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Frederick Douglass’, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is an important historical novel following the life of a prominent American figure. Despite the many hardships Douglass faced throughout his early life in slavery, he fought hard to become educated, and fight slavery academically. Douglass later had prominent careers as a writer, statesman, preacher and academic. In the mid-19th century when Douglass wrote, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, most people in the Northern part of the United States were neutral towards the issue of slavery. Frederick Douglass’ writings were able to sway these people towards wanting to abolish slavery using many different devices describing the horrors and immorality of slavery.
Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass not only to spread his story, but also as a political piece to spearhead the abolitionist movement. His work was essential towards abolishing slavery in the United States and worldwide. Religion was a very big part of Douglass’ life and he reflected that in his writings. He was able to relate the issues of slavery to the public through references to religious characters and texts. Frederick Douglass’ use of religion makes his story relatable to the public by showing the slaveholders using religion to justify their actions, Douglass’ shaken faith and comparing the conditions of slavery to biblical descriptions.
How it works
The slaveholders during the time, justified their brutality and intolerance towards slaves through religion. This tactic was commonly used by slaveholders in the South to both subdue the slaves from revolting and justify their actions for themselves. Douglass identifies slaveholders that were religious as the harshest to their slaves when he wrote, 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. (Douglass, pg. 56) Frederick Douglass also uses religion to show the hypocrisy of specific characters such as, Covey, Hopkins and many other slaveholders. Douglas focuses on Covey since he was particularly evil when he wrote, He seemed to 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. (Douglass, pg. 47). Douglass is describing Covey’s personality when he says that Covey is deceiving God. Any religious person of the time knew not to skew religion nor deceive, so this shows Covey as a poser and a liar. Douglass also describes the depth of his lies when he wrote about his religious practices. Douglass describes Covey as appearing more devotional than other men which is important since Douglass is saying that Covey isn’t truly religious but just seems to be.
Douglass also shows that Covey was so mislead in his religious beliefs that Covey truly believes he is a good Christian and is doing the right thing, 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. (Douglass, pg. 47) Frederick Douglass is still able to be empathetic and almost forgiving to Covey despite his atrocities. This is important to describing the character of Frederick Douglass and showing him to the public to be a good person and Christian. By describing how slaveholders justified their actions through religion, Frederick Douglass was able to sway public opinion towards abolition.
The horrors that Frederick Douglass suffered through while in slavery shook his religious foundations. Frederick Douglass would often open up and write an exclamation with a lot of passion to draw attention to his main points on slavery. He would describe religion in a way that didn’t denounce the church nor God, but instead, appeal to the reader whether the situation is justified under the gospel. One of Frederick Douglass’ most quoted exclamations is, You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! 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. (Douglass, pg. 48) In this quote, Frederick Douglass is pleading to end his time in slavery. He is prepared to die trying to end his own struggles which is a strong statement to a reader that might have been impartial to slavery during the time this was written. One of the most important parts of this quotation is Douglass’ 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 is able to figure that since there is a God, that God will help him become free. From this point on in the story, Douglass is certain that he will gain his freedom back thanks to his strong religious beliefs and faith.
This logic is important to his followers since many of the abolitionists were devoted Christians and they believed that God would not want slavery. Frederick Douglass continues this point when he wrote about how he felt when he thinks about the people he used teach in his illegal Sunday classes, 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 those precious souls are today 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 of the spoiler. (Douglass, pg. 58) Douglass’ passion for education and care for others is important for setting him up as a good Christian with the reader. Douglass ends this quotation by questioning how a righteous God can exist given him allowing slavery to exist, yet he continues to teach the other slaves religion and educate them at personal risk. If he did not believe that God existed, then why would he put himself at risk of getting whipped or punished by the slaveholders for continuing to study and practice religion. Frederick Douglass truly believes that God backs abolition and that he will end slavery which is something that people can relate to and will follow.
Frederick Douglass was exposed to very harsh conditions during his time in slavery that the typical person might not be able empathize with. He was able to strategically use religion to describe some of the people and scenarios he was put in. Frederick Douglas describes slavery as a power struggle where the owners must always keep the slaves in check. This means that some characters that may have started out at least relatively decent will quickly transform. One of these characters was Mrs. Auld when Douglass wrote, The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.
That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon. (Douglass, pg. 30) He uses references to angels and demons as a way to easily show the change in personality and even the way she carried herself. A reader would easily be able to see this and see that even the few slaveholders that might take care of their slaves are still inheritably wrong. When slaves were in the fields or doing hard labor, they would often sing songs to try and lift their spirits. Frederick Douglass wrote about these songs and what they meant.
He wrote, Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.
To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. (Douglass, pg. 20) These songs were a plea to God to get the slaves out of their tough situations. These people had no one else to turn to except God to try and end their consistent suffering. Even years after this happened to Frederick Douglas, he still cried while writing when he thought about the songs and what they meant. To a reader, that is a very strong statement to show just how emotionally challenging it is to be stuck as a slave. Frederick Douglass was able to take these experiences and fight for abolition despite being through the demoralizing experiences of slavery.
Frederick Douglass was able to help the abolitionist movement succeed through his story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, by showing the slaveholders using religion to justify their actions, Douglass’ faith being shaken and comparing the conditions of slavery to biblical references . His writing was an important political tool that recruited many people whom were impartial to slavery to change their point of view.
Douglass wrote in a way that reached the most people while still having enough rigor for it to be taken seriously by academics. He was especially effective in the way he used religion to show the immortality of slavery and the people supporting it. Douglass was so passionate in the way he wrote about the hypocrisies of religion in slavery that some people questioned if he was truly religious. He later responded to his critics in later editions and appendixes that indeed he was religious but that it was the slaveholders who were not religious. All of Frederick Douglass’ efforts made him the most prominent abolitionist of his day and helped end slavery worldwide.
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