This blog explores and examines the intersections of rhetoric, race, and religion.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
What Every American Should Know About Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist Prophet
Understanding Frederick Douglass, the great black leader and abolitionist, requires an appreciation of his religious faith. As an atheist friend of his once said: "there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship -- namely, the personal Christian God."
For most of his career Douglass believed in a living God who could change the world. "All things are possible with God," he declared. "I believe in the millennium," a literal heaven on earth as described in Revelation. Love and freedom were for him the hallmarks of Christianity. His faith fueled his hope in an immediate end to slavery and racial oppression.
Douglass saw himself as a prophet heeding God's will. Prophecy enabled him and other abolitionists to bypass biblical and theological defenses of slavery. For hundreds of years, slavery and racism had been virtually unquestioned institutions, with theologians consistently defending these forms of brutality. Slavery existed in ancient Israel and early Christianity, and it appears in the Old and New Testaments. Israelites enslave non-Israelites; Jesus heals a centurion's slave but does not grant him freedom; and Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and returns a runaway. In antebellum America, most ministers defended (or ignored) slavery, and many argued that Africans bore the mark of Cain and were the children of Ham, cursed by Noah to be "servants of servants." For Douglass, the Bible's overarching message of love and freedom trumped these comparatively isolated defenses of slavery.
Douglass's spiritual journey began in 1831, when he was a 13-year-old slave living in Baltimore. His father was a white man whom he never knew. But the black minister Father Lawson became a father-figure, prompting a conversion experience. "I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and animated by new hopes and desires," he recalled. "My great concern was, now, to have the world converted" to anti-slavery Christianity.