Frederick Douglass on American Religion

At the conclusion of yesterday’s staff meeting, Diane Langberg read to us from the appendix of Douglass’ slave narrative. He felt compelled to clarify his views on religion, and Christianity in particular. As with all great literature, this piece is timeless and ought to be revisited by us from time to time.

His main point? American Christianity practiced in the South is/was not authentic Christianity. In fact, it is another religion altogether. Here are some tidbits:

…between 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…. 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…. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members…. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The deal gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.

Douglass then goes on to connect Jesus’ description of the Pharisees to American Christians.

“They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers…. But woe unto you scribes and pharisees…you devour widows’ houses…You blind guides! Which strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.”  

Where is Douglass’ assessment of the hypocritical nature of American Christianity still true today? Where do we accept things that should not go together? It is always hard to see it for ourselves. We need those irritating prophets who offend us but make us think. Douglass was such a prophet. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore these prophets in their lifetime and then other prophets forget that the message they have been given is not for their own personal gain.

Should you want to read the whole appendix (and if you haven’t–read the whole book!), here is the link to the text.   


Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture

5 responses to “Frederick Douglass on American Religion

  1. Brian

    I just finished Dougless’s first book and have been engaging that critique by him in your blog. I have been thinking much about how theology must not forget its reforming principal. It must involve critical reflection that is self regulating through prophets. We must listen to the voices from the fringes.

    • John Henderson

      I think you both miss the point of Douglass’s appendix at the end of his Narrative, and that may be because you miss the point of the narrative itself. – What Douglass sayes is a just god could not exist if he allowed such an evil as slavery, and further, Slavery, like most institutional human evil, is either sponsored or protected by religion. Even in today’s world we still see this with christianity.

      • Sorry John. That isn’t his point at all. It might well be your point but you do not find his narrative making this point whatsoever. His point (among many) was to mock the supposed piety of those who who dishonored their own faith by their actions. Douglass, in this narrative, speaks very favorably about the Almighty and of Christ. He makes it clear he has significant questions for God and yet he honors Christ. Further you state a fallacy. Most people are religious…oppression happens…religion is the cause. However, when you look at those who fight oppression, you also find that the vast majority are deeply religious. Thus, your argument fails. Oppression happens because we humans are self-centered individuals. Christ counters this self serving nature (Phil. 2).

  2. John Henderson

    Douglass – from the Narrative of Frederick Douglass – “Will not a righteous God visit for thes thing?” the narrative phil, not the appendix W.L. Garrison made him add. and your right it’s not christianity that has done these evil things, it’s organized religion and the 2 should not be confused, even though organized religion thrives on the confused.

  3. Robert

    My bondage and my freedom
    Frederick Douglass
    “Previous to my contemplation of the anti-slavery movement, and its probable results, my mind had been seriously awakened to the subject of religion. I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as father and protector. My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me; but one thing I knew very well – I was wretched, and had no means of making myself otherwise. Moreover, I knew that I could pray for light. I consulted a good colored man, named Charles Johnson; and, in tones of holy affection, he told me to pray, and what to pray for. I was, for weeks, a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by casting one’s care upon God and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.”
    My curiosity got the better of me and I found this putative quote at
    Whether these are the actual words of Mr. Douglas, I don’t know. If they are, then after much suffering and misery, he must have made it home. If I had been alive during the time of slavery in this country, I hope I would have, especially as a Christian, been one who would have stood up against it, as did so many – even to the point of death. The causes of those who fought the civil war were often mixed – we live in a fallen world – but it is impossible to deny that many thousands of lives were sacrificed in the fight against slavery, and that the battle was won.

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