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People & Ideas: Frederick Douglass
Source: Library of Congress
"Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference," wrote Frederick Douglass, a leading American abolitionist and former slave. Douglass rejected all biblical justifications of slavery after living under the cruel institution himself. Born in Maryland in 1818, his master's wife taught Douglass to read at a young age, and Douglass shared this knowledge with other slaves, encouraging them to read the New Testament and interpret Jesus Christ's message of equality. But Douglass rejected all Biblical justifications of slavery.
After escaping slavery, Douglass settled in New Bedford, Mass., and joined an integrated Methodist church where he attended anti-slavery meetings and befriended fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison encouraged the young Douglass to become an anti-slavery lecturer, and in 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book quickly became a best seller, reprinted nine times and translated into French and Dutch.
Douglass started a weekly journal, The North Star, where he challenged his readers to question the contradiction between America's Christianity and the institution of slavery. Speaking before packed houses in Great Britain and America, Douglass attacked Christianity for not only permitting the continuation of slavery but also encouraging its expansion: "The church and the slave prison stand next to each other. ... [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer's bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer's block stand in the same neighborhood."
Though Douglass was initially disappointed that Abraham Lincoln did not advocate for an end to slavery at the beginning of the Civil War, he was overjoyed when the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After Lincoln's Second Inaugural the president welcomed Douglass into the White House and was pleased to learn that Douglass approved of his speech.
After Lincoln's assassination, Douglass said of the late president: "Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?"
Published October 11, 2010