Christianity – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
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Throughout the centuries Christianity provided solace and spiritual moorings to millions of people who found living in G-d’s image fulfilling. In the Southern American slaveholding states in the 19th century, Christianity the dominant religion, was meant to be a moral compass and add clarity of purpose to one’s life. Slaves did not experience Christianity as a religion promoting good deeds. In Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he puts forth the thesis that Christian slave owners espoused values of generosity, mercy, and moral uprightness, which were not applied to their own slaves. In other words these Christians had a double standard when applying their religious values. Though Douglass himself became a religious man once he escaped slavery, he believed that one could not believe in both Christianity and slavery at the same time. Douglass observed that slavery in the South destroyed and transformed Christian values, and created merciless masters. In what follows I demonstrate that Douglass believes that Southern Christian values are influenced and corrupted by the social values of the times, which leads to religious hypocrisy.
In the appendix to his narrative Douglass distinguishes between two different types of Christianity, “Christianity of Christ” and “Christianity of this land.” (147). “Christianity of Christ” reflects a God fearing Christian, who treats all people equally and mercifully, where as “Christianity of this land” refers to the exceptions in moral dogma made when applied to slaves in the South. Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to convey the underlying hypocrisy of the salve owners. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but a blatant political statement about how ideals can be easily corrupted to fit the ruling class. An example of this transformation from “Christianity of Christ” to the “Christianity of the land” is the drastic metamorphosis of Sophia Auld. When Douglass arrives in her service, he is shocked by how well his new Mistress is treating him, and is forever grateful for the fateful mistake she made in teaching him how to read. Douglass describes her as a woman with “heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music,” (55) thus bestowing upon her angel like qualities.
After being rebuked by her husband for having taught the young slave how to read, her conversion is almost uncanny. Suddenly the angel in Douglass’ life takes a malicious turn. He describes how her “cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice made all of sweet accord, changed to one harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon (56). With the introduction to what slavery truly was, her Christian beliefs shift from what Douglass considers true Christian principles, to the Christian principles of her time and her land. Her good natured Christian values of helping those who are less fortunate, drastically revert to malevolence, prompting Douglass to modify his comparison of his Mistress from an angel into a devil. Douglass later expresses how Mrs. Auld soon became “even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself” (56). This former slave mourns her soul’s mutiny of the true Christian values, and uses his previous Mistress, Sophia Auld, as his lasting example of how slavery influenced one’s behavior. Douglass’ narrative depicts other instances where Christian values and slavery seem at odds. Douglass describes his master Captain Thomas Auld as a “slave holder without the ability to hold slaves” (79), because he was a weak owner, who enjoyed the brutality of whipping a slave, but did not have the firm control and power of a master.
Interestingly, when he attended a Methodist camp meeting his slaves hoped that his better understanding of the Bible would play in their behalf, and gave his slaves “faint hope that this conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves,”(80) or would at least “make him more kind and humane”(81). Quite the opposite took place – Captain Auld seemed to find proof in the Bible which supported his depravity. In spite of the teachings of goodwill that Christianity promotes, slavery seemed to be exempt from these guidelines, proving Douglass’ idea of Southern Christian hypocrisy. As further proof Douglass tells a story: while Captain Auld whipped his crippled slave Henny, he would recite a specific line from scripture: “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’’ (81). This passage from scripture doesn’t to justify violence as a method of reprimanding slaves, however, since those ideals were applicable to slavery, it was used as divine proof, validating his despicable actions. Mr. Covey was also guilty of bending Christian values in order to justify his treatment of slaves. Covey’s infamous reputation is for “breaking slaves” and in doing so he has mastered the art of deception.
Though Covey was a devout Christian he too became a product of his environment and allowed the immoral social values of his time to percolate into his religious principles. Douglass explains how “everything he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive.” (88). Covey was the ultimate example of Southern Christian hypocrisy to Douglass. Though he considered himself a very devout Christian, he was “guilty of compelling his woman slave to commit the sin of adultery” (89), an act which was forbidden by both social and religious dogma. Douglass ultimately believed that Covey “deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God.” (89). Douglass is puzzled by the paradox of Covey’s behavior. On one hand, Covey works the land himself and understands the physical hardships this entails.
On the other hand he displays consistent cruelty toward his rented slaves, even outdoing their own masters brutality. Therefore Covey is an excellent example of Douglass’ notion: in the South during the 19th century even devout Christians did not apply their righteous and moral values to their treatment of black slaves. The religious dictated belief in kindness, mercy, and goodwill did not seem pertinent in the context of slavery. In conclusion, it is clear that Douglass believes that the Christian practices upheld by Southern slaveholders are hypocritical. Douglass uses the appendix of his narrative to clarify his own Christian ideals that only emphasize the disparity in the Christian dogma as the Bible proselytizes and the ones he was subjected to in his days as a slave. However, the distinction between the two sets of Christian values is quite clear, and that both types of Christian values cannot exist at the same time. Overall Religion is at the core of Douglas’ narrative and he concludes that moral and Christian values can be corrupted by the prevalent political and social norms of a generation, a historical lesson valuable throughout time.