Frederick Douglass was a monumentally important figure in American history, whose story is not as well known as it should be. Former slave, abolitionist, supporter of women’s suffrage, advocate for Irish Home Rule, orator, writer, adviser to presidents, diplomat—Douglass’s life is far to rich for a brief article like this to do justice to it. The most it can do is to provide a brief outline of his career and highlight one of the most misunderstood and distorted elements of his life story, the centrality of Christianity to his thinking and actions.
Life as a Slave
Douglass’s given name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in about 1818; he did not know the date but chose February 14 as his birthday. His mother was a slave, and his father may have been her owner. He was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother.
Douglass was sent to work in the Baltimore home of Hugh Auld. Auld’s wife violated both her husband’s instructions and the law by teaching him to read. When Auld insisted she stop, Frederick went to the white boys in the area and gave them his food in exchange for lessons in reading and writing.
Douglass had a passion for political literature. He developed his ideas about human rights and abolition largely due to “The Columbian Orator,” a book of speeches, essays, and poems, many of which celebrated patriotism and “republican virtues.”
Douglass was then hired out to William Freeland, and while there he began teaching his fellow slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. Freeland himself didn’t object to this, but the other slave owners did: They forcibly broke up the church, and it never came back together.
At age 16, Douglass was sent to work for William Covey, who had a reputation as a slave breaker. His abuse nearly crushed Douglass’s spirit, but eventually he physically fought back. Douglass was able to hold his own against Covey, and so Covey never tried to beat him again.
Freedom and Fame
After two attempts to escape, Douglass finally succeeded. With the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and made his way to New York, where Murray met him. The two married in 1838 under the name of Johnson to avoid Douglass’s arrest as a runaway slave. They then settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they adopted the name Douglass.
Douglass initially attended a Methodist church, but left when he discovered it was segregated. He began attending the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and in 1839 became a licensed preacher in the denomination. He was also a steward, sexton and Sunday school superintendent in his church.
Douglass joined a number of anti-slavery societies and began subscribing to William Lloyd Garrison’s journal “The Liberator.” This had an enormous influence on his attitude toward slavery, and he and Garrison soon became friends. Douglass began speaking at abolitionist meetings. His eloquence and powerful story soon led to many invitations to speak. Not all of them ended well: In Pendleton, Indiana, a mob attacked him and beat him. He was rescued by a Quaker family, but his hand was broken in the attack. It set improperly and bothered him for the rest of his life.
In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” The book was so eloquent that some people questioned whether it could actually have been written by a black man. It became an immediate bestseller and was published not only in America but in Europe, with translations into French and Dutch.
Ireland and England
Douglass’s fame was such that his friends feared that the Aulds would try to get him back as a runaway slave, so they encouraged him to go to Ireland as many other former slaves had done. Douglass spent two years in Britain and Ireland, giving lectures to packed houses and meeting Thomas Clarkson, one of the original British abolitionists. He also began to support Irish Home Rule; he had earlier taken an anti-colonial stand, and he saw these causes as well as abolition as flowing from fundamental human rights.
While in the British Isles, Douglass was struck by the absence of any kind of racism toward him as a black. For their part, the British were so impressed with Douglass that they raised the money to purchase his freedom from the Aulds, enabling him to return to America with no danger of arrest.
Return to the United States
When Douglass returned to the United States he began publishing “The North Star,” his first abolitionist paper. Its motto was “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” During this period, Douglass split with Garrison because the latter believed that the Constitution condoned slavery and was thus unjust, whereas Douglass argued that the Constitution was implicitly anti-slavery.
In 1848, Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the only African American there. A motion supporting women’s suffrage was raised, a controversial idea even at the convention. In keeping with “The North Star’s” motto, Douglass spoke in favor of the motion, contributing significantly to the passage of the resolution.
When the Civil War began, Douglass discussed the treatment of black soldiers with President Lincoln. While he was happy about the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass ended up supporting Lincoln’s opponent in 1864 because Lincoln did not publicly endorse black suffrage, a topic he would later discuss with President Andrew Johnson.
After the war, Douglass served as president of the Freedman’s Bank and was appointed as chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. He resigned from the latter position over objections to American foreign policy. He was later appointed minister-in-residence and consul general to Haiti, posts he held from 1889-1891.
Douglass also took the time to reconcile with the Auld family. He met with Amanda Auld Sears, the daughter of his former master, and traveled to Baltimore to meet with Thomas Auld himself. He was much criticized for this, but the act was in keeping with his convictions as a Christian.
Frederick and Anna had five children. After she died in 1882, he married Helen Pitts, a white feminist. The biracial marriage was controversial, and his children opposed it, in part because she was 20 years younger than he. He continued speaking and writing, and with Helen he traveled extensively both in the US and abroad.
In February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, DC. Shortly after returning home, he died of either a massive stroke or heart attack. He was buried in Rochester, New York.
This summary of Douglass’s career only touches the highlights of his work; it is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the leading American intellectuals of his day, and he remains one of the greats in American intellectual history.
Despite what organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation or the American Atheists might claim, Douglass was a committed Christian whose worldview was shaped by biblical ideas about human equality. He described his conversion in his “Narrative” as follows:
I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. 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 through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise.
I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.
To be sure, he was highly critical of the “Christianity” he saw in America, particularly in the South; atheists have taken these statements as evidence that Douglass was an atheist. Douglass, however, was careful to clarify his views in the Appendix of the “Narrative”:
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.
Douglass himself thus adamantly rejected the idea that he was an atheist and that what he was criticizing had anything to do with true Christianity.
The Christian message of the spiritual and moral equality of all people before God informed all of Douglass’ work. His efforts in the causes of abolition, women’s rights, universal suffrage, anti-colonialism, and Irish Home Rule, among others, were shaped by his understanding that we are all made in God’s image and that the freedom and equality we have in Christ should inform our laws, our politics, and our society. In keeping with the British evangelicals who helped lead the abolition movement in England, Douglass fused biblical teaching, conversion, personal piety, and social action into a potent whole that had a profound impact on the United States and beyond.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.