Study Guide

The Church and Prejudice Historical Context

By Frederick Douglass

Historical Context

Poor 1841 doesn't get a lot of play in history circles.

It's no 1066 Battle of Hastings or 1941 Pearl Harbor or even 1969 Woodstock.

Over the course of 1841, there were 26 states and three presidents. If that seems like a lot of inaugurations, it's because it is. Martin van Buren kicked off the year, then William Henry Harrison took office in March. But he became the shortest serving U.S. president when he died of pneumonia a month after taking office, and Vice President John Tyler had to step up.

But don't count 1841 out just yet: The abolition movement got two big boosts that year.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of captured Africans who seized control of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, ruling that they'd been captured illegally and were thus free men.

Second, this is the year Frederick Douglass came on the scene.

Douglass was one of the greatest writers and speakers and social justice activists in American history. 1841 was his debut year, the year he stood up and spoke at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and "got discovered," if you will. Three months later, he gave the classic early-Douglass speech, "The Church and Prejudice."

Why "The Church and Prejudice"? Surely religion and prejudice never go together.

[Tugs collar.]

Let's rewind for a sec to what was happening with religion in America in 1841.

From about 1790, there was a worldwide reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The reaction showed up in art and literature through Romanticism, but also in a renewed focus on religion and the supernatural.

In America, the Second Great Awakening led to increased converts to Protestant Christianity, especially in the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations. One of the key ideas of all these denominations was that all men (though not, significantly, all women) were spiritual equals. In other words, God didn't care about race or class, so preachers and church members could come from all walks of life.

Before 1800, most slaves probably followed African religions, but during the SGA, there was a significant uptick in the number of slaves who converted to Christianity.

Partly, this had to do with the fact that many slaveholders saw themselves as responsible for their slaves' eternal souls and considered evangelizing slaves part of their paternalistic duty. However, Christianity could also be used to keep slaves in line in a "God has ordained the way things are. Be good and you'll get to go to heaven when you die" kind of way.

In "The Church and Slavery," Douglass' experience is set against the background of the disagreement over whether the Bible is pro-slavery or anti-slavery. But it also raises other issues of the time, like fact that even many abolitionists thought black people were inferior to whites and should occupy subservient societal roles. They simply felt that slavery went a bit too far.

Too far how?

Well, some were opposed to slavery for economic reasons: They felt it devalued the labor of white workers and left white workers out of a job. In fact, a political party—the Free Soilers—was formed for this reason. They wanted the federal government to make the western states free states so white homesteaders wouldn't have to compete with slave labor.

Some whites even thought that black people were so inferior that they needed to get out of the United States entirely—these peeps supported the creation of new colonies in Africa for former slaves. Even the Great Emancipator himself was a supporter for a while of sending freed slaves back to Africa (source).

Bottom line: It's complicated.