Frederick Douglass’s theory on Religion (Christianity), Slavery, and the Law

8/07/2010

Law and Literature encompasses the power of literature and they way it presented the law in a light that allows its readers to interpret it from different directions. The law is a system of rules, which are enforced with authority by institutions. Often literature has contributed significantly in shaping the law. Slavery is one of the unfortunate practices in America that has been engraved in American history. In early centuries, people who favored or opposed slavery expressed it through literature. Frederick Douglass in his narrative, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” discusses the role of religion, Christianity in particular, which was written in literature known as the bible had two versions: true Christianity and the white Christianity that helped in strengthening slavery.

Frederick Douglass is known for being an outstanding orator, but he is mostly acknowledged for being an incredible abolitionist. His work to demolish slavery has been greatly known, detailing his life experience as a slave and expressing his theory on slavery. In “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” he demonstrates the way religion and its literature, the bible, had a negative influence and effect on slavery as well as the development of white Christianity.

Douglass opens his narrative introducing himself stating his birthplace and age. However, he claims he cannot authenticate his introduction because he himself was a slave and was not given access to this information. Immediately he attempts to demonstrate the lack of knowledge slaves had because of their masters and slaveholders. Slaves were not entitled to know anything about themselves, and if they did they would have to find out the same way Douglass did, that is, overhear his masters and recall moments in his life. But one theme throughout the narrative Douglass attempts to establish is the justification of slaveholder’s behavior in beating, murdering, hardcore laboring, and bloodsheding through religion. Religion, in this case Christianity, had two different practices. The slaves, color people, believed one version of Christianity, while, the masters, White Americans, believed in another version of Christianity. He explains that the masters used Christianity as an excuse to the cruel ways they treated slaves. Christianity no doubt helped the slaves achieve grace, but the Christianity that the masters were practicing allowed no optimism.

When slavery reached its peak, Christianity was the dominant religion in the United States. As popular as Christianity was, people including slaves began to practice it. However, according to Douglass there was “the Christianity of Christ” and “the Christianity of this land.” Douglass describes Christianity as loving “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.” What Douglass is merely trying to say is, masters and slaveholders alone signifies no innate goodness. It is hypocritical to practice “Christianity of Christ” if one puts another to excessive labor without enough food, rest, stripping privileges, beating another, and murdering. These were all characteristics of slave-owner’s actions towards slaves. Douglass also seems to describe the relationship between those slaveholders who were religious and non-religious. He explains that non-religious slaveholders were not as bitter, cruel, or punishing as those who were non-religious. On Douglass’s part it seemed puzzling to understand why some would act such way under the Christian faith. Under god’s allegiance, what humane actions such as beating, killing, and starving a person become justified? Thus, it can be assumed that Christianity had a devastating influence on slavery. The Bible was misinterpret that “opponents of slavery offered complex arguments demonstrating that the slavery allowed in the Bible was different from the “monstrous system… of American slavery,” going so far as to claim that the word “slave” in English translation of the Bible was, at least in some passages, actually a mistranslation.” (Selby. 2002. Pg. 329)

There were several occasions in the narrative where Douglass explains situations where Christianity was significant. One of Douglass’s master, Thomas Auld, portrayed the effects of Christianity on an individual. At a point where Douglass was able to give dates of his life, he remembers 1832 when he began living with Auld in Baltimore, Maryland. He describes Auld as a mean man with a temper. But one of Auld biggest problem was not giving slaves enough to eat. However, Auld was a master who was not too firm and at times “lacked that of a master.” Douglass recalls that Auld had visited a Methodist camp meeting where he experienced religion, Christianity, for the first time. It was clear that Douglass saw this in a optimistic way. Being affiliated with religious faith would change a person for the better. Douglass felt Auld would either “emancipate his slaves and if that (Christianity) did not do this, at any rate make him more kind and humane.” Nevertheless, it made his character cruel and unjust according to Douglass. Auld found religious sanctions to support his cruelty and harsh punishment. This showed the conversion to Christianity had a negative impact on Auld. In another instance, Douglass began living with Mr. Wilson at St. Michael’s. Shortly after Wilson began participating in religious activities. Douglass began to identify a difference in Mr. Wilson through the way he “tied up a lame young woman, and whipped her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip.” Douglass states that the way Mr. Wilson justified his behavior was by using the religious literature, repeating a passage of scripture- “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many strips.” This demonstrated that the religious literature help provided master’s with the evidence they needed to defend their actions. Either this was the incorrect way Christianity was practiced or humanity was presented in an ambiguous way. The presence of religion goes on further when Douglass introduces Mr. Covey, another master he was assign too. Mr. Covey was a professor of religion and a religious class-leader at the local Methodist church. He also had a reputation of breaking apart young slaves in which Douglass refers to him as a “nigger-breaker.” As young as Douglass was when he moved in with Mr. Covey, he remembers when Mr. Covey gave him “a sever whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little fingers.” This is puzzling to hear of a man who is committed to faith but his actions seemed to be contradicting.

The terms religion and law are two sophisticated terms that are the realms of life as well as a shared history that shape our modern world. Both religion and the law has help created identities of groups, institutional authority, and the norms of society. Above all we create and agree on the law and choose to believe in a faith that will suit our own philosophy. Religion has a major influence on the law and vice versa. Just like religion, masters and slaveholders justified their behavior using the law. The law goes further, in which everyone had to obey it. The law was also a collective agreement that overpowers religion. During slavery, slaves were forbidden to learn, including writing and reading. However, Douglass managed to read different types of literature including the bible. By him reading the bible, he was considered breaking the law. At one point during his narrative he describes his master’s wife helping him read and write with different types of literature. However, with advice from her husband and recent affiliation with the bible and religion, she becomes cruel and bitter towards Douglass. Douglass notes many laws during his time of slavery. In particular he talks about the law of lynching. If slaves were not behaving or doing the work they were assigned, they would be punished. If punishment was not suitable actions for the slaves, then slaveholders would turn to lynching. Under the law slaveholders would be protected for lynching slaves. For one, the other slaves who witnessed the lynching could not go to court as they were deemed unreliable or not creditable. Although slaves were humans, they were considered property first. According to Jennifer Glancy’s theory, “in some Christian circles to say the least, that slaves’ bodies were property- objects of physical violations of all kind, surrogates for torture and vessels for sexual pleasures and sexual crimes.” (Glancy. 2007)The law and its literatures such the United States Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights consisted of so much ambiguity that property and humanity was not clear-cut that it allowed slaves to be adopted as property.

According to Douglass’s recollection exemplified in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” there were two types of Christianity practice during slavery. One being the true and real version, while the other being a motivation towards slavery. Slavery was justified by the false notion of white supremacy, which was dictated by all: religion, law, and literature. Both religion and the law are elements that restrict the human behavior, however that was not to be seen through the period of slavery.

Work Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.             The John Harvard library. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1960. Print.

Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (re-)creation and Reality in             Frederick Douglass’s Representation of Self.” African American Review. 26.4             (1992): 591-603. Print.

Glancy, Jennifer A. “Slavery in Early Christianity.” Cross Currents. 57.2 (2007): 296.             Print.

Goulet, Henri L. “Slavery in Early Christianity.” Trinity Seminary Review 29.1 (2008):             63-65. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Aug. 2010.

Selby, Gary S. “Mocking the Sacred: Frederick Douglass’s “slaveholder’s Sermon”             and the Antebellum Debate Over Religion and Slavery.” The Quarterly Journal             of Speech. 88.3 (2002): 326. Print.

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