Narrativeof the Life of Frederick Douglas — DouglasCritique of Society and the Slave Holders Christianity
Amongthe outstanding issues in American history was the debate on thelegality of the slave trade. It is contended that the competingideologies on the legitimacy of slavery among members led to thedivision between the northern and southern America, contributing tothe American civil war. The Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass offers an interesting critique on the issue of captivityand Southerners’ way of life in during the antebellum. In hisnarrative, Douglass particularly maintains his strong stance of astaunch Christian, condemning the southern society as a long-lostkind that blows hot and cold by failing to practice what it preaches,especially because it is unable to recognize the humanity needs ofthe slaves.
Indeed,the attitude of Douglass towards the southerners during theantebellum is easily discernable in his clever use of language. Oneof the areas in which his perspective can be seen is when he attacksracism and slavery, and related atrocities perpetrated by the Whitesagainst the Blacks in the South. Douglass equivocally asserts thatthe slave-holding Christians were living a double life that wasevidenced by sinful and sanctimonious acts, which he considered aclear contradiction to Christian doctrine and teachings, upon whichthe society practices needed to be anchored. One way this point comesout clearly is when he narrates
“Theman who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills thepulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowlyJesus. … He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution,stands forth as the pious advocate of purity.” (Douglass 67)
Inthis quote, Douglass can be seen to be employing irony in depictingthe high levels of hypocrisy amongst southern Christians and thechurch leadership, which he was particularly disappointed about.
Asmuch as the author points out the wrongs among the Christianleadership in the South and the plight of all the blacks and the needfor their freedom, he is mainly careful appeasing his audience byexplaining that he did not have a problem with Christianity, afterall. This point is seen when he writes:
“WhatI have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to applyto the slaveholding religionof this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper.”(Douglass 34).
Basedon this statement, it can be inferred that Douglass was mindful withhis use of words — he was conscious to ensure that he does not turnout to be seen as a critic and enemy of Christianity, which wasoutright in ensuring that his message was taken by the audience inthe most objective sense. Indeed, the Narrative of the Life ofFrederick Douglass was published at the onset of the antislaverycampaigns in America, at the time that he was serving as a lecturerof abolitionism. However, due to the popular White community, theauthor had to come up with a clever strategy that would create animpression of a respectable citizen. At the time, Christian clergywas highly regarded as important figures in the political positions,which also happened to be at the center of his criticism certainly,it was, therefore, important for Douglass to adopt a more acceptablestyle of language to attract empathy from a vast audience and, at thesame time, to avoid confrontations.
Nevertheless,the Douglass conception of Christianity can be largely seen aspractical and pragmatic one, as opposed to being purely spiritual.For instance, he pushed on with his fight for freedom through hisagency instead of just waiting for the intervention of God. Hisactions tend to align with the non-biblical slogans such as “Godhelps those who first help themselves” (Douglass 67). Moreover,even Douglass himself admits “praying with his feet” — ananalogy of his decisions to save himself before God helped him(Douglass 67).
Douglasswas also concerned about the large deviations between the Christianpractices and the Christian doctrines. He writes that there was theneed for Christianity practices to be aligned with the doctrines toassure justice for entire humanity. For example, he considered thatno matter the benefit the slavery could bring to the church, it wouldnever be legitimated since it contradicts the stance of Christiandoctrines. This point is seen when the author illustrates writes:
“Wehave men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel,and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All forthe glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’sbell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and thebitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religiousshouts of the pious master”(Douglass 89).
Inthis excerpt, Douglass is satirical about the ways the church clergy,followers and the tendency of the Christians to engage in sinfulpractices while thinking that their actions could be seen to berighteous. In particular, Douglass can be seen laughing loudly at theslave business, where all forms of evil were being committed, some ofwhich were deliberately done to fund the church activities. He iscritical of the possibility that evil acts and the church could evenbe practiced at the same time, especially when he epitomizes thechurch bell and the slave auctioneer bell ring at the same time.
Theelement of spiritual activism in Douglass’ narrative is seen whenhe advocates and envisages change through the clever use of Christianepilogues. This point is seen when he notes “…a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven offreedom,” which depict Douglass as a spiritual activist who wantsto see a change in the way of life of southern-holding Christians.
Inconclusion, the purpose of this paper has been to explore Douglass’critique of society and the slave-holding Christians during theantebellum era. It has been established that, indeed, Douglassparticularly maintains his active and sincere stance of a staunchChristian, condemning the southern society as a long-lost kind thatto blow hot and cold by failing to practice what it preaches,especially when because it could not recognize the humanity needs ofthe slaves. He uses various religious teachings such as texts,verses, and some derived philosophies to defend his perspectives.
Douglass,Fredrick.Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave —Written by Himself. Boston,1845. Print