In Frederick Douglass America’s Prophet, D.H. Dilbeck addresses the reason for writing this book in the introduction. In the 200 years since Douglass’ birth (1818), biographers have recounted his life. However, Dilbeck takes a different approach. Instead, he notes that his focus is on an underappreciated and under-referenced aspect of Douglass’ life – his religion.
In a questioning manner, Douglass challenged Christianity in its traditional state and dared to call out both white and black ministers—and their congregations—on theological and behavioral stances that were counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as it pertained to slavery, lynching of blacks, and refusal to treat blacks as full humans.
Dilbeck seeks to answer three questions in this book: “How and why did Douglass come to embrace a distinctly prophetic Christianity? What were the moral and theological convictions of his faith, and how did they evolve over time? How did his prophetic Christian religion inform his public activism, first against slavery and later against all forms of racial and gender discrimination?” (6).
With a personal account of the traumatic act of slavery that terrorized black families, Dilbeck references Douglass’ separation from his own parents, grandparents, and siblings. Eventually, as a celebrated orator, Douglass would deploy many religious arguments against slavery. His personal experience was one of the reasons that he believed that one of the cruelest acts arising out of slavery was the disregard for “all just ideas of the sacredness of the family as an institution” (14).
Douglass’ first spiritual conversion occurred at the age of 13, when he heard a white Methodist minister named Hanson preach. The message proclaimed, “[h]e thought all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God. They were, by nature, rebels against God’s government and they must repent of their sins and be reconciled to God through Christ.” This was a message that Douglass never forgot, and one that left him with a thought of radical equality (29).
Douglass sought spiritual advice from Charles Lawson, a black lay preacher—and his spiritual father. In all encounters, Douglass was encouraged to wait for the Lord to gain his freedom, and to have faith, which never seemed to come soon enough.
Escaping from slavery in 1838 in Maryland, Douglass questioned the role of the white—and later black—Christians in the abuse and oppression of the slave.
Eight years later, when the Dred Scott case was determined, Douglass faced these inconsistencies from American Christianity. Scott, a slave, filed suit regarding his residence in a free state and territory, and his right to be freed from slavery. US Supreme Court Judge Roger Taney ruled that Scott wasn’t entitled to his freedom simply given that he lived in a free state for a time In addition, Taney declared that Scott was not a citizen of the United States due to his being black, and therefore, could not legitimately sue in federal court. (97)
In 1794, Richard Allen founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, while still under the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church. Douglass became affiliated with a host of Methodist churches during his time in Baltimore.
Traveling abroad, Douglass could not escape the proslavery Christianity message of America. Spending 18 months on a passage across the Atlantic Ocean, he continued to speak tirelessly on behalf of the American slave. As Dilbeck highlights, Douglass appealed to British Christians to abandon their fellowship with slaveholding Christians of the American South (63).
“He [Douglass] wanted to reveal to the world the ‘corruption and sinful position’ of America’s churches on slavery,” Dilbeck writes (66). Douglass, Dilbeck asserts, suspected that slavery endured in America in view of the fact that “we are too religious as a nation.”
Dilbeck explains that this means that Americans substituted religion for humanity—we have submitted a form of godliness, an outside show for the real thing itself. Like the Scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day, American Christians put on a façade of righteousness, but their refusal to oppose slavery revealed the hollowness of their faith (84).
In America’s Prophet, Dilbeck shows a more radical side of Douglass, who relied on the teachings of Christ to fight the immoral practices of slavery. He loathed how pastors—“hypocritical Doctors of Divinity”—could so easily “torture the pages of the Holy Bible to sanctify popular crimes” (86).
Douglass determined that the American Christian church remained beholden to the Slave Power and complicit. (85) He explained that while Christ commanded his followers to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked and take in the stranger,” the Fugitive Slave Act made “it penal to obey Christ (84).
Douglass held black churches guilty for saying nothing. He believed that northern black churches which did not host antislavery meetings acted as “the tyrant as readily and as bitterly as do our white oppressors,” for in their silence, they occupied the “slaveholding position” (84).
As for the black clergy, Douglass had little patience with their preaching of a life after death. Dilbeck writes that Douglass hated to hear a black minister conclude a sermon with biblical texts that spoke of “[s]eek ye first the kingdom of Heaven” that African Americans everywhere, slave and free, should simply “wait for God to help them” (85).
As he criticized American churches for their moral failure on slavery, Douglass offered a constructive vision of how to live as a faithful Christian in slaveholding America. “Followers of Christ must always sympathize with the oppressed and act our part in breaking their bonds” (85).
Dilbeck recants one of Douglass’ trademark speeches, still remembered today, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered July 5, 1852, and hosted by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. Considered one of his most prophetic messages, Douglass delivered this fiery sermon–-condemning America for its wickedness and oppression, calling upon it to atone for its sins, and pleading with its people to pursue the path of true righteousness by living according to its highest political and religious ideals (86).
In his delivery, Douglass’ most powerful element was his constant use of the pronoun your. To his predominantly white audience, Douglass referred to yournational independence, your political freedom, your nation, your fathers. The founders succeeded in creating a new nation, he said, “and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours: and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary” (87).
This message, on a day when slaves were not free seemed almost rhetorical, as noted; it was a day whose celebrations laid bare all the terrible hypocrisy, discrimination, and oppression that poisoned America—both North and South. For that reason, Douglass could not help but resent the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society for asking him—a black man and former slave—to deliver a celebratory speech for the occasion. “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking to speak to-day?” Douglass asked (87).
Although offended by the invitation, Douglass took this opportunity to explain the inequality displayed in the US. However, he did reunite with the women’s organizations, particularly including Susan B. Anthony and Francis Grimke, to address the women’s suffrage movement. This topic was challenging, as Douglass believed that it was more important for black men to gain the right to vote ahead of women.
Following President Andrew Johnson’s disinterested efforts to inaugurate a radical social transformation of the South beyond abolition and the implementation of “Black Codes,” Douglass was convinced that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot” (111).
Douglass lived to see the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments. However, he also experienced the creation of the Jim Crow laws, which followed the short-lived Reconstruction Era.
A couple of incidents pushed Douglass to the point of emotional and mental collapse. One was President James Garfield’s replacing him as Marshall for Washington, DC. The other was the Supreme Court declaring the 1875 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional in 1883. It had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. This was marked as one of the causes to which he devoted his life (147).
Dilbeck ends the book by reflecting on Douglass’ final thoughts, as he expressed hope in delivering blacks from oppression. Using the Israelites as reference, Douglass encourages black men to stand up and be self-made men.
The author does a great job melding Douglass’ commitment to religion with his socially-aggressive stance America’s Christians and lack of support regarding oppression and slavery. In looking at Douglass’ life encounters with domestic and international clergy, Dilbeck vividly displays his frustration with their complicit reaction to the denial of blacks’ civil and human rights. He shines a great light on another aspect of Douglass as one of America’s prophets.
Marilyn Batchelor is a doctoral student in Religion and Applied Women’s Studies at Claremont Graduate University.