abolitionists

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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Why didn’t the Bible abolish slavery? So, which form of slavery are we talking about?

Why didn’t the Bible abolish slavery? So, which form of slavery are we talking about?

THE QUESTION:

If the Bible is a revered guide to morality, why didn’t it abolish slavery? The Guy poses this issue that was raised in many comments posted after our Oct. 17, 2016, Q&A about people who abhor Jewish and Christian Scripture.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Toleration of slavery, in which some people own and control others as property, is a favorite Internet attack skeptics level against the Bible. Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary says slavery is “the single most contested issue in the history of biblical interpretation in the United States.” Indeed, the U.S. Civil War demonstrated how ingrained this economic practice was and how difficult to eliminate — think 600,000-plus war dead.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll says Christians’ pre-war debate on this undercut scriptural authority because the two opposite sides employed the Bible for support. Supporters of the South’s plantation economy argued that the Bible never required abolition of slavery, while abolitionists believed biblical principles mandate freedom and respect for each person created by God. Bible believers in that second group were largely responsible for achieving abolition of this unmitigated evil on a global scale.

Slavery existed as far back as human history can be traced, and the dimensions became staggering. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says slaves were once half the population in sectors of Asia, an estimated 18 million east Africans were subjected to the Muslim slave trade from the time of the Quran through 1900, while the west African trade involved 7 to 10 million enslaved people until British and American abolition.

Defenders of the Bible note that thousands of years ago holy writ did not require slavery but accommodated it as an unavoidable reality, and mitigated it with relatively enlightened and humane provisions.

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