Religious Legalism and Racism – Frederick Douglass

David Blight’s new biography of Frederick Douglass

David Blight, in his major biography of Douglass, makes it clear that Douglass had become a Christian in his teens. His passion for reading and rhetoric grew as he grappled with The Columbian Orator (an anthology of speeches and essays) and the Bible. He loved to hear preachers and discussed stories and verses from the Bible with an older Christian brother.

Camp Meetings
Then the famous American Methodist ‘revivals’, or Camp Meetings, came to the south. And they were hugely popular. The modern Christian finds it bizarre that slave-owners may have experienced conviction of sin at these meetings, and even a belief in Christ, yet didn’t repent of their most obvious sin. Douglass recalls seeing one of his masters repentant, dishevelled, at the front of a meeting. They returned more pious, more committed to prayer, but just as vicious in their cruelty towards slaves as they were before. In fact, things could get worse.

‘I was blind, but now I…I’m still blind.’
It’s not surprising that Douglass questioned the reality of this version of Christianity. It had no positive effect on the slave-owners’ behaviour towards his slaves. He doesn’t doubt the gospel itself, but exposes the way the white community avoided applying its reforming power to the obvious sin of racial discrimination and domination. The internalised rigour that was applied to the comparatively petty aspects of private behaviour and motive became a terrorising aspect of their brutality towards the slaves. There was now a religious reason for whipping and beating: thought, motive, suspicion of devilishly inspired rebellion; the demonising of the black man. The practices existed before, of course, but were now reinforced and exaggerated by religious zeal. What former slaver and hymn writer John Newton saw, was not only Christ but in Christ the impulse for repentance, including of slavery itself. But these guys didn’t see it at all.

‘Religious slaveholders are the worst!’
Douglass wrote, ‘I assert 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 sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. 

‘A merciless, religious wretch’
It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch…

Whipping in advance of deserving it…
Mr. Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. …The peculiar feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it. … His plan was to whip for the smallest offences, to prevent the commission of large ones. Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave…. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time.
Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.
Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. … And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals,—more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family,—that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer,—than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.’ [i]

‘Examine my heart, Lord’
And so my brother, my sister, my fellow white believer: what are we to make of such things? Is there any aspect of your own life where you allow for racial discrimination, or where you resist the reforming power of the gospel to affect any prejudice against people of colour? Have you identified that resistance as suspicious? Have you probed its reasons, and are you deliberately challenging your own assumptions? The story of Frederick Douglass presents both challenge and hope. More next time…

For the next post, about Douglass’s amazing escape from slavery click here
For the first post in this series click here

[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.46-47  (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)

©2019 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

Religious Legalism and Racism – Frederick Douglass