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Frederick Douglass Essay Sample

There are two forms of Christianity represented in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and each are described and function differently throughout the text. Based on Douglass’ personal recollections and thoughts in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, there are both real and false versions of religion and generally, the real or “true” form of Christianity is practiced by himself as well as some whites who are opposed to slavery. The false form of religion, or what the author explained in one of the important quotes in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “the hypocritical Christianity of this land” (95) is practiced by whites, most notably Mr. Covey, and is a complete bastardization of the true ideals behind genuine Christian thought.

Through his discussions of religion that are interspersed throughout The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the reader gets the sense that slavery and true Christianity are opposing forces and one cannot be present while the other exists. Not only is the simultaneous existence of the true version Christianity with slavery impossible, it appears that even if real Christianity does exist in a pure form, the introduction of slavery corrupts it inevitably and completely. As thisthesis statement for The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass suggests, it is for these reasons, Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to reveal the underlying hypocrisy of the slaveholding South as well as the potential redemptive value of his version of true Christianity. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but an overtly political statement about how ideals can be easily contorted to fit the current situation.

It is important to preface this discussion by defining Douglass’ own views of Christianity, aside from the expressions included in his essay at the end. In general, despite his criticisms about how the religion has been subverted and used as an instrument of power within the structure of slavery, Douglass holds quintessential Christian views and clearly does not detest or blame the religion for how it is used by people like Mr. Covey and other members of the Southern churches. For Douglass, giving thanks to God and recognizing good deeds and moral behavior is important and is part of what defines the “true” or “real” form of Christianity rather than the hypocritical slant taken by slave-owning whites. It is clear from the first part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that Frederick Douglass has a firm understanding of the central tenants and stories of the Bible, not necessarily because he espouses that he’s read it multiple times or has been instructed formally about it, but because he is able to apply moral stories to his situation.

For instance, near the beginning, Douglass thinks about slavery in the context of biblical and Christian thought when he discusses the children who have been born to white slave owners. He states in one of the important quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “if their increase will do no other good, it will do away with the force of the arguments, that god cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…” (24).

In his narrative, Frederick Douglass relates biblical and Christian knowledge to his feelings about the inherent wrong of slavery and considers the way these children will grow up with “those fathers most frequently their own masters” (24). By beginning the text with a biblical and Christian statement, Frederick Douglass is signaling to readers his own faith and is placing himself within it. While he goes on to place men like Covey who use the bible as a shield (while practicing none of it) on the hypocritical or “false” end of the Christian spectrum, he is demonstrating his position on what true Christianity is—word from the bible and an inherent sense of right and wrong. According to true Christian doctrine, he later shows his faith again by giving thanks to God instead of using the figure of holiness to appear religious when he recognizes that “Providence is in my favor” and the “good spirit was from God and to him I offer thanks giving and praise” (13) after being moved to Baltimore.

Based on Douglass’ descriptions in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the shift from the true to the false religion, or the Christian to the non-Christian, happens as a direct result of slavery. It is almost as if its very existence fosters some malignant response from slave owning whites and causes them to turn from the “true” Christianity Douglass believes in. As one scholar puts it, “Submerged in his [Douglass’] narrative is the claim that theology as a discourse has functioned to support this warfare of the self” (Carter 37).

In other words, the Christian rhetoric, especially in its bastardized form (hypocrisy for instance) is useless and perpetuates a kind of useless struggle between the real and false Christianity and has thus not only lost meaning but has become almost damaging. One of the best examples of this is the case of Mrs. Auld. When Douglass is first introduced to her he is amazed at how kind she is—how unlike the white women of his previous experiences. It is most interesting to note how, without granting descriptions of her church or religious activities, he represents her as angelic and holy and as a perfect model for a Christian woman. He says of her, “Her face was made of heavenly smiles” (14) which makes her immediately angelic along with his discussions about how she did not judge and would allow slaves to look her in the eye like an equal.

With the coming of her instruction on how to treat slaves from her male counterpart, however, it is as if the true Christianity is no longer present or compatible with slave owning. As she “learns” how to treat Douglass, she literally appears to turn into the devil and becomes, in terms of imagery, the opposite of an angel. As Douglass puts it, “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice…. that… angelic face place to that of a demon” (14).

In this passage, she is the shift from true to false Christianity personified and she literally turns from an angel to a devil with the simple introduction of slavery. Douglass mourns this soul’s turning away and says, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I was there, she was a pious, warm, and tenderhearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she did not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (16). It seems as though Douglass wishes the reader to equate the state of slavery with a turning away from true Christian values and wants to demonstrate that it can turn even the most docile and pious woman into a creature with “tiger-like fierceness.”

