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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!" (3-5)
The sad thing is, this minister probably thought he was being progressive and accepting. Unfortunately, what he's really saying is, "God doesn't care that you're black."
If you're a person of color, you may have experienced something similar because, sadly enough, we didn't leave this kind of language behind in the 19th century. If you're white, take a sec to think about how it would feel if someone told you, "God doesn't care that you're white."
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)
Two girls become Christians at the same time, and then the white one refuses to drink from the same communion cup as the black one. This precedes debates over "colored" versus "white" water fountains by about a hundred years. If you can't share the blood of Christ, Douglass might ask, how can you expect to share a water fountain?
But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others—and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, "Oh! I didn't go into the kitchen!" (17-18)
Every church has at least one person like this—she's not afraid to say what she's thinking, even if everyone else is thinking, "Hush, Grandma!" At first listen, many of Douglass' listeners might have laughed at this. After all, Douglass sets it up like the punch line to a bad joke.
Maybe because it is kind of a bad joke. The white girl expects that if there were any black people in heaven, they would still be "kept in their place"—not fully taking part in society, but serving and staying out of sight in the heavenly kitchen.
Thus you see, my hearers, this prejudice goes even into the church of God. And there are those who carry it so far that it is disagreeable to them even to think of going to heaven, if colored people are going there too. And whence comes it? The grand cause is slavery; but there are others less prominent; one of them is the way in which children in this part of the country are instructed to regard the blacks. (19-22)
This is the point where Douglass begins to connect the three major themes of the speech (prejudice, religion, and slavery). He's turning from his examples of prejudice experienced in church to talk about the source of that prejudice.
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)
Plenty of people did say things like this at the time: "Sure, I'm fine with black people as long as they stay in their place." And other people—in the North and the South—kept saying them right on through the 20th century.
Some people are still saying this kind of thing, and not just about people of other races. People in the LGBT community, women, immigrants—we could go on—are also used to this kind of talk.
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. (1-2)
Later in the speech, we discover that Douglass' experience at his church in the South wasn't all that great. Why, then, would he have chosen to attend a service in the North? What do you think he was expecting? How was his experience the same or different?
At New Bedford, where I live, there was a great revival of religion not long ago—many were converted and "received" as they said, "into the kingdom of heaven." But it seems, the kingdom of heaven is like a net; at least so it was according to the practice of these pious Christians; and when the net was drawn ashore, they had to set down and cull out the fish. Well, it happened now that some of the fish had rather black scales; so these were sorted out and packed by themselves. (7-9)
Here, Douglass uses the structure of many of the parables of Jesus, which begin, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." He also plays on the idea of followers of Jesus as fishermen and the recently converted as the fish. (We want to be a swordfish because they look cool and have high levels of mercury, so no one would want to eat us.) He's saying that once you get all those fish in that net, you have to segregate them—according to the American church, anyway.
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)
Douglass bookends the speech with stories about his experiences at two different Methodist churches. Consider how this anecdote compares to the opening story. Chronologically, the first story must have happened shortly after this one, but Douglass tells the story of his experience at his first Northern church first and saves this one for the end. It's a strong finish. What's the effect of the placement of these two stories in the text?
But all this prejudice sinks into insignificance in my mind, when compared with the enormous iniquity of the system which is its cause—the system that sold my four sisters and my brothers into bondage—and which calls in its priests to defend it even from the Bible! The slaveholding ministers preach up the divine right of the slaveholders to property in their fellow-men. (30-31)
So prejudice is bad, says Douglass. But it's not as bad as slavery. They're not even in the same ballpark of bad. Slavery may be the cause of prejudice, but make no mistake, it's way worse. Slavery is so bad, says Douglass, that slaveholders have to get their ministers to constantly say it's not.
Pro tip: If you constantly have to talk about how not really all that bad something is, it might be, uh, bad.
The southern preachers say to the poor slave, "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! Now, you have no trouble or anxiety; but ah! you can't imagine how perplexing it is to your masters and mistresses to have so much thinking to do in your behalf! You cannot appreciate your blessings; you know not how happy a thing it is for you, that you were born of that portion of the human family which has the working, instead of the thinking to do! Oh! how grateful and obedient you ought to be to your masters! How beautiful are the arrangements of Providence!" (32-37)
No trouble or anxiety. If you don't include the constant terror of being whipped or killed as trouble or anxiety, that is.
In addition to God allegedly designing this system of slavery, thanks to the scientific advancements of the 18th and 19th centuries (think Linnaeus and Charles Darwin), a lot of people got really into cataloging the natural world, and they extended that to humans. They tried to justify slavery by arguing that Africans hadn't evolved to as high a state of "civilization" as Europeans, so they were meant to be slaves, while white people had evolved to be masters.
"Look at your hard, horny hands—see how nicely they are adapted to the labor you have to perform! Look at our delicate fingers, so exactly fitted for our station, and see how manifest it is that God designed us to be His thinkers, and you the workers—Oh! the wisdom of God!" (38-39)
People love to blame their own prejudices on God, a point Douglass makes in this speech and in many other places in his writings.
God designed slavery? To quote our beloved Holden Caulfield, Jesus would've probably puked at this idea.
—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. (42-43)
The quote is from Luke 12:47, and (no surprise) it's not talking about American slavery. The "master" of the quote refers to God, not the Southern slaveholder. But hey, nothing like putting yourself in God's place so you can beat the crap out of another of God's children and still feel good about yourself. This is a good lesson in not taking quotes out of context.
Repeat after Shmoop: "I will not take quotes out of context. Ever."