Study Guide

The Church and Prejudice Analysis

By Frederick Douglass

  • Symbols, Motifs, and Rhetorical Devices


  • Rhetoric

    Pathos

    Yeah, this one's gut wrenching.

    Rhetoric that relies on pathos works by creating an emotional response in the listener. In "The Church and Prejudice," Douglass accomplishes this by co-opting the religious language of the Second Great Awakening, which relied largely on revival preaching designed to provoke emotional religious conversions. Check it out:

    Now it so happened that next to her sat a young lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Saviour; yet when the cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church. Such was the religion she had experienced! (12-13)

    Douglass tries to get listeners to have the same type of emotional response to slavery that they might have for religion by showing how bad slavery is and how hypocritical slave owners are:

    I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class leader; he would talk most sanctimoniously about the dear Redeemer, who was sent "to preach deliverance to the captives, and set at liberty them that are bruised" —he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! all the time quoting scripture, for his authority, and appealing to that passage of the Holy Bible which says, "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes!" Such was the amount of this good Methodist's piety. (41-43)

    Those very personal anecdotes were a direct appeal to the sympathies of his readers. If that doesn't get you all riled up to annihilate slavery, we don't know what will.

  • Structure

    Speech

    Can you imagine listening to Douglass give this speech? How much better all those sizzling hot burns he lays down would be if we could hear his voice drip with sarcasm?

    And what about the stories Douglass tells? Can you imagine him doing the voices of the self-satisfied minister, the confused girl in the trance, the pious slaveholder?

    We're willing to bet Douglass was a master actor, and the format of a speech gave him the opportunity to perform a bunch of characters.

    How it Breaks Down

    Part 1: Prejudiced People Douglass has Known (Sentences 1-18)

    Douglass gives three examples of prejudice he's encountered at different Northern churches. He could give more, but we don't have all day.

    Part 2: Why Are People Prejudiced? (Sentences 19-29)

    Douglass argues that slavery prejudices all white people, not just slaveholders, against black people by making them think black people are naturally inferior, when in fact it's the condition of slavery that's holding them back.

    Part 3: White People Making Excuses (Sentences 30-43)

    Douglass aims at the Southern churches and sums up the arguments Southern preachers give for slavery: God intended it. He winds up with an image of his former master quoting scripture while beating Douglass' cousin.

  • Tone

    Angry; Sarcastic

    Slavery makes Douglass angry, and you won't like him when he's angry—that is, unless you enjoy a good burn fairly given, which of course, we do. Overall, the tone here is one of angry sarcasm, which yes, we just made up.

    Check how he uses the rhetoric of Christianity against these prejudiced church peeps:

    Now it so happened that next to her sat a young lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Saviour; yet when the cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church. Such was the religion she had experienced! (12-13)

    Then watch as Douglass calls out people who say some of their best friends are black:

    Yet people in general will say they like colored men as well as any other, but in their proper place! They assign us that place; they don't let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. They will not allow that we have a head to think, and a heart to feel, and a soul to aspire. They treat us not as men, but as dogs—they cry "Stu-boy!" and expect us to run and do their bidding. That's the way we are liked. (24-28)

    With friends like those…

  • Writing Style

    Episodic; Colloquial

    While Douglass was self-taught in the skills and forms of classical rhetoric, he doesn't use them here. Instead, Douglass sits us down and tells us some stories. He starts with three episodes from his personal experience, and he talks to us in everyday language.

    Using personal experiences allows Douglass' listeners to put an individual face on the problem of systemic prejudice, which then contributes to their feeling that it's unfair and something should be done about it...obviously.

    Check out the first episode:

    At the South I was a member of the Methodist Church. When I came north, I thought one Sunday I would attend communion, at one of the churches of my denomination, in the town I was staying. The white people gathered round the altar, the blacks clustered by the door. After the good minister had served out the bread and wine to one portion of those near him, he said, "These may withdraw, and others come forward;" thus he proceeded till all the white members had been served. Then he took a long breath, and looking out towards the door, exclaimed, "Come up, colored friends, come up! for you know God is no respecter of persons!" I haven't been there to see the sacraments taken since. (1-6)

    He uses dialogue and visual description to draw us into the scene. Douglass uses the second, shortest part of the speech to transition into the idea that slavery is the underlying cause of prejudice. Here, he gives more general examples of the way black people are treated:

    They will not allow that we have a head to think, and a heart to feel, and a soul to aspire. They treat us not as men, but as dogs—they cry "Stu-boy!" and expect us to run and do their bidding. (26-27)

    In the last part of the speech, Douglass provides a broader perspective. He collects all the arguments he's heard from Southern slaveholders and speaks in the voice of a composite of all these as he describes the religious arguments used for slavery.

