Fredrick Douglass’ Real Perspective of Christianity and Slavery
Its critical to understand five key issues:
1) Fredrick Douglas isn’t criticizing Christianity of the Bible, but a specific hyper-capitalistic, racialized version of Christianity that uses the Bible to justify slavery (that was pretty much exclusively used in one historical moment and in one geography by one class of people). That is….Douglas is mad at the abuse and dehumanization of slave owners who manipulate the Bible to justify slavery. That is to say…..he’s taking issue with the exact interpretation that atheists apply to the Old Testament text.
2) He became a Methodist after his experience with slavery. That is to say, his conclusion–his overall viewpoint is that of endorsing Christianity in both principle and practice. To read him outside of this context is to warp his legacy and his words in fundamental ways.
3) Lets be clear. There are two perspectives on the issue
• Majority accepted interpretation of the Biblical text (ie freedom and justice)
• Extreme minority interpretation of the Biblical text (ie slavery)
His issue is with twisting the words and it being unChristian and unethical to warp the meaning of Christianity to justify slavery.
4) This is a quote that I believes appears in the Forward of his book to clarify this issue. To not include this, is to warp history and to lie about the legacy and words from Fredrick Douglas’ real perspective:
“I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the ~slaveholding religion~ of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, 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. 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. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.
Old Testament and New Testament are justice and liberation.”
So, its not Christianity that he has a problem with, but people who call themselves Christians and do the opposite. This is an indict of a specific group of individuals who attend church, but don’t live like Christians during the week. That’s descriptive of a sub-group of individuals–not all Christians. Fredrick Douglas believes in Christianity or he wouldn’t have been a Christian himself.
5) The narrative of both the Old Testament and New Testament are about justice and liberation. Erasing that narrative is to warp the overall theme and purpose of Christianity more broadly. That’s not a real critique, but only a weak strawperson attack that mischaracterize the Bible, its mission, its purposes, and its texts.
* The quote itself makes the argument I’m making of critiquing a specific instance of specific Christians, not Christianity more broadly. (The Bible makes arguments like this about false teachers). Moreover, the Appendix may have additional reasons in it given its exclusive reason is to ensure that his legacy is not warped and used against Christianity. His argument is using unChristian arguments against Christianity is unChristian and warped.
Here’s more from the conclusion of the appendix:
Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land; and to avoid any misunderstanding, growing out of the use of general terms, I mean by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.
I conclude these remarks by copying the following portrait of the religion of the south, (which is, by communion and fellowship, the religion of the north,) which I soberly affirm is “true to the life,” and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration. It is said to have been drawn, several years before the present anti-slavery agitation began, by a northern Methodist preacher, who, while residing at the south, had an opportunity to see slaveholding morals, manners, and piety, with his own eyes. “Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”
Further Reading & Research:
- And the 2nd part of this essay includes more:
- I’m also sure you could read more pro-Christian abolitionists for more support for this argument. Probably both Wilberforce’s writings, but also US based abolitionists.
- Black liberation theology should also answer this.