Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Seeing the institutional church and spiritual concepts through the lens of slavery.


In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (by Frederick Douglass), Douglass tells the story of how he meets with his fellow-slaves on Sabbath to teach them how to read:

I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man…  The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.  We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed.  When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?”  These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged.  Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes.  They came because they wished to learn.  Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters.  They had been shut up in mental darkness.

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  Douglass writes that he is “almost ready to ask” the hard questions, but in writing them, he does ask them, although he doesn’t seek answers to those questions in his writing.  Oh what I wouldn’t give to borrow the pen of Frederick Douglass in this particular blog series!  He was a brilliant man, and like Christ, acquainted with sorrows.

Douglass also expresses a sentiment that is common in all time periods since the first century, that is, the difference between the institutional church (what I sometimes refer to as “churchianity” or simply, “the institution”) and what he calls “Christianity proper” or “the Christianity of Christ.”  Sadly, much of what he has to say still rings true over a century and a half later as people have yet to learn the difference between being a slave to righteousness (which is the ultimate freedom) and being a slave to a form of godliness that lacks power.  The physical slavery has ended (at least in this and most countries), but the spiritual slavery remains.  I’ll conclude with this lengthy quote from the appendix to Douglass’s Narrative and prayer that the Spirit of God will open the readers eyes to see the spiritual significance of his words:

I find… 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.  Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”  I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.  We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.  The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin [whip] during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.  The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.  He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity.  He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.  He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution.  The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, – sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.  We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery.  We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls!   The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.  Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together.  The slave prison and the church stand near each other.  The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.  The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.  Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other – devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

Just God! and these are they,

Who minister at thine altar, God of right!

Men who their hands, with prayer and blessing, lay

On Israel’s ark of light.

What! preach, and kidnap men?

Give thanks, and rob thy own afflicted poor?

Talk of thy glorious liberty, and then

Bolt hard the captive’s door?

What! servants of thy own

Merciful Son, who came to seek and save

The homeless and the outcast, fettering down

The tasked and plundered slave!

Pilate and Herod friends!

Chief priests and rulers, as of old, combine!

Just God and holy! is that church which lends

Strength to the spoiler thine?

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America.  They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Could any thing be more true of our churches?  They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it…

Next blog in this series: Road Hazards


Here is an excerpt of what is probably one of the most significant crossroads in Frederick Douglass’s life:

My master and myself had quite a number of differences.  He found me unsuitable to his purpose.  […]  One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm […] I would then have to go after it.  My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there.  Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat.  I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return.  Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.  I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.  He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey.  […] Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. […] Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion – a pious soul – a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.” […]

I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger.  The details of this affair are as follows: Mr. Covey sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood.  He gave me a team of unbroken oxen.  He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand one.  He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope.  I had never driven oxen before, and of course, I was very awkward.  I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner.  I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees.  After running thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket.  How I escaped death, I do not know.  There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me […] and there was none to help me.  After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.  I now proceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood, and loaded my cart pretty heavily, thinking in this way to tame my oxen.  I then proceeded on my way home.  I had now consumed one half of the day.  I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger.  I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could get hold of my ox-rope, the oxen again started, rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post.  Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance.  On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened.  […] He went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes.  I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on.  He repeated his order.  I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself.  Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after.  This whipping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offenses. […]

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  […] It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or show, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night.  The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.  I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.  My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time.  I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.  At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.  I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition.  I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.  My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.  Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully.  My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: –

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!  You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go! Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?  I will run away.  I will not stand it.  Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it.  I had as well die with ague [malaria] as the fever.  I have only one life to lose.  I had as well be killed running as die standing.  Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free!  Try it?  Yes!  God helping me, I will.  It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.  […] Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off.  Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke.  I am not the only slave in the world.  Why should I fret?  I can bear as much as any of them. […] It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free.  There is a better day coming.”

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.

