Born: c. 1817/1818 Died: February 20, 1895
I’ve come across the name Frederick Douglass on a few separate occasions in my life, but I don’t recall any of those occasions being in school. I’m sure there was mention of him somewhere in those dry history textbooks that offered only a highlight reel of historical events, but it clearly never left a lasting impression. His life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was never on my high school or college reading lists, although I know this is not the case everywhere. Instead, I really took note of this book while stocking shelves at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore where I once worked. Years later, when I finally did read it, I was deeply affected by the strong, impassioned voice of a man who suffered greatly during his lifetime.
Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland, somewhere around 1817-1818; the exact date is unknown. His story is one of perseverance and survival in which the damaging impact of slavery on both the slave and slave owner is meticulously laid out. However, I will let you read the details for yourselves (and I highly encourage you to do so) for I could never convey the experience of slavery better than the one who lived it. Besides, my main purpose here is to share my observations of God in Mr. Douglass’s life and the equipping that enabled him to endure and ultimately rise above his circumstances.
An early indication of his faith came in 1826. That’s when an eight year old Douglass was selected from among all the slaves on the Lloyd plantation to serve at a home in Maryland. Looking back on this event, he fully acknowledges God’s hand:
I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. (pg. 39)
From that point on, doors opened one after another, for better or for worse. Behind some of these doors, there was hunger, sickness, backbreaking work, heart-breaking loss, and spirit-breaking punishments.
I am held in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! O God, deliver me! Let me be free! (Pg. 63).
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. (Psalm 145:18-19).
But, mixed in with the sorrow were doors that led to learning opportunities, valuable trade skills, and triumph. All of these experiences, the good and the bad, molded him into the person God needed him to be. He was created to fulfill a purpose, and it was one Mr. Douglass probably never expected. He wanted to live free, but considering the his predicament, that was highly unlikely. Of course, nothing is impossible when it is part of God’s plan. In 1838, he successfully escaped to the north, married Anna Murray that same year, and raised five children (although one daughter died at a young age). Not only that, but he continued his work to end slavery, traveling internationally to speak on the subject. He also served in prominent advisory positions under Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison.
To an eight year old Frederick, all of this would have seemed like an unattainable dream. And yet, he did have the sense early on that God had a plan for him that went beyond being a slave. I found it interesting that he never dismissed God as being of or for the white man; I don’t think I would have blamed him. Instead, he seemed to have an awareness of the Lord’s presence, and it was where he found hope and encouragement in his lowest moments.
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise. (pg. 39)
On the other hand, Frederick Douglass didn’t pull any punches when voicing his disdain for the dark religion he often experienced. Sadly, he describes Christian slave owners as being the worst masters he’d ever had for they justified their severe practices as coming from a righteous and charitable place. No doubt, the struggle to walk what we talk continues today and I am convicted to be extra mindful of my words and actions after reading this. However, Mr. Douglass carefully distinguishes between a Christianity that’s been twisted by mankind and the Christianity that comes from Christ.
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-shipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. (Appendix, pg. 100).
None of us know where our future path with lead, but God will always take us beyond what we imagine for ourselves. That’s why a relationship is so necessary in which there is continual prayer, listening, AND action. I can only imagine what Frederick Douglass must have thought as he grew old and looked back over the course his life had taken. How could he have predicted the heights to which God would raise him? How can any of us know?
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Frederick Douglass’s well-lived life ended on February 20, 1895, from a heart attack. He was 78 (ish).