    "Oh! if you wish to be happy in time, happy in eternity, you must be obedient to your masters; their interest is yours. God made one portion of men to do the working, and another to do the thinking; how good God is!" (32-33)

    Then at the end, he goes back to personal experience as he describes a specific case he knows—his former master whipping his cousin while quoting Scripture.

    Throughout, Douglass uses simple, clear language to speak to his listeners. You won't find many high-falutin', flowery phrases here. He's all about giving the listener something to relate to.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "The Church and Prejudice"

    Churches have always been a popular target for accusations of hypocrisy—saying one thing and doing another. And, hey: it's hard not to be a little hypocritical when Jesus is the ideal and flawed humans are the reality.

    But Douglass is looking at a very specific type of hypocrisy: the fact that the Church claims that Jesus is for everyone, while segregation and other forms of racism are rampant within the institution.

    In "The Church and Prejudice," Douglass examines several times he's encountered prejudice against black people in the church, and then he goes into where that prejudice comes from, finally concluding that slavery is the main cause of prejudice against black people in the church—and everywhere else, for that matter.

  • What's Up With The Opening Lines?

    At the South I was a member of the Methodist Church. When I came north, I thought one Sunday I would attend communion, at one of the churches of my denomination, in the town I was staying. The white people gathered round the altar, the blacks clustered by the door. After the good minister had served out the bread and wine to one portion of those near him, he said, "These may withdraw, and others come forward;" thus he proceeded till all the white members had been served. Then he took a long breath, and looking out towards the door, exclaimed, "Come up, colored friends, come up! for you know God is no respecter of persons!" I haven't been there to see the sacraments taken since. (1-6)

    Douglass doesn't waste any time. He jumps right in with his first example of prejudice he's experienced in a church setting. It was obviously disillusioning for him, having arrived in the land of the free. He's very clear that this is prejudice and segregation he's experiencing in the North, and he's also very clear that whites and blacks were separated—some might say segregated—during communion.

    The quote has impact, as it's probably something many of his white Northern listeners who thought they were progressive had said before: "It's okay that you're black."

    That final sentence, however, indicates that Douglass isn't going to sit around and take it—he hasn't been back.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class leader; he would talk most sanctimoniously about the dear Redeemer, who was sent "to preach deliverance to the captives, and set at liberty them that are bruised" —he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! all the time quoting scripture, for his authority, and appealing to that passage of the Holy Bible which says, "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes!" Such was the amount of this good Methodist's piety. (41-43)

    This speech is filled with little vignettes: scenes of prejudice related to Christianity. By the end of the speech, Douglass has worked his way around from prejudice in the Northern church to prejudice in the Southern church. But all forms of prejudice stem from slavery, says Douglass.

    Ending on this visual demonstrates the true darkness of slavery and sets the listener up to imagine how such terrible treatment could lead to prejudice against an entire race. It's the exclamation point to his thoughts about religious hypocrisy.

    Douglass doesn't come right out and say, "Wow, what an awful guy." Instead, he gives his listeners the evidence, and lets them come to that conclusion themselves.

    Not hard to do.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Douglass doesn't pull any punches in making his point.

    "The Church and Prejudice" consists almost entirely of things Douglass has observed first hand. Your job is to take all these examples, be outraged, as Douglass intends, and then connect the existence of racial prejudice in churches to the practice of slavery.

    Draw yourself some dotted lines if you need to—seriously, no shame in writing on your work.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Methodist Church (1, 41)

    Biblical References

    "The kingdom of heaven is like..." (8)
    Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18 (41)
    Luke 12:47 (42)

  • Trivia

    Frederick Douglass inherited Abraham Lincoln's walking stick. If that stick could talk... (Source)

    On June 19 (Juneteenth), 2013, Frederick Douglass got his own statue in the U.S. Capitol. It's now on permanent display at Emancipation Hall. (Source)

    Douglass' escape from slavery took less than a day. (Source)

    In 1967, Douglass appeared on a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service to commemorate the sesquicentennial of his birth. At one time, Douglass thought he had been born in 1817, but written records show his birth in 1818. Sometimes there's a little confusion. Still, in 1995, he was honored again with another stamp. (Source)

    "Douglass Day" was celebrated around Douglass' birthday in many black communities during the first half of the 20th century. It was often used as a time to organize for civil rights causes. (Source)

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