Study Guide

The Church and Prejudice Main Idea

By Frederick Douglass

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  • Main Idea

    Main Idea: The Church Is Prejudiced

    In case the title "The Church and Prejudice" doesn't totally give it away, let's spell it out.

    Douglass is talking about the Church. And prejudice.

    Er, prejudice in the Church.

    How else can we put it?

    It might not be surprising that churches in slaveholding states supported slavery. But Douglass experienced prejudice even in Northern churches that were trying to be more progressive…and failing. Douglass blames slavery for the prejudice. When it comes down to it, the very existence of slavery makes white people view black people as inferior.

    Yep, even at church.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. According to Douglass, how is prejudice in Southern churches different from prejudice in Northern churches?
    2. Think about the effects of the Second Great Awakening. (Check out "Historical Context" for more.) How does the practice of slavery conflict with the idea that race and class don't matter to God?
    3. According to Douglass, how does prejudice in society make its way into the Church? How does the practice of slavery affect how white people respond to black people in church?

    Chew on This

    Northerners may have abolished slavery, but they didn't abolish their racism.

    Douglass convincingly demonstrates how hypocritical it is that people can go around all holier-than-thou and quoting Jesus and then beat other people to within an inch of their lives.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and became involved with the abolition movement in the North. In August 1841, he spoke up at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and was hired as a lecturer—guess his peanut gallery insight was that good.

    "The Church and Prejudice" was given at a meeting of the Plymouth County (Massachusetts) Anti-Slavery Society on November 4th, 1841 and is one of Douglass' earliest significant speeches.

    The Text

    Douglass starts off with three examples of prejudice against black people in both Northern and Southern churches that he's personally witnessed. Yeah, he's not making this stuff up.

    Then he gets into the question of why this prejudice exists and concludes that the practice of slavery causes white people to see black people as inferior. He accuses white people of creating a system weighted against black people ever achieving true equality.

    He contrasts prejudice and slavery itself, saying there's really no comparison: slavery's a whole different ball game. He brings it home by connecting slavery to the religion taught in Southern churches, which uses the Bible as a defense for slavery.

    Finally, he winds up with a memorable example of a slaveholder who pretends to be (and no doubt believes he is) a very religious and virtuous man—and then goes home and beats his slaves within an inch of their lives.


    Christians talk a good game about Jesus loving everybody the same, but they sure seem to want their churches—and even their afterlife—segregated by race.

  • Questions

    1. Churches today continue to be deeply divided by issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and what kind of coffee to serve. (We wish we were joking about that last one.) How are divisions in the church today similar to and different from divisions between pro-slavery and abolitionist churches in 1841?
    2. What do you think of Douglass' presentation of abolitionist churches and pastors as still prejudiced? How do their intent and impact differ? Can you think of other examples where good intentions may not lead to good consequences?
    3. If Douglass were around today, do you think he'd be involved in the Church? What positions do you think Douglass would take on the issues that divide churches?
    4. Consider the speech as a work of literature. How does Douglass co-opt religious language and imagery to criticize the Church?

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