Study Guide

The Church and Prejudice Themes

By Frederick Douglass

  • Racial Prejudice

    The speech is titled "The Church and Prejudice," so yeah, that's one of the main themes. And in this case, we're talking about racial prejudice. Douglass is saying that racial prejudice has carved itself out a comfy seat, or maybe even a padded pew, in the powerful institution of the Church. And since power plus prejudice equals racism...the church is racist.

    The end.

    Questions About Racial Prejudice

    1. It sounds like many of the Northern white church members and ministers weren't being intentionally racist—in fact, they thought they were doing good things by including black people at all. Current anti-racist theory says that impact matters more than intent, though. What's the relationship between impact and intent in the examples of prejudice Douglass provides?
    2. Douglass says that the ultimate cause of prejudice is slavery. What do you think? What are some causes of prejudice against various groups of people in the 21st century?
    3. Do some research into other 19th century institutions, including government and higher education. How does prejudice in the Church compare to prejudice in these institutions?
    4. Does the institution of slavery still impact racial prejudice in America today? How and why?

    Chew on This

    Douglass' examples of prejudice in the church support his argument in other writings that the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of America need to get to know each other a little better.

    Douglass seems to think that the churches of his day got around the issues of real Christian values by claiming that slavery was a Christian value.

  • Religion

    Religion takes a beating in this speech. Not religious faith itself, but religious hypocrites: people who claim to be believing Christians and still condone slavery and racial discrimination. Douglass spends the first half of the speech discussing his experiences in Northern churches—where Christians aren't necessarily pro-slavery, but they aren't necessarily pro-black people, either.

    They can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk.

    In the second half of the speech, Douglass calls out pious Southerners who use the Christian Bible to justify slavery. Northern and Southern churches may differ on exactly how to practice their prejudice against black people—but they're bound by that prejudice nonetheless. What makes Douglass effective in rebuking the churches is that he knows his Gospels, too, and he's not buying.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do some comparative lit and read the Gospels. Do you agree with Frederick Douglass that the Bible is an anti-slavery document, or with William Lloyd Garrison that the Bible is a pro-slavery document? (Douglass and Garrison had disparate views of the U.S. Constitution, too, with Douglass believing it to be anti-slavery and Garrison believing it to be pro-slavery.)
    2. It seems like both Northern and Southern churches think they're doing the right thing re: religion and slavery and race. What's convinced both of them of this?
    3. Douglass gave this speech twenty years before the beginning of the Civil War. Consider the historical context. Did anything change in American churches to encourage the beginning of the Civil War? In other words, did religion go clubbing with its BFF politics again?
    4. While the negative effects of prejudice in Southern churches are obvious, what might be some negative effects of the kind of prejudice practiced in Northern churches?

    Chew on This

    Both Northern and Southern churches appear to interpret the Bible as condoning racial prejudice.

    Slavery and prejudice wouldn't have survived as long as they did without the complicity of the Christian church.

  • Slavery

    About the final third of the speech deals with prejudice in the Southern church. Slavery is the cause of prejudice in the North, Douglass argues, but in the South—well, slavery's a way of life, and slaveholders and ministers use the Bible as a means of justifying slavery.

    The fact that the entire economy of the South was completely dependent on the institution of slavery was just totally a huge coincidence, we're sure.

    Southern churches used religion to argue that slavery is fine by God—in fact, God invented slavery as a means of keeping everyone happy, content, useful, and fulfilled in their right place. If you want to please God and go to heaven, say slaveholders, be a good slave and make life easy for your masters. Be grateful you don't have to do any thinking or worrying like your poor masters who lose sleep over thinking about how to take care of you.

    Chew on that, Shmoopers.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What would you say to a slaveholder who is convinced that God ordained and approves of slavery? How would you argue against that position?
    2. How did people use their religious beliefs to defend slavery? To oppose it?
    3. Can you think of any situations today where people use religious beliefs to deny others rights?
    4. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. What happens when some people's religious beliefs tell them to deny basic rights to other people?

    Chew on This

    Religious freedom doesn't give Americans the right to deny basic rights to other Americans; slavery was Exhibit A.

    Shakespeare wrote that "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." He wasn't kidding.

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