Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet | Book Review
A new biography by D. H. Dilbeck considers the faith of an American icon
Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, fleeing to New York but eventually settling in Massachusetts. Three years later, he began his lifelong work as an abolitionist and civil rights activist.
There are many excellent biographies of Douglass, including three autobiographical works. D. H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass is valuable because it is a “religious biography,” the goal of which is “to explain the substance of Douglass’s faith and show how it shaped his public career.” In Dilbeck’s judgment, Douglass was “the most significant spokesman of his day” for “black prophetic Christianity.”
This prophetic Christianity involved both judgment and hope. “Throughout his long public career,” Dilbeck writes, “Douglass ardently denounced slavery, racism, and bigotry in all its forms.” His opposition to slavery and Jim Crow are well known, but Dilbeck reminds readers that Douglass was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, as well as the rights of Chinese immigrants.
Douglass was right on fundamental issues of justice and equality, when so many Christians in his day were wrong.
Even so, Dilbeck writes, “if Douglass pursued any single calling that tied together his entire life, it was simply to force Americans to confront the disjuncture between the Christianity they professed and practiced and ‘the Christianity of Christ.’” White Southern Christianity drew particular scorn from Douglass throughout his life, for its defense of white supremacy and the practices of first slavery, then Jim Crow. But he also critiqued Northern Christian complicity and Black Church passivity in the face of injustice.
Douglass had an evangelical conversion in his teens, and he never repudiated the Christian faith, which in fact undergirded his civil rights activism. But the injustice, complicity and passivity of Christian churches led Douglass away from formal affiliation with any congregation or denomination. It also led him to criticize churches that cultivated doctrinal orthodoxy and personal piety, but never engaged in struggle against the great injustices of the day.
After Douglass’ death, Christian Recorder, the leading black Methodist newspaper, summarized his understanding of Christianity this way:
His religion was not a religion of creeds, churches, hymnals and prayer books, but he believed in precept, the life and practice as taught by the Master of “doing unto others as we would have others to do unto us.” It was the “cups of cold water in His name,” “feed the hungry,” “clothe the naked,” not in professions of church phraseology and beautiful song, but in the example with love to our fellows and our neighbors as ourselves, which, after all, is the greatest and only evidence of our love to God.
And yet, alongside the prophetic judgment, there was prophetic hope. Throughout his career, Douglass held the settled conviction that God was on the side of justice; therefore, justice would ultimately prevail. “I recognize an arm stronger than any human arm,” he told an 1853 American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society meeting, “and an intelligence higher than any human intelligence, guarding and guiding this Anti-Slavery cause, through all the dangers and perils that beset it.”
Divine providence did not excuse human beings from taking action, however. Waldo Martin argued in The Mind of Frederick Douglass that by the time of the Civil War, Douglass had replaced his “traditional God-centered religious philosophy” with a “liberal human-centered religious philosophy.” Dilbeck disagrees. He explains:
…the apparent changes in Douglass’s later theology had less to do with some new understanding of God and far more to do instead with the new social and political challenges confronting African Americans after emancipation. Douglass feared that a certain passive spirit might spread among African Americans, especially slaves, if they embraced too-simplistic notions of providence.
“The Lord is good and kind,” as Douglass put it in 1893, “but of most use to those who do for themselves” (emphasis in original).
Douglass’ optimism in the postbellum Reconstruction period — with the abolition of slavery and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — was tempered in the post-Reconstruction period because of the recrudescence in the South of the power of white supremacy, which expressed itself by disenfranchising black voters, segregating Southern society and lynching black males.
“I have seen dark hours in my life,” Douglass said in an October 1890 speech. He had just outlined the injustices mentioned above. Yet, he went on to say: “I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing.” Most importantly, “I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”
It is easy, more than 100 years after Douglass’ death, to lionize the man, and there is good reason to do so. He was right on fundamental issues of justice and equality, when so many Christians in his day were wrong. That is a historical fact that all now acknowledge.
As a Christian reader, though, I cannot help but think that D. H. Dilbeck’s religious biography poses an implicit challenge to American Christians today: Are we in fact on God’s side? Are we working to ensure that “truth, justice, liberty, and humanity” will prevail? That is, it seems to me, an open question.