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Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

In the 200th year of American independence, President Gerald Ford officially established February as national Black History Month. The idea grew out of African-Americans’ longstanding heritage week timed with the February birth dates of the white emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, the most powerful black orator and agitator during the campaign to end slavery, is the ideal topic for a religion feature this February. That’s due to a magisterial new biography that enjoys universal acclaim from critics, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster).

The Guy recommends the book itself — 888 pages! — and interviews with author David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor who specializes in slavery, abolitionism and the Reconstruction period (Contacts: david.blight@yale.edu or 203-432-8521 or 203-432-3339). Notably, Blight portrays this heroic American with warts-and-all exposure of problematic aspects in public and private life. One example was Douglass’s typically Protestant assertion that Catholic belief in the papacy was a “stupendous and most arrogant lie.”

The touring Douglass moved audiences with addresses, often in churches, that were de facto sermons and made continual use of the Bible. Favorite themes were the Exodus of God’s children from Egypt and the moral denunciations from the Hebrew prophets. This was not a matter of tactical artifice, Blight observes, but an authentic expression of profound spiritual devotion.

In 1831, as a 13-year-old household slave in Baltimore, Douglass experienced a thoroughgoing conversion to — in his own words — “faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He was chiefly influenced by sermons of two white Methodists and especially black lay preacher Charles Johnson. Blight says Douglass quickly developed a hunger for Bible reading, saw the world around him “in a new light,” and gained “new hopes and desire” that laid the foundation of his career.

As is frequently the case for Protestants, his faith was further deepened by a fellow layman, Charles Lawson, a semi-literate black laborer. The two would spend endless hours “singing, praying, and glorifying God,” Blight says.

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Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Please read the headline a second time and think about it.

The Religion Guy asserts the obvious answer to this question is Baptists in “historically” or “predominantly” African-American denominations. By out-of-date estimates, their cumulative membership exceeds 12 million. That’s not so far behind the 15 million members in the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, whose Dallas meeting June 12-13 will grab the usual media coverage.

No reporters are likely to staff the June 26-28 Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the Atlanta-based Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Admittedly, with only 800 congregations it’s small compared with the mighty SBC, but there’s an angle: It’s the youngest black Baptist denomination, formed in 1994 by  those leaving the older groups to emphasize Pentecostal-charismatic style “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.  

It can be argued that publications neglect black religion when the majority of their reporters are white.

No question, the “mainstream media” mostly have a narrow interest in black churches as political players, ignoring their central mission as a powerful religious force.

Meanwhile, black churches have a history of expending little energy cultivating visibility. For example, those Full Gospel Baptists don’t provide information for the standard online church listings at  www.yearbookofchurches.org. Nor does the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal body that equals the Baptists in neglect though it claims to be the single largest U.S. black denomination, with 6.5 million members. Datebook note: Its annual convocation is Nov. 5-13 in St. Louis.

Reporters should also be familiar with groups founded two centuries ago, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (headquarters in Nashville) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (headquarters in Charlotte). Neither  provides membership estimates to that online church data base.

Back to the Baptists.

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Church angles matter, in Prince George's County

The state of Maryland is bluer than blue, when it comes to politics, so it’s no surprise that supporters of same-sex marriage are expecting a rare victory at the ballot-box on Nov. 6. It will be a stunning upset if cultural conservatives carry the day on this hot-button issue in such a liberal state.

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