Be Doers of the Word: An Analysis of Frederick Douglass’s Christian Ethics

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass depicts religion and Christianity as two separate realities in the world in which he was living.  Religion is characterized by the slave masters who Douglass encounters throughout his early life as a slave.  This religion is hypocritical, cruel, and dehumanizing. In contrast, for Douglass, Christianity must follow a specific set of principles that are governed by an individual’s sense of ethics.  True Christian ethics require someone to be not just a listener of the Word but, more importantly, a doer of the Word as James encourages in James 1:25.  Douglass’s Christianity is based on the theology that individuals propagate evil but are also capable of overcoming evil with the determination given by God, which most slaves described as Providence. Therefore, Douglass’s view of Christianity challenges the hypocritical and cruel religion that was present in antebellum South in the 19th century and presents a Christianity that is life giving not just for slaves but for the whole of society. 

The religion of antebellum South was based on a patriarchy of control and fear.  This is present in the various “religious” slave masters that Frederick Douglass encounters in his early life.  For example, Douglass explains that “being the slave of a religious master [is] the greatest calamity that could befall [him]” (371).  Wohlport asserts that not only were these slave owners evil in their own right, they also believed that they had equal status to God.  Of Covey, Wohlport explains that due to Covey’s acts of deception toward Douglass as well as seeming to be omnipresent, Covey believes that he is like God and therefore has the right to treat the slaves that he is attempting to break however he deems necessary to get them under his control (184).  Douglass takes it further when he explains that “The religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes” (371).  He uses the metaphor of “a dark shelter” (371) to further this description, highlighting the fact that men like Covey and Auld hid under their religion and used it as an excuse for their “barbarity” and “hateful frauds” (371).  The religion of men like Covey and Auld is quite different from the Providence that Douglass and other slaves were seeking in the midst of their greatest despair.

Besides controlling and tormenting their slaves, the religious patriarchs of antebellum South kept their wives in fear as well.  One of the most pivotal moments of Douglass’s narrative is when Sophia Auld begins to treat him like a slave and no longer  like a human being.  This change in her angelic disposition toward Douglass occurred when her husband discovered that she was teaching Douglass to read.  Of this discovery Auld “forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct [him] further” (351) and Mr. Auld used harsh language such as “nigger” to dehumanize Douglass so that Mrs. Auld no longer saw him as a human being but simply as property to be managed and controlled.  No longer was she disturbed by his status as a slave and no longer did she look on him with a “cheerful eye” or “angelic face” (351).  Rather, because of the influence of her husband and his religion, Mrs. Auld became a type of demon to Douglass since she denied him his humanity through ending his education.

In contrast to men like Covey and Auld, Douglass describes the difference between slave owners who are religious and those who have no sense of religion.  He concludes that those who have no religion are more charitable to their slaves.  Mr. Freeland is an example of such a slave master who “seemed to possess some regard for honor, some reverence for justice, and some respect for humanity” (371).  It is while Douglass is in the possession of Freeland that he is able to start the Sabbath school with other slaves who are interested in developing their understanding of the Bible and morality.  Freeland’s religion seems to be rooted in more Christian values, such as justice, mercy, and compassion, even though as far as Douglass was concerned, Freeland had no religion.  Even though, according to Douglass, Freeland has no formal religion, he lived up to the words of the prophet Micah who wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Holy Bible, Micah 6:8).  In the culture that supported and defended slavery through references to scripture, it is clear that the religion of antebellum South ignored passages that commanded love for neighbor and mercy toward others.  For Douglass, it seemed as if only those men and women without the formal religion of the South maintained these very human qualities.  

Instead of reflecting the religion of the South, Douglass’s view of Christianity is much deeper than just paying lip service to God.  Ferguson explains that for many slaves, they needed to separate their understanding of Southern religion with their perspective of Providence.  She asserts, “Making this theological distinction helps protect them from the emotional damage that could be caused by a religion compromised by two contradictory moral strains” (307).  There were clearly two contradictory moral strains – on the one hand, the religion of the South defended the inerrancy of the Gospel, but on the other hand it defended the institution of slavery.  The religion of the South used specific scriptures to support slavery and to manipulate slaves into believing that they needed to comply with their owners because God had ordained it to be so.  Gibson explains that slave owners and ministers used primarily Luke 12:47 and Ephesians 6:5 to justify slavery as well as the barbarity of slavery, passages that show that slave owners should beat their slaves if they are disobedient and that strict obedience to slavemasters is a Christian duty that God requires of slaves (Gibson 593).  This perspective does not take into account the whole of the Gospel message of love for God and love for others, a clear message throughout the Bible.  For the slaves, they saw Providence as the very embodiment of love and so that is why they do “not confuse their all-encompassing Providence with the schizophrenic Christian God” (Ferguson 307).  As Douglass uncovers in his narrative, true religion is not just about following a certain list of proof texts of the Bible, like slave owners tended to do to justify their cruel acts toward people.  True religion is about embodying the nature of God and being a reflection of the nature of God in the world through action.  

