Study Guide

The Church and Prejudice Introduction

By Frederick Douglass

The Church and Prejudice Introduction

Complaining about Christians who land way off the Jesus-mark is a historical tradition that's gotten its share of pop culture limelight.

Sure, it's not always an on-the-nose portrayal, but you can see the problem. On the one hand, you've got Jesus, preaching nonviolence and love for your neighbor; and on the other hand, you've got lots of Christians in history, trying to figure out a way to get around all that loving-your-neighbor stuff and, uh, still get to heaven.

In the 19th century, whether or not women and people of color actually had souls to save was still up for debate. (Nauseating, we know.) After all, if God had wanted these people to be perfect—the argument went—God would have made them more like white men, who were obviously (in their own minds), the pinnacle of creation.

Excuse us while we vom.

But then along came a massive religious revival called the Second Great Awakening, and people started to think maybe the color of your skin didn't matter so much to God. Of course, even if skin color was NBD to God, it was still a big deal to people on Earth. And when the Second Great Awakening collided with the abolition movement, Frederick Douglass was born.

Okay, not exactly. But that's right when his speech, "The Church and Prejudice"—one of his first anti-slavery speeches—came to be. Douglass delivered the speech on November 4th, 1841 to a meeting of the Plymouth County (Massachusetts) Anti-Slavery Society.

Quick life recap:

Douglass was born a slave in Maryland. He escaped slavery in 1838 and moved to the North—where slavery was outlawed—but Douglass found racial prejudice alive and well, including in the churches he attended.

He expected better.

In "The Church and Prejudice," Douglass talks about—you guessed it—the prejudice he experienced in those churches because of his race.

He uses those examples as a springboard to talk about how much worse slavery is than any prejudice he's experienced, and how Southern churches use the Bible to support slavery. He closes with a stirring example of a very religious man who quotes scripture while beating his slaves bloody—Exhibit A in religious hypocrisy.

Bottom line: It's a powerful indictment of how Christians were falling way short of their moral ideals and even mining scripture for passages to support their inhumanity. It's one of Douglass' earlier speeches, and while it doesn't quite reach the fiery poetic heights of his later ones, that classic Douglass side-eye and #sarcasmfont are still there.

  

What is The Church and Prejudice About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care? Because, sadly, the issues Douglass discusses are still around.

For as long as there have been religions, misguided people have used religion to deny others basic rights by claiming that, uh, God told them to.

At its best, religion is a force for good, a force that inspires people to love their neighbors and work for peace and justice. At its worst, religion is the perfect cover for human prejudices. If people can say, "It's not me, it's God," then reasoned debate won't get opponents anywhere. It's hard to argue with God—or with people who believe they know what God wants.

But we at Shmoop find it extremely suspicious that, throughout history, God seems to favor the same people who already hold a lot of the power and privilege in the world.

According to those who claim religious liberty to cover up their own desire to deny others their basic rights, God's had a problem with women (they need to submit), people of color (ditto and worse), immigrants (they want to kill us), people of other religions (their prayers aren't heard), the LGBT+ community (where to begin?)…the list goes on.

Douglass calls these religious folks out, giving an example of a man quoting scripture to justify all kinds of appalling acts. Sound familiar? Probably because you've watched the news recently.

Example? A pastor at a North Carolina church—a descendant of Robert E. Lee, no less—resigned his pulpit in September 2017 over indignant backlash from many of his congregants after a talk he gave on MTV. The offensive message? Check it out:

As a pastor it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January and especially Heather Heyer who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville. (Source)

That's what Douglass was talking about.

The Church and Prejudice Resources

Websites

Virtual Visit
Not only is the personal political, it's a museum exhibit. Snoop on many of Douglass' personal belongings in this virtual exhibit of his final home in Washington, D.C.

He's Kind of a Big Deal
You have to be to get your own personal National Historic Site. Start here for an overview of Douglass' long life and world-changing work.

Rediscover Rochester, Rediscover Douglass
Douglass lived in Rochester, NY for a long time, and the City of Rochester has great Douglass resources, including the scoop on a newly-discovered photo.

Context is Key
Don't know much about the abolition movement in America? This page will bring you up to speed...fast.

Need Help? Just AASC!
The Oxford African American Studies Center's Frederick Douglass collection contains all you'll ever need to write a research paper, including over fifty scholarly articles and numerous biographies of Douglass and related folks.

Movie or TV Productions

King of Cameos
Douglass is such a well-known and recognizable figure that he appears as a TV or film character dozens of times. That's what being the most photographed American of the 19th century will do for you. Dude would have killed Instagram.

The Full Story, Fast
All the Douglass they could fit into forty-seven minutes is in this quick biography of Douglass.

Articles and Interviews

Speak Up and Speak Out!
This article from the Constitution Center discusses how Douglass got his start as an activist when he spoke up in a meeting in the middle of 1841.

New Bedford, Where it All Began
This pamphlet from the New Bedford Historical Society gives us the down-low on Douglass' time there. Don't worry, it's a 21st century pamphlet, so it's only two pages—no fifty-page 19th century pamphlets here.

Video

Douglass on the Frontlines
Actors and show creators from PBS' Frontline talk about Douglass' relevance for modern life.

Mini-Douglass
Not a shorter Frederick Douglass, but a three-minute mini-bio from the makers of Biography.

Do Not Fear the Dark Side
We don't have Douglass' voice, but we've got James Earl Jones. Here he is reading Douglass' famous speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" He really channels Douglass, we think.

Audio

Read Aloud
Get your headphones and jam out to an audio version of "The Church and Prejudice."

Images

Free at Last
There's a special marker in lower Manhattan indicating the spot where Douglass arrived in New York, now feeling like a free man for the first time.

Portrait of the Speaker as a Young Man
When Douglass gave "The Church and Prejudice," he might have looked a little something like this.

This Takes Us Back
This is the picture of Douglass we remember from the walls of our elementary school classrooms.

All the Douglass Imagery Our Hearts Could Desire
Dozens of photographs from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Can't find what you're looking for? Contact them. We bet they've got more. #bonuspoem

Bowties Are Cool
Like the Eleventh Doctor, Douglass could rock a bowtie.

Young Love...
Okay, so she's not super young here, but this is a picture of Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

Love in the Golden Years
We can't call it retirement, because Douglass never retired, but here's a pic of his second wife, Helen Pitts.

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