John Stauffer

Professor of English, African and African American Studies, Harvard

What Every American Should Know About Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist Prophet

See ‘The Abolitionists’ starting Jan. 8 on PBS featuring the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

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.

His awakening inspired him, a few years later, to create a secret Sunday School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His goal was to teach his fellow slaves to read the Bible, and thus empower them to obtain their freedom. He preached regularly to more than 40 “scholars,” as he called them. Many learned to read and some escaped to the North. Sixty years later Douglass remembered his Sunday School with great fondness. “I have had various employments during my life, but to none do I look back with more satisfaction than to this one.”

After fleeing slavery in 1838 Douglass became a preacher at the A.M.E. Zion church in New Bedford, Mass., where he lived and worked. Over the next two decades he became world famous as an abolitionist speaker and writer. He is now considered one of the preeminent writers in American history, his words inspiring a host of subsequent leaders, from Lincoln and W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. But few people today recognize that preaching was the foundation of his abolitionist activism.

In fighting slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, Douglass realized that he could not rely on traditional notions of progress. This was because slavery was rapidly expanding and slaveowners controlled the levers of federal power. And so he relied instead on Revelation, and its vision of apocalypse that would inaugurate freedom and equality. This radical vision offered him, and many other black and white abolitionists, a way to dispense with chronology and maintain their faith in immediate and universal freedom. Douglass called the Civil War a battle between Michael and his angels against Satan.

For Douglass, there was an intimate link between individual conversion and social reform. The path of reform flowed outward from self to society. Before eradicating social evil, you first had to purify the self. Consequently Douglass and other abolitionists tried to live righteously, abstaining from tobacco, alcohol and other perceived sins that corrupted body and soul. In this sense, they resembled modern evangelicals.

Douglass’ faith may sound jarring to progressives and intellectuals today. After all, belief in the millennium is usually associated with pro-lifers, opponents of gay marriage and the right wing of the Republican Party. But Douglass’ devotion to a Christian God highlights the degree to which religion has played a crucial role in left-leaning American reform movements, from abolitionism and feminism to labor, civil rights and gay rights.

The prophetic voice, which appeals directly to God, rather than laws, doctrines and institutions, extends from Tom Paine, Nat Turner, Douglass and the abolitionists, through Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs and Dorothy Day, on down to King, James Baldwin, Bill McKibben and Gene Robinson. As the minister and historian Dan McKanan has emphasized, to forget the religious work of our predecessors “is to lose their wisdom and inspiration.”

The moral achievement of the abolitionists is especially noteworthy. In 1818, the year Douglass was born, slavery was legal throughout the New World save for the Northern states. Seventy years later it had been outlawed everywhere in the western hemisphere. This stunning transformation stemmed from the collective protests of slaves, ex-slaves and abolitionists, all heeding their belief in a higher power.

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