement as a recent discovery, brought out for the first time less than a quarter of a century ago,” he opened an address on the history of abolitionism. “But I trace them to nature and to nature’s God.”
“In the very heart of humanity are garnered up, as from everlasting to everlasting, all those elementary principles whose vital action constitutes what we now term the anti-slavery movement,” he explains. “Ages of oppression and iron hearted selfishness have rolled over them, and covered them with their blinding dust; but these have had no power to extinguish or to destroy them.” Slaver propaganda was a universal phenomenon, and the result was that most people, throughout most ages, had assumed that slavery was an inevitable element in human society. But because God had written his laws on the human heart, humanity was never without a witness to the truth. “In reading these ancient testimonies, some of them reaching back to the grand exodus of Israel, and some to the earliest days of our country, more than a century ago, one is filled with veneration for the vast accumulation, the mighty bulwark of judgment, of solemn conviction, of holy protest, reared for the defense of the rights of man.”
“Douglass’s experience inoculated him from both the demoralizing arguments of the white supremacist theologians with whom he clashed throughout his life and the suspicions of radicals who came to believe that Christianity irreducibly belonged to the slaver caucus.”
By “nature’s God,” Douglass did not mean the absentee creator envisioned by his deist contemporaries. The abolitionist creed he is tracing here is rooted explicitly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. “There was something in the condition of the enslaved millions at our own doors which appealed directly to the church – supposing the heart of the church to beat in unison with the heart of the Son of God,” he recounts:
“At the very outset of his mission among the children of men, he was careful to range himself on the side of the poor, the enslaved, and heart-broken victims of oppression. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” said the Great One, who spake as never man spake, “because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captive, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” The abolitionist could point to this sublime declaration of the Son of God, and then point to the millions of enslaved, captured, bruised, maimed, and heart-broken people, whose cries of anguish ascend to God continually – and this they did. They carried those bleeding and heart-broken millions – poor, helpless, and forlorn – to the very altar of the church, and cried, “Men of Israel, help.” They described their physical suffering – their mental, moral debasement and destitution, and said to the church, “In the name of mercy open unto us.” An angel of mercy, with benignant aspect and streaming eyes, stood at the door of the church, veiled in deep sorrow, imploring, entreating, in the name of God and down-trodden man, for entrance.”
Thus, he argues, the abolitionist movement is not foreign or innovative. It is anchored in the witness of Jesus and inaugurated in God’s original act of creation. “The anti-slavery cause is not a new thing under the sun – not some moral delusion which a few years’ experience may dispel,” he concludes:
“Its foundations are laid in the deepest and holiest convictions, and from whatever soul the demon selfishness is expelled, there will this cause take up its abode. Old as the everlasting hills, immovable as the throne of God, and certain as the purposes of eternal power against all hinderances, and against all delays, and despite all the mutations of human instrumentalities, it is the faith of my soul that this anti-slavery cause will yet gloriously triumph.”
Because this is the case, Douglass is able to sustain a defiant optimism even in the face of seemingly endless defeats at the hands of the plantation class. “I am not without hope, that you will live to preside over a grander celebration than this,” Douglass declared during his address on the abolition of the British slave trade:
“A celebration of the American jubilee, in which four million of our countrymen shall rejoice in freedom. That jubilee will come. You and I may, or we may not live to see it; but whether we do, or do not, God reigns, and Slavery must yet fall; unless the devil is more potent than the Almighty; unless sin is stronger than righteousness, Slavery must perish, and that not very long hence.”
It is important, though, to understand the doctrinal core of Douglass’s approach to politics. As he explains the long march towards global emancipation, he frames it not in vague terms of progress, but in the overtly religious language of renewal and regeneration. As the anti-slavery movement – as with the women’s suffrage and workers’ rights movements – overcame worldly opposition and imposed their goals on the broader populace, he argued, God himself was at work in the world through them.
