Lessons from Frederick Douglass

The term “must-read” gets thrown around far too often. A Google search yields page after page of book lists, saddling you under the crushing weight of thousands of volumes that you simply must read to be a fully enlightened human being. Indeed, one list on Goodreads of “Books that everyone should read at least once” has accumulated 27,359 titles. Time Magazine, on the other hand, was kind enough to winnow down the list of must reads to 100…for the year 2022! Clearly “must-read” has lost almost all of its meaning. As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Nevertheless, fully aware that the term “must-read” has been contorted and stretched beyond recognition, I would like to recommend a book that I truly believe every American should read, a book that impacted me profoundly at both a heart and head level, and that book is "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The work is an autobiographical account of Douglass’s experiences as a slave in 19th century Maryland, and tells of his brutal treatment at the hands of slaveholders and his journey to freedom. I vividly remember reading Frederick Douglass for the first time in my early twenties and over the course of just a few hours, being moved by a wide range of emotions from anger at his unjust suffering to inspiration from his perseverance and grace. It would be impossible to exhaust the lessons that arise from this great book in a short blog post, but I do want to highlight the way that godly hope enabled Douglass both to persevere through troubles and to discern the truth of the Gospel from the lies of cultural Christianity. 

Frederick Douglass suffered more as a young man than most Americans do in a lifetime. His low point came when he was a teenager and was placed under the thumb of a particularly cruel master named Mr. Covey. During this period, he suffered physical and mental anguish. “I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey” he writes, “but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.” Hemmed in by a seemingly impenetrable darkness, he wrote the following lament:

"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…Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret?…There is a better day coming."

On first reading these words one might feel unsettled. The depth of despair, the questioning of God’s presence and even his very existence, these seem like a step too far. That is, until we remember the words of the Psalms. Take for example Psalm 88:14-18:

"Why, Lord, do you reject me

   and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;

    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.

Your wrath has swept over me;

    your terrors have destroyed me.

All day long they surround me like a flood;

    they have completely engulfed me.

You have taken from me friend and neighbor—

    darkness is my closest friend."

Long before Simon and Garfunkel, the sons of Korah were writing about darkness as “my closest friend” and asking God why suffering often comes unprovoked and undeserved. The Scriptures provide a model of lamentation that brings our hardest, darkest questions before God. Frederick Douglass joins in this long Jewish and Christian tradition of lamentation and lands ultimately not in despair or apostasy, but rather in hope. His closing words, “There is a better day coming,” echo a common refrain from the great negro spirituals, one that points toward a brighter future.

Douglass’s faith in Christ did indeed remain intact through the storms, but only because he had the discernment to see that the cultural Christianity of the slaveholders, who had abused him and so many others, was a far cry from the Jesus of the Bible. In his appendix to "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," he differentiates between the two, writing, “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.” He goes on in the following pages to expose the hypocrisy of the “slaveholding religion,” while affirming the goodness of the true Christ.
It is a divine irony that the slaveholders who taught slaves the Bible only in order to bring them into submission, unwittingly gave them the Book that would be the rallying cry for freedom and justice: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Frederick Douglass was one of those voices that joined in the prophetic choir, who denounced sin and extolled righteousness, a man who was equal to the task before him in word and deed, and someone who’s voice still needs to be heard today.