In the 200th year of American independence, President Gerald Ford officially established February as national Black History Month. The idea grew out of African-Americans’ longstanding heritage week timed with the February birth dates of the white emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Douglass, the most powerful black orator and agitator during the campaign to end slavery, is the ideal topic for a religion feature this February. That’s due to a magisterial new biography that enjoys universal acclaim from critics, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster).
The Guy recommends the book itself — 888 pages! — and interviews with author David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor who specializes in slavery, abolitionism and the Reconstruction period (Contacts: email@example.com or 203-432-8521 or 203-432-3339). Notably, Blight portrays this heroic American with warts-and-all exposure of problematic aspects in public and private life. One example was Douglass’s typically Protestant assertion that Catholic belief in the papacy was a “stupendous and most arrogant lie.”
The touring Douglass moved audiences with addresses, often in churches, that were de facto sermons and made continual use of the Bible. Favorite themes were the Exodus of God’s children from Egypt and the moral denunciations from the Hebrew prophets. This was not a matter of tactical artifice, Blight observes, but an authentic expression of profound spiritual devotion.
In 1831, as a 13-year-old household slave in Baltimore, Douglass experienced a thoroughgoing conversion to — in his own words — “faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He was chiefly influenced by sermons of two white Methodists and especially black lay preacher Charles Johnson. Blight says Douglass quickly developed a hunger for Bible reading, saw the world around him “in a new light,” and gained “new hopes and desire” that laid the foundation of his career.
As is frequently the case for Protestants, his faith was further deepened by a fellow layman, Charles Lawson, a semi-literate black laborer. The two would spend endless hours “singing, praying, and glorifying God,” Blight says. Douglass even addressed his teacher and mentor as “Father” (this orphan never knew his white birth father and was separated from his black slave mother at an early age.)
“Lawson gave Douglass two priceless gifts. One was faith; the other was the insatiable desire for knowledge through a love of words,” Blight writes. Douglass recalled that Lawson would tell him that God “had a great work for me to do.”
Douglass’s celebrated escape from slavery in 1838, aided by wife-to-be Anna, took him by foot, train, ferry, steamboat and stagecoach through New York City, where he married Anna, to the bustling whaling port of New Bedford, Mass. There his “self-creation” was symbolized by adopting the Douglass surname. He soon met ally William Lloyd Garrison, whose 1829 Independence Day address at Boston’s evangelical Park Street Church effectively launched the abolitionist movement.
At that point, Douglass wrote, he was religiously in a “backslidden state” but he never lost his faith, which was then revived through a small, close-knit African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation after he had been demeaned at a white Methodist church. He soon became a lay leader and Sunday School superintendent, and began developing his speaking vocation by being licensed to preach and delivering dozens of sermons.
In later life, the depth of Douglass’s faith was demonstrated during his curious relationship with Ottilie Assing, who lived with Frederick and Anna for months at a time. Blight figures Frederick and Ottilie “were probably lovers.” She was a devoted atheist and tried ardently to win Douglass to her outlook but could never succeed.
The mature Douglass — somewhat like Lincoln in his final years — was a bit ambivalent about orthodox doctrine but firmly believed in “an active God” who was shaping human affairs and, indeed, “history itself,” Blight writes. The Guy suggests that reporters ask the biographer how Douglass’s career, and thus the United States, would have been different if the young Baltimore slave had never been led to a personal devotion to Jesus Christ.