Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Religion

By Frederick Douglass


Chapter 10
Frederick Douglass

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality. (10.6)

It's a small thing, but Douglass is talking about what a beast he's become and what an animal Covey has turned him into on Sunday. Southerners often defended slavery by talking about how they were bringing Christianity to slaves, but Douglass (who is a dedicated Christian) wants to show that the opposite is true.

You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. (10.8)

This is one of the most famous passages in the book. There is a lot going on here, but one of the most important is that it's Douglass's crisis of faith, where he demands to know how God can exist if He allows Douglass to be a slave. But instead of turning against God, Douglass turns the problem around: since there is a God, he reasons, God will help him become free. From this point on, Douglass is sure that it's only a matter of time until he gains his freedom.

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,--a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,--a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,--and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. (10.19)

Truth: Douglass got in some trouble for attacking the hypocrisy of Christians in the South, but he never backed away from that attack. Since his friends in the abolitionist movement were Christians, too, some of them thought he was attacking them instead of religious imposters. This passage tries to clarify the issue, explaining that his harsh criticism was not of all religion, but only for slave owners who pretended to be Christians, since it was impossible to be a true Christian and also own slaves. (In fact, he wrote the entire appendix just to explain that he was against hypocrites, not religion itself.)

He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty. He would make a short prayer in the morning, and a long prayer at night; and, strange as it may seem, few men would at times appear more devotional than he. The exercises of his family devotions were always commenced with singing; and, as he was a very poor singer himself, the duty of raising the hymn generally came upon me. He would read his hymn, and nod at me to commence. I would at times do so; at others, I would not. My non-compliance would almost always produce much confusion. To show himself independent of me, he would start and stagger through with his hymn in the most discordant manner. In this state of mind, he prayed with more than ordinary spirit. Poor man! such was his disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God" (10.4)

Douglass has no time for slave owners who think they are Christians, and Mr. Covey (whom Douglass is talking about here) is a good example. Even though he seems like one of the most devoted Christians around, it's all an act. But here's the thing: even Covey is fooled! He isn't just a hypocrite, he actually thinks he is a Christian. And so, when Douglass doesn't want to pray with a man who believes owning slaves is a righteous thing to do, Covey is completely confused.

Frederick Douglass

I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. (Appendix.1)

Douglass wants to be completely clear that he isn't against religion or Christianity in general: he's just against the kind of religion that justifies slavery. In fact, he also doesn't believe that "the slaveholding religion" is a religion at all.

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. (Appendix.4)

One of the ways Douglass shows himself to be a true Christian (while slaveholders are not) is by quoting the Bible. The part about the gnat and camel comes from Matthew 23:24, where Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, 'Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?' (10.23)

Douglass ends by questioning how a righteous God (a God who does the right things) can really rule the universe, since He allows terrible things like slavery to exist. Yet he still continues to teach the other slaves to read (and to read the Bible). Perhaps Douglass's sense of right and wrong isn't simply limited to his belief in God?