“On the memorable morning which we are met to celebrate, one bolt from the moral sky of Britain left these blood stained irons all scattered and broken throughout the West Indies, and the limbs they had bruised, out-stretched in praise and thanksgiving to God for deliverance,” he exclaimed during his Emancipation Day address. “There was something Godlike in this decree of the British nation.” Actually, he says, it wasn’t simply Godlike. It was God. British emancipation “was the spirit of the Son of God commanding the devil of slavery to go out of the British West Indies.”
This is why Douglass is generally considered to be a forerunner to the liberation theologians of the 20th century. “The vital, animating, and all-controlling power of the British Abolition movement was religion,” he explained. Pragmatic arguments against the feasibility of slavery – like those offered by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith roughly a century prior – would never be enough to overcome its rampant hold on the American conscience. “The feeling of the nation must be quickened,” he insisted. “The conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
“Your wickedness and cruelty committed in this respect on your fellow-creatures, are greater than all the stripes you have laid upon my back, or theirs,” he wrote to Auld. “It is an outrage upon the soul—a war upon the immortal spirit, and one for which you must give account at the bar of our common Father and Creator.” True change would require slavers like Auld – and the nation that enabled him – to recognize their participation in the slave system as a sin that would damn them before God, and then to seek “relief at the hands of a sin-forgiving God.”
Today, Douglass might point out the limits of liberal proceduralism in dealing with the injustices that continue to plague the American system. It’s unclear where he might fall in contemporary debates about Critical Race Theory and so forth, but he would likely echo Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” who later resigned from the law profession and became a seminary professor after realizing that overcoming the entrenched racism in the American system will require religious transformation that transcends mere activism or legislative reform.
“I’ve resigned my position as a law professor at Ohio State University, and I’ve decided to teach and study at a seminary,” she wrote. “This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.” She continues: “I no longer believe we can ‘win’ justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout.” She concludes: “Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”
A century and a half earlier, Douglass was making the same argument. “It was not commerce, but conscience; not considerations of climate and productions of the earth, but the heavenly teachings of Christianity, which everywhere teaches that God is our Father, and man, however degraded, is our brother,” he declared:
“It is one of those glorious emanations of Christianity, which, like the sun in the Heavens, takes no cognizance of national lines or geographical boundaries, but pours its golden floods of living light upon all. In the great Drama of Emancipation, England was the theatre, but universal and every where applying principles of Righteousness, Liberty, and Justice were the actors. The great Ruler of the Universe, the God and Father of all men, to whom be honor, glory, and praise for evermore, roused the British conscience by his truth, moved the British heart, and West India Emancipation was the result.”
So it would be within the borders of America, too. “It was the first step toward a redeemed and regenerated nation,” he explained the significance of the Emancipation of the District of Colombia. “It imparted a moral and human significance to what at first seemed to the outside world, only a sanguinary war for empire.” Thus, in the aftermath of the Civil War, it was imperative to keep the momentum going. “To this grand work of national regeneration and entire purification Congress must now address Itself, with full purpose that the work shall this time be thoroughly done,” he implored the nation’s legislative body to be aggressive in implementing Lincoln’s Reconstruction efforts. To do so was, quite literally, to become a partner with the God of the oppressed. He charged his listeners:
“Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!”
It has become increasingly fashionable among Douglass scholars to suggest that the religious language with which he frames his political activism is essentially rhetorical – that Douglass’s true goal was Black liberation, and the Biblical rhetoric a pragmatic move to render abolitionism more digestible to white Protestants. But to argue along those lines is to ignore the obvious: Douglass’s policy prescriptions were driven by specific Christian doctrines, and rather orthodox ones at that. In that sense Douglass is a canonical figure not only in the history of abolitionist or liberatory black politics but also in the history of explicitly Christian politicking – no less than William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Jennings Bryan, or the folks at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
In future weeks, we’ll look more closely at some of the ways that Douglass’s remarkable political witness can help to guide us out of the seemingly hopeless gridlock and acrimony in which we’ve mired ourselves. Until then: Read Douglass. Seriously. Most of his works are in the public domain. They’re available at the click of your mouse. Put off picking up the newest NPR book-of-the-week and stroll through the extant writings of Frederick Douglass. It’ll be the best decision you make this week.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.