Today marks the 200th birthday of one of the most influential African-American leaders and voices of the 19th century.
Frederick Augustus Washington Baily was an abolitionist, social reformer, statesman, writer, and orator. He was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. His mother was a field hand, and his father was purportedly her master. The date of his birth is unknown, so like many slaves Douglass could not tell how old he was. He later chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14.
Douglass miraculously escaped slavery and eventually landed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became a minister and joined the abolitionist movement. He decided to change his name to Frederick Douglass once he became free.
There are many articles, documentaries, and biographies about Douglass’s work as an abolitionist, writer, and orator. But not enough talk about his prophetic work: his call to America to turn from hypocrisy and walk in true biblical faithfulness by loving their neighbors as themselves.
Prophet to America
After his conversion at 13 years old, Douglass was discipled by a “good old colored man named Lawson.” He recounted Lawson telling him that “the Lord had a great work for me to do; and I must prepare to do it. . . . He had been shown that I must preach the gospel.”
And that’s what Douglass did.
Douglass’s prophetic proclamations thundered throughout North America and Europe. In one of his most renowned speeches, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, he sounds like the prophet Isaiah. Douglass rebuked the self-deception and spiritual blindness of the American church, and the hypocrisy of thanking God for the nation’s freedom while also, in the name of Jesus, keeping slaves from freedom themselves. After quoting Isaiah 1:1–17 he went on to say:
The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission.
In the Isaiah passage God says, “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” To Douglass, the blood on America’s hands was the blood of men, women, and children whose souls were crushed under the nefarious yoke of chattel slavery. It would be insane to think God would be pleased with a “Christian nation” whose members continued to beat, whip, starve, and rape his enslaved image-bearers. Douglass called his hearers to repentance as Isaiah did: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17).
Unmasking Hypocritical Christianity
Douglass’s calls to repentance rang throughout the nation. His autobiographies drew a contrast between the slaveholding Christianity of America and the true Christianity of Christ. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he stated: “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.”
His autobiographies drew a contrast between the slaveholding Christianity of America and the true Christianity of Christ.
Such hypocritical Christianity was inconsistent with the pure, peaceable, and gentle wisdom from above (James 3:17)—and therefore no Christianity at all. Douglass prophetically spoke against such polluted religion:
These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
Faith in God set Douglass ablaze on his prophetic journey to hold America accountable for its sins, hoping his neighbors would repent and walk in love and justice toward people of color. He thundered: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” Douglass was a powerful prophetic voice used by God to bring change.
Helping People See God
Douglass did incredible things in his 77 years of life. He escaped slavery (and helped others do the same), surreptitiously taught other slaves to read the New Testament, delivered countless speeches, advised President Abraham Lincoln, championed women’s rights, joined the abolitionist movement, became a statesmen, and stridently condemned the diabolical system of chattel slavery. He saw the false Christianity of the land as an obstacle to seeing and believing in the true and living God. He knew a Christianity that supported oppression and violence misrepresented God’s character and would hinder people from seeing him for who he truly is.
Douglass’s fight for justice was also a fight for people to see God correctly—which in turn allowed them to see one another correctly. The legacy of Frederick Douglass is one of indelible faith, courage, sacrifice, and service for the good of neighbor and the glory of God.
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