Updated: Jan 1, 2021
I confess that before reading this book, the word slavery did not bring as much disgust to my mind as I now would have liked. Men and women, not just ripped from their own homes, but taken and transferred to an entirely different continent just to be sold as property to those who felt their white skin gave them the right to do so. I remember being shocked that something like this could happen when I first learned about the slave trade. However, as I reflect over the past few years, it seems the initial sense of disgust with even the word “slavery” has faded on some level—until now.
As I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, Fredrick Douglass, with great force, both reminded me of the wicked nature of slavery, and shed new light on the horrors that were the daily, life-long reality of so many people. I simply do not have words to express how egregious slavery was. It was truly a nasty and gross evil that pictures some of the worst that mankind is capable of. Still, Douglass’ account is only one small book of a hundred-or-so pages. My heart aches for all the untold cruelty that fell upon so man masses of people. As I got to the end of the book, the word “slavery” had a fresh grossness that my mouth dreads to speak. And even as my disgust renewed, my heart was pricked by the reality of slaveholders who themselves professed to follow Jesus Christ just as I do.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845 with the desire that it would “do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brothers in bonds…” (106). Surely, the details of his life as a slave and subsequent escape that Douglass recounts “hastened” the freedom given to slaves in America as it contributed to the Abolitionist movement. It still also continues to shed light on the true nature of American slavery even today. Close to 200 years later, this little book has done that work even for me.
Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818. Sadly, he actually never knew this fact about himself, as it was “the wish of most masters…to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” (17). In the first few pages, the reader learns that Douglass grew up not knowing who his father was, and that he had very little of a relationship with his mother and siblings. All of this was a result of the intentional spite of slaveholders who aimed to tighten their grip on slaves.
Douglass takes the reader step by step through the events of his life in slavery, at each point describing the (very minimal) good and the (abundant) evil he both witnessed and experienced. In the first chapter, we are told how as a young boy he witnessed a jealous master brutally whip a woman he owned as a slave. The account is gruesome and simply the first of many other atrocious memories the reader is introduced to.
Ultimately, after spending time under the ownership and control of different slaveholders, getting in a fist fight with one master (and winning), falling in love, and teaching a group of slaves to read, Douglass incredibly escapes to the Northern states of America out of the reach of his still-legal master. The free man then harnessed his new-found liberty to join with the movement to abolish slavery. This short account of his life is a product of that very effort.
The most important insight from this read was the hypocrisy of early American Christianity on display. Douglass explicitly addresses his views on the Christianity of slaveholders in the Appendix, which by itself is worth more than the price of the book. He says, “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference… 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” (100). Douglass was a happy follower of Christ, but saw the dreadful inconsistency of those who professed to follow Jesus, yet participated and affirmed the slave system. He says of those “Christian” slaveholders, that their religion cannot truly be called Christianity.
One example of this gross misuse of the name of Christ is that of the man Mr. Covey. Young Frederick was sent to this man in order to be “broken”. What this meant was that the young slave had a rebellious attitude towards his master, and needed his spirit and will to be crushed. Mr. Covey was known widely for his ability to accomplish this “breaking” of slaves by the harshest and cruelest of treatment. Within his first week with Mr. Covey, Douglass, in one of his more tame accounts, was given “a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger” (59). To add to this wickedness, Mr. Covey had also purchased a female slave for the purposes of “breeding” (62). My heart can barely handle these facts and much else that Douglass describes.
Contrary to what one might think after reading the last paragraph, Mr. Covey was a professed Christian: “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…” (61). Mr. Covey is here representative of what seems to be the very large majority of slaveholders in his day. All sorts of heinous crimes were committed against men and women created in the image of God, alongside the profession of Christ as Lord, prayers to God the Father, and service in the church. Christ was confessed by mouth, but functionally and outright rejected in the practice of slavery.
These narratives will cut to the heart if we ask ourselves what we confess to believe, and whether or not our life matches that confession. Mr. Covey claimed to love God and follow Jesus, yet hated his fellow man—something the Apostle John, along with the entire testimony of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, condemns (1 John 4:20). Do I share with others the essential truth that all of mankind was created in God’s Image, yet treat people of different nations, languages, ethnicity or colors as less-than or in any way subordinate to my own nation, language, ethnicity and color? And does this kind of disconnect exist anywhere else in my life? Do I claim to serve a God of justice, yet fail to be moved in my heart by injustices like abortion, human trafficking, or racism in the world today? Do I claim to follow a God of grace, yet hold grudges when family members or coworkers inconvenience me? Where am I apathetic where Jesus—who I claim to follow—is zealous? What do I praise that he rejects?
