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Frederick Douglass's "Slaveholder's Sermon"

David Blight teaches Civil War and Reconstruction history at Yale University. In 2018, Blight published a biography on the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, entitled, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."

Blight tells a remarkable story. His biography deserved and did win the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

Blight describes Douglass as a spell-binding lecturer through most of the nineteenth century, who left audiences both weeping and laughing, their emotions whipsawed by his incredible story of how he escaped from oppression and a brutal form of slavery in eastern Maryland.

Few of those who heard him speak could understand how this black man, who displayed awe-inspiring and phenomenal language skills on the lecture circuit, could have once worked as an uneducated field hand. Audiences wanted to know, "How did his transformation happen?"

Douglass was an autodidact, self-taught. It was an intense struggle, but on his own and in secret he learned to read. In slave-holding states laws on the books prevented white people from teaching black slaves how to read or write. Yet, Douglass was determined to master words. In his lectures, Douglass often described his horrible days as a slave, drawing upon vivid details of how his owners would whip him, and that the scars across his back were proof.

On a given night on a stage somewhere in the northern states, in the 1840's, Douglass would stand and say that he was there to spread light. "There is nothing slavery dislikes half so much as the light. It is a gigantic system of iniquity, that feeds and lives in darkness."

He said that for down-trodden slaves the Bill of Rights was "the Bill of Wrongs," and that self-evident truths were "self-evident lies."

Crowds loved that part of Douglass's lecture that Blight called "The Slaveholder's Sermon." In it, Douglass would mimic a Southern white preacher, who would talk down to the blacks.

"And you too, my friends, have souls of infinite value, souls that will live through endless happiness or misery in eternity. Oh, labor diligently to make your calling and election sure. Oh, receive into your souls these words of the holy apostle, 'Servants, be obedient to your masters.'

"Oh, consider the wonderful goodness of God! Look at your hard hands, your strong muscular frames, and see how he has adapted you to the duties you are to fulfill.

"Look at your masters, who have slender frames and long delicate fingers. God has given them brilliant intellects, that they may do the thinking, while you do the working."

While audiences laughed at his depiction of the Southern white preacher's sermon, Douglass would recite the Golden Rule, and stare at his audience. The contrast was obvious.

Douglass would say, "In America, Bibles and slaveholders go hand in hand. The church and the slave prison stand together. While you hear the chanting of psalms in one, you hear the clanking of chains in the other. 

"The man who wields the cowhide during the week, fills the pulpit on Sunday. The man who whipped me in the week used to show me the way of life on the Sabbath."

In Douglass's hands, "The Slaveholder's Sermon" drew attention to the rankest form of Christian hypocrisy that existed throughout the fourteen slave-holding Southern states, a fact of life that all slaves faced every day. Yet, no slave dared to point it out, save for Douglass.

David Blight wrote, "A star had been born; a youthful, brilliant black voice of a fugitive slave had entered the fray of abolitionism."

One hundred and twenty years before Martin Luther King, Jr. thrilled audiences with his uplifting and awe-inspiring words, Frederick Douglass did the same.

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln freed four million slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of a bloody Civil War. It took effect on January 1, 1863.


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