The Christianity of a Slave
Every time February rolls around, I can’t help but wish I had the opportunity to talk with some of the countless black men and women who impacted our nation and endured the harsh reality of slavery.
One such man, Frederick Douglass, is widely known for his fight against slavery and the role he played in bringing about the Emancipation Proclamation. Many don’t know that he was also a great man of faith. I can’t speak to Douglass in person, but I can interact with some of his words that, while not spoken to me, still ring true. I can imagine that if we had a conversation, it might go something like this:
Me: How could an African slave accept the religion (Christianity) that was forced upon them by their slaver/master?
Douglass: 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. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
The clarity of God’s word stands true even when it’s being attacked and Douglass rightly pointed this out. He could see the difference between truth and error. I must assume that he became so acquainted with the Word of God that he didn’t allow Satan to distort the truth of God’s Word as the Serpent has done since the beginning. Douglass must have done what Jesus commanded in Matthew 7:15-23. He judged a tree by its fruit and perceived that the fruit of American slavery contradicted the Christianity of Christ.
Me: Can you share your testimony and how your faith in Christ affected your view of the injustice of slavery?
Mr. Douglass: I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for someone to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God: that they were by nature rebels against his government; and that they must repent of their sins and be reconciled to God through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise. I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever! I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.”
Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can one understand those truths. I can’t imagine enduring such evil and yet loving those who oppressed me. This must have been what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Only the power of the gospel can produce such a love.
Today, people commonly say “God is love,” somehow forgetting that he is also a “righteous judge” who hates evil (Ps. 7:11). It is not a contradiction to both be loving and just. This is what led Douglass, to adamantly fight the evil of American slavery and yet still love his enemies.
And if I were to have a conversation with Frederick Douglass, I’m sure it would end with me telling him “thank you” as I pursue that same love and relentless fight against injustice. His life modeled the seemingly contradictory realities of love and justice, and for that I am grateful.