I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey’s, than in the last six.  The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me for an epoch in my humble history.  You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

At this point, I’ll hold you in suspense as to the details of Douglass’s “epoch” – another blog for another day.  It’s enough for now to say that God gave Douglass a way out.  I wrote a response to my reading assignments for my literature class, The Narratives of Slavery.  The goal of my response, per instructions, was to take just one of literary critic James Olney’s ideas and find specific evidence for or against Olney’s idea in a slave narrative.  I chose Frederick Douglass’s narrative.  Here is my response, in less than 250 words.  My apologies for the academic (hoity-toity) writing style:

Conventions, or as James Olney writes, the “Master Plan for Slave Narratives,” (153) are characteristics that distinguish the slave narrative from other narratives. Olney contends that Frederick Douglass “paradoxically transcends the slave narrative mode while being at the same time it fullest, most exact representative,” in that Douglass-as-narrator, unlike many of his literate, ex-slave peers, is independent of the possession and use of the abolitionist (154).

Here I focus solely on the convention of physical abuse and violence, which does occur in Douglass’s narrative, beginning with the vicious beating of his Aunt Hester (284-5), continuing with an account of Mr. Severe, who lives up to his name as a cruel slave overseer (288), and other examples, the most noteworthy, in my opinion, being Mr. Covey, the “nigger-breaker” (320). Because the history of slavery is not marked with the extreme violence and horror of antebellum slavery and because the abolition of slavery is accomplished on the heels of this time period, I suspect that the devil may have overplayed his hand in the violent dehumanization of slaves. Douglass’s turning point is a microcosm of Olney’s two-word existential description of slave narratives, that is, “I exist” (155). Douglass’s experience, in his own words: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” What Douglass accomplishes with physical strength, he later accomplishes with intellect and the power of words.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself.” Boston: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. Slave Narratives. Andrews, William L., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: First Library of America College Edition, 2002. 267-368. Print.

Olney, James. “Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Slave’s Narratives. Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985. 148-75. Print.

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  As with so many other areas of study, the human experience gives tangible substance to spiritual truth.  You may recall from the previous blog in this series, Road Hazards, I quoted Peter L. Berger, sociologist and author of The Sacred Canopy.  His quote puts Douglass’s situation into perspective for theodicy.  Theodicy is “an attempt to resolve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling God’s traditional characteristics of omnibenevolenceomnipotence and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world” (Wikipedia).  Here’s Berger’s quote:

Every nomos [a person’s sense of order of the world]… implies theodicy.  Every nomos confronts the individual as a meaningful reality that comprehends him and all his experiences.  It bestows sense on his life, also on its discrepant and painful aspects… In consequence, the pain becomes more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming, as the sheltering canopy of the nomos extends to cover even those experiences that may reduce the individual to howling animality.

God can handle your honesty.  Go ahead.  Be angry.  Unload your frustration, your outrage, your disgust.

Suffering, grief, and all other consequences associated with evil or tragedy have a way of reducing a human being to his/her most basic emotional instincts.  We become gut-wrenchingly honest with ourselves and our Creator.  Douglas describes this as “My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way…”  The thing is, God already knows what is going on inside your heart and mind, and He even has a clearer view of you than you do.  But for your sake, not His, embrace the idea, “I exist!”  You are here for a reason.  Your life is not the culmination of a grand cosmic accident.  You were born during this time period to this particular genetic heritage and disposition in this particular geographical location, ON PURPOSE.  Your feelings matter to God.  Right or wrong, theologically sound or heretical, positive or negative – in the “howling animality” of ENOUGH ALREADY, God is not going to stop you and make you become the church-approved version of yourself in order to hear you.  He’s there.  He’s hurting with you.  And He’s ready for you to pour out your heart to Him.  He is not the cruel slave-master burdening you with more than you can handle, always waiting to catch you doing something wrong or looking at Him the wrong way, He is the wind in the white sails of the ships on the bay, the silent voice of freedom drawing you to Himself.  He knows that you are “prevented by a combination of hope and fear” in the “stern reality” of “only one life to lose.”

If “You have seen how a man was made a slave” then “you shall see how a slave was made a man.”

Next blog in this series: Awakening, by Asia Samson