The fact that Christianity and slavery in the south seem completely at odds is present in other cases throughout the text aside from the turning of Sophia. For instance, of Thomas Auld Douglass says that after going to a religious camp he turned, “more cruel and hateful in all his ways, for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before” (67). Despite the teachings of goodwill and other Christian values, slavery seemed to be exempt from these guidelines, which is certainly quite hypocritical. As if to reveal how far separated the true values of Christianity are with those espoused by the Southern church, Douglass revels an instance involving a brutal display of how Christianity could be used to justify ultimate violence. As Auld whipped a crippled woman he used the bible, saying, in one of the important quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes” (68).

This event comes to mind again later in the text when Douglass says, “I asset most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity…a shelter under…which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (86). In many ways, by relating this false form of religion to the institution of slavery, Douglass is showing how the subversion of ideals (in this case Christian concepts of good will and charity) can take place at any level. Although he has already defined his belief in what Christianity is about and should mean, he is demonstrating how any ideal can be twisted to serve the personal and even economic and political needs of a group of people. After this scene it is almost difficult to understand how Douglass can go on believing in the same tenants of Christianity these people use without cringing or giving pause to question his own thoughts.

Aside from the above event involving the bible being used to justify and even form the background for brutality, the most extreme form of the “false” version of Christianity represented in the autobiography is personified by the slave-owning, bible-touting, and wholly hypocritical Mr. Covey. While Sophia Auld may have been swayed away from her essential Christian angelic nature by the presence of slavery and Mr. Auld the “victim” of religious rhetoric, Covey is completely immersed in the culture of slavery and is thus the most flagrant violator of the true Christian ideals that are expressed by Douglass. Again, it is necessary to go back to the idea stated earlier that the very existence of slavery tends to breed anti-Christian actions and thoughts (at least according to Douglass). The case of Covey points to the fact that this really is the case since he is an overseer and is thus more in the thick of slavery than some of the other characters.

When discussing Covey, Douglass makes certain to point out how his version of Christianity versus that of Mr. Covey differs completely. For instance, Douglass’ ideals (and the antithesis of them) are expressed in the Appendix when Douglass states, “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” (95). By his cruel, cowardly, and hypocritical actions the other version of Christianity as it existed in the slaveholding South is represented. Because of this consistent juxtaposition of the two types of Christianity represented in the autobiography, the true and pure versus the hypocritical and self-serving, “by the end, Douglass is teacher, leader, protector, and now, authenticator” (Lee 51) since he has finally affirmed himself after the fight and because he has been able to uphold the ideals and values white men and women were unable to with the influence of slavery.

In sum, the two versions of Christianity represented in the autobiography serve several different purposes. First and foremost, however, is the fact that Douglass goes out of his way to define his own sense of Christian righteousness and morality and to place himself within it somehow, despite the rampant hypocrisy. In other words, “Douglass’ Narrative is his call to testify and demonstrate his claim to divine authority and religious sanctification for not only his opposition to slavery, but more important, for his own life, for his self-definition over and against any other definitions proffered to him by white society”(Wohlpart 181). He has created his own view of true Christianity based on what he knows it is not—that it is not that which is practiced by white church leaders such as Reverends Weeden and Hopkins and Covey and he uses this knowledge along with his learned eloquence to deliver an anti-slavery message that is infused with a very strong sense of Christian ideals and what they should be.

While the Appendix of the text might be an addition in order to clarify the negative representations of Christianity in the South, it nonetheless drives home the point that the two versions in the autobiography must remain at odds and that one of them, as most would likely agree, is far more correct and morally righteous. As this thesis statement for The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass suggests in terms of religion, Christianity, and hypocrisy, he fact that Douglass chooses to end the piece on a note about religion, however, should signify that the issues discussed in this analysis are of vital importance to the work in general and are a testament to the potential for wrong simple belief in a moral system can carry.

Frederick Douglass 1817(?)-1895

(Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) American lecturer, autobiographer, editor, essayist, and novella writer.

See also Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself Criticism.

Douglass is considered one of the most distinguished black writers in nineteenth-century American literature. Born into slavery, he escaped in 1838 and subsequently devoted his considerable rhetorical skills to the abolitionist movement. Expounding the theme of racial equality in stirring, invective-charged orations and newspaper editorials in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, he was recognized by his peers as an outstanding orator and the foremost black abolitionist of his era. Douglass's current reputation as a powerful and effective prose writer is based primarily on his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Regarded as one of the most compelling antislavery documents produced by a fugitive slave, the Narrative is also valued as an eloquent argument for human rights. As such, it has transcended its immediate historical milieu and is now regarded as a landmark in American autobiography.

