Frederick Douglass on Religion and Slavery

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child-slaveFrederick Douglass one of the most famous African Americans who escaped slavery and went on to become a leader in the fight against the evil of slavery has left a lasting impact in his writings. One area of his writing I found fascinating were his thoughts on religion and slavery. He wrote:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, –a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, –a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, –and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, 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. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists.

Douglass goes on to give several graphic examples of the utmost cruelty of some of the most highly religious people of that community. He noted,

Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, _religious_ wretch. He used to hire hands. His maxim was, behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.

We have all known that religion has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. Still, Frederick Douglass’ words make a powerful impression as he writes about the extreme cruelty of religious slaveholders. Slavery dehumanizes both the slaver and the enslaved. But I think the slaveholder is the more abased because he must adopt the belief that those he enslaves deserve to be treated with such barbarity. Those who are religious must go even further to believe that God is pleased when one of his creatures treats another in such a manner. Such a state of mind has stripped itself of any vestige of true religion. The New Testament describes true religion in this manner, Religion that pleases God the Father must be pure and spotless. You must help needy orphans and widows and not let this world make you evil (James 1:27 CEV). It follows then that such practices demonstrate a false and extremely dangerous distortion of religion. One that has no place among those who desire to create a better world for all.

Much of the hateful and racist rhetoric and behavior we hear today often come from persons who also profess the noblest commitment to religion. In them I hear echoes of the religion of Daniel Weeden and Rev Rigby Hopkins. What a difference it would make if such persons would practice the true religion!

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