Having a life and confession that does not match up is to experience what James describes as self-deceit. He says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Mr. Covey is an example of early-American slaveholders who professed Christ but unfortunately suffered from this self-deceit on a massive scale. The result was great evil pressed upon countless men, women and children. I hope these perpetrators genuinely believed in Christ, and one day understood their great folly. I hope as well that you and I do not fall victim to a similar self-deceit in our own lives today.
Influence and Virtue
Douglass describes the slave system as having a negative effect on more than just the slaves themselves. The slaveholders were not exempt from the negative pull of evil. Douglass portrays the moral descent of one of his slave holders as such, “When I went [to be under the authority of this slaveholder], she was a pious, warm, and tender hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear… Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (43). Slavery changed this woman. Upon arrival, Douglass found her to reflect good qualities of kindness, love, and empathy. As time went on, the practice of slaveholding overcame these virtues and swallowed them whole
Importantly, this woman, Mrs. Auld, was married to Mr. Auld. While slavery certainly did its work on Mrs. Auld, so did her husband. He was ultimately the strongest force that vanquished the good in his wife. It was Mr. Auld who noticed his wife treating their slave, young Frederick, with kindness by teaching him to read. And it was Mr. Auld who then “forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct [Douglass] further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read” (40). At the risk of over-quoting, Douglass later says that, as a result of Mr. Auld’s opposition to his wife’s kindness, “She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better” (43). Slavery only led this woman to moral downgrade inasmuch as her own husband led her there.
As a husband myself, it forces me to consider where I might be leading my own wife. Do my words and actions lead her to or away from the virtue she possesses? Am I an opponent to the good qualities she holds, or an advocate who partners with her to fan into flame all the good character that God has gifted her? Anyone who leads in any capacity ought to ask themselves this question with those they influence in mind. Dreadful are the consequences of moral decay. Frederick Douglass and countless others in early American history knew this all too well. May you and I not be found responsible for initiating or spreading that moral decay in those we influence. May we seek the virtue in others and promote it to the best of our ability.
Still, it is also significant to consider the people or ideas that influence us! Mrs. Auld was influenced both by her husband and by the practice of slavery. As a confessing follower of Christ, it is unfortunate that Mrs. Auld was not ultimately, in these narratives, influenced by him. Instead, the sin of her husband influenced her to neglect the virtuous and Christ-like qualities she initially owned. Slavery, too, promoted evil in Mrs. Auld, replacing warm compassion with cold hatred. The practice of this wicked sin silenced the virtue in her heart. Step-by-step, as she acquiesced to sin, evil began to grow where good once flourished. Her example is a tragedy, and I tremble at the thought of how easily the change seemed to happen.
I ask, then, who or what are those that influence us? Are we aware of where there influence leads? What sin do we give into that drowns out Christlike qualities? Who do we allow to influence us that would lead us away from Christ?
At the close of Narrative, I am heartbroken for the massive burden that so many experienced in the slave system. I am sickened by the corruption that was present, and even more by Christ’s name being used to support such evil. I am humbled, asking the Lord to reveal the parts of my life that life contrary to what I confess as a Christian. I am thankful for the countless, named and unnamed heroes who fought so hard to eradicate slavery in the world. I am challenged to stand against systems of evil that exist today, and portray Christ’s heart accurately to the surrounding world by doing so. I am challenged even more so to lead my family in this direction, too, and to be influenced by others who are doing the same.
I am reminded that being patient towards my family is what I am bound to do by my confession of Christ. I am reminded that when I profess to follow Jesus, I am compelled to be gracious to my son when he does not deserve it. I am reminded that to believe in Christ is to do more than say that I believe—it is to show that I believe. To not do this is to functionally reject Christ, drag his name through the mud, and risk blindness to even the most foul sin. On the contrary, to both say and show belief in Christ is to honor him, and promote the good he desires in the world. May I both say and show that I believe in Christ in the privacy of my own home, as well as in whatever public forum I find myself in. I pray you come away with the same heart as well.