Instead of focusing on the religious tenets of the Christianity of antebellum South, Frederick Douglass sees something much more powerful in his understanding of Christianity.  He applies this understanding to his life and therefore is a doer of the Word and not just a listener of the Word.  Wohlport asserts that Douglass learns that he must work outside of the institution of Southern Christianity in order to gain his freedom (184).  This means that he needs to find the determination to gain his freedom within himself and within his understanding of Providence.  Douglass explains in the appendix to his narrative that “It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify” (391).  He will not find a sympathetic ear within the Church of the South.  He will not find a good Christian brother or sister in the South to help him pay for his freedom.  Not even Master Hugh, who at one point demonstrated true compassion for Douglass after he was beaten by several men in a shipyard (379), was willing to let Douglass save money for his freedom.  Douglass understands that he cannot rely on anyone for his freedom except for himself.  Once he has this freedom, then he will be able to speak this message of self-determination that is provided by Providence to those who can actual do something to stop the evils of slavery:  white Northerners who do not have the same views of Christianity as those present in the South.  

Douglass’s view of Christianity represents a combination of a clear understanding of Providence and self-determination through action.  Several times in his narrative, Douglass calls out to Providence for rescue and for understanding.  When describing the experience of the Sabbath school that he led while in the possession of Mr. Freeland, he reflects on the status of the “precious souls” of his students who he was confident at the writing of his narrative were still “shut up in the prison-house of slavery” (373).  This causes him to reflect on several important questions for one who is struggling to comprehend an all-loving God in the midst of Southern Christianity.  He asks, “‘Does a righteous God govern the universe? And for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor?’” (373).  He wants God to strike down the inhuman slave owners, and rightfully so.  However, he understands that God works within the actions of believers.  He comes to recognize that it is in his power to stand up against his oppressors and to gain his freedom for himself and for others.  This occurs when he stands up against Covey and reflects that “He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” (369).  For Douglass, true Bible following Christianity is both a system of beliefs but also a system of ethics which require action on the part of the believer. 

This system of ethics within the institution of Christianity can be life giving to the entire world.  It is this system of ethics which drove Douglass to gain his own freedom and to begin speaking publicly about the evils of slavery so that those with power within the various institutions in the United States could do something to stop the oppression and brutality against slaves.  It is this system of ethics that calls people today to live not only with a clear understanding of Providence but also a willingness to act.  Even though slavery no longer exists as a systemic evil in the United States today there are other evils present in society which need the actions of people with a clear sense of purpose and a desire to act justly and to love mercy so that those who are oppressed today will feel the same “glorious resurrection” (369) that Douglass describes in his narrative.  As Gibson concludes, “True Christianity reveals its actuality through the right actions of Christians, and in the acts of people their reality is rendered” (599).  This is the Christianity that Douglass loved and that the world needs today.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick.  “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”  The Norton Anthology African American Literature Volume 1, Third Edition, Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith.  Norton, 2014, pp. 330-393. 

Ferguson, Sally Ann H. “Christian Violence and the Slave Narrative.” American Literature, no. 2, 1996, pp. 297-320. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/2928299.

Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass’s Representation of Self.” African American Review, no. 4, 1992, pp. 591-599. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3041873&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Holy Bible.  New International Version, Zondervan, 2011.

Wohlpart, A. James. “Privatized Sentiment and the Institution of Christianity: Douglass’s Ethical Stance in the ‘Narrative.'(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass).” ATQ:  19th Century American Culture and Literature, no. 3, 1995, pp. 181-195. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.18022566&site=eds-live&scope=site.

If you are interested in reading The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave go to the link from Project Gutenberg below for a free, digital copy.

Published by bagmac77

I am a high school English teacher, wife, and mother. I love writing about the ways in which faith intersects our modern world.

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