Biographical Information

The son of a black slave and an unidentified white man, Douglass was separated from his mother in infancy. Nurtured by his maternal grandmother on the Tuckahoe, Maryland estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, he enjoyed a relatively happy childhood until he was pressed into service on the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. There Douglass endured the rigors of slavery. In 1825, he was transferred to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, where Douglass earned his first critical insight into the slavery system. Overhearing Auld rebuke his wife for teaching him the rudiments of reading, Douglass deduced that ignorance perpetuated subjugation and decided that teaching himself to read could provide an avenue to freedom. Enlightened by his clandestine efforts at self-education, Douglass grew restive as his desire for freedom increased, and was eventually sent to be disciplined, or "broken," by Edward Covey. When he refused to submit to Covey's beatings and instead challenged him in a violent confrontation, Douglass overcame a significant psychological barrier to freedom. In 1838, he realized his long-cherished goal by escaping to New York. Once free, Douglass quickly became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In 1841, he delivered his first public address—an extemporaneous speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts—and was invited by William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders to work as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. By 1845, Douglass's eloquent and cogent oratory had led many to doubt that he was indeed a former slave. He responded by composing a detailed account of his slave life, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was an immediate popular success. Having opened himself to possible capture under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass fled that same year to Great Britain, where he was honored by the great reformers of the day. Returning to the United States in 1847, he received sufficient funds to purchase his freedom and establish The North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. During the 1850s and early 1860s, Douglass continued his activities as a journalist, abolitionist speaker, and autobiographer. By the outbreak of the Civil War, he had emerged as a nationally-recognized spokesman for black Americans and, in 1863, advised President Abraham Lincoln on the use and treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army. His later years were chiefly devoted to political and diplomatic assignments, including a consulgeneralship to the Republic of Haiti, which he recounts in the 1892 revised edition of his final autobiographical work, the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. Douglass died at his home in Anacostia Heights, District of Columbia, in 1895.

Major Works

In his speeches on abolition, Douglass frequently drew on his first-hand experience of slavery to evoke pathos in his audience. He is most often noted, however, for his skillful use of scorn and irony in denouncing the slave system and its abettors. One of the stock addresses in his abolitionist repertoire was a "slaveholders sermon" in which he sarcastically mimicked a pro-slavery minister's travesty of the biblical injunction to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." His most famous speech, an address delivered on July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, commonly referred to as the "Fourth of July Oration," is a heavily ironic reflection on the significance of Independence Day for slaves. The several installments of Douglass's autobiography—which include the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)—depart from the biting tone of his oratory and are often described as balanced and temperate, though still characterized by Douglass's dry, often ironic, wit. While these works are valued by historians as a detailed, credible account of slave life, the Narrative is widely acclaimed as an artfully compressed yet extraordinarily expressive story of self-discovery and self-liberation. In it Douglass records his personal reactions to bondage and degradation with straightforward realism and a skillful economy of words. He based his 1853 novella The Heroic Slave on the real-life slave revolt aboard the American ship Creole in 1841. Douglass's only work of fiction, it celebrates the bravery of Madison Washington, who is portrayed as a lonely and isolated hero.

Critical Reception

Appealing variously to the political, sociological, and aesthetic interests of successive generations of critics, Douglass has maintained his celebrated reputation as an orator and prose writer. Douglass's contemporaries viewed him primarily as a talented antislavery agitator whose manifest abilities as a speaker and writer refuted the idea of black inferiority. This view persisted until the 1930s, when both Vernon Loggins and J. Saunders Redding called attention to the "intrinsic merit" of Douglass's writing and acknowledged him to be the most important figure in nineteenth-century black American literature. In the 1940s and 1950s, Alain Locke and Benjamin Quarles respectively pointed to the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and the Narrative as classic works which symbolize the black role of protest, struggle, and aspiration in American life. Critics in recent years have become far more exacting in their analysis of the specific narrative and rhetorical strategies that Douglass employed in the Narrative to establish a distinctly black identity, studying the work's tone, structure, and placement in American literary history. In addition, scholars have since elevated the reputation of the Narrative, while noting that the later installments of his autobiography fail to recapture the artistic vitality of their predecessor. Continued study and praise of the autobiographies and Douglass's other works may be taken as an indication of their abiding interest. As G. Thomas Couser has observed, Douglass was a remarkable man who lived in an exceptionally tumultuous period in American history. By recording the drama of his life and times in lucid prose, he provided works which will most likely continue to attract the notice of future generations of American literary critics and historians.