The Living Word Gave Him Courage: The Story of Frederick Douglass

by Tish Hearne, DBU Faculty

Day 14 of Advent

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’

And I said, Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8

Nearly two centuries ago, God sent a man born into slavery out into the world as a Christian abolitionist to expose the hypocrisy of the land, just as the Savior born in Bethlehem in whom that man believed rose up to speak out against the sins of His land (Matthew 23). During a time of brutal injustice toward African Americans, Frederick Douglass amassed enough courage to reveal the atrocities inflicted upon the enslaved by slaveholders and their lack of concern for the nation’s moral, religious, and political character.

Douglass used his voice to fight for the freedom and equality of African Americans trapped in the physical, mental, and emotional bondage of slavery. In his harrowing autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published just seven years after a successful escape from slavery, Douglass candidly spoke out about the contradictory behavior of American slave-holding Christianity:

“Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” (156).

Although the narrative of an enslaved fugitive’s life was not unique to the time, his public indictment of the hypocrisy of professing Christian complicity in the heinous acts against humanity made ripples around the world. It took immense courage, unwavering faith, and fervent hope to influence change for a more just society by first turning the mirror toward those who inflicted sin upon its citizens. 

Douglass was a man of great faith and hope who believed that restoration would come only after sudden realization, acknowledgment, deep reflection, and repentance of the troubles that abounded, proclaiming, “The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me.” His faith in the “pure, peaceful, and impartial” Christianity of Christ (153) gave him the strength to speak the words and do the work of God's mission in setting His people free.  

As a free man and Methodist preacher, Douglass lived a life devoted to traveling the world, shattering the misconceptions and false truths about the enslavement of African Americans. In his most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass chastised America for the moral inconsistencies present in the Declaration of Independence, calling specific attention to the hypocrisy in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The speech intentionally delivered on the fifth of July served as a call for Christians to confront the truth about slave-holding conditions upheld in America and to live out the true Word of God as written in Micah 6:8.

His faithfulness carried him through long periods of waiting to be free - free from being bought and sold, free from the separation of families and friends, free from the physical and mental beatings, free from no-to-low wages, free from the degradation imposed upon human lives. 

During the most turbulent times, God sent the prophet Isaiah to stand boldly in the face of His people, confronting them about their crimes against humanity. With that same fearlessness and hope, Douglass faced a nation of his abusers by speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), testifying of the injustices that distinguished the Christianity of the land from the true Christianity of Christ. 

This year we have experienced a barrage of unexpected pain, grief, and suffering brought on not only by a global health pandemic but by an uptick in the abuse of people of color, the poor, the sick, and the shut-in. As Christians, we are tasked by God to go out into the world to lay bare the hypocrisy of the land, to endeavor in the fight to maintain unity in the body of Christ (Eph. 4), to help bring about change to a broken society, and to see the world made new. As with Douglass, God is calling us to speak out. Who will go for Him? Who will say, “Here I am. Send me?” (Isaiah 6:8). That same prophet also spoke of the birth of our coming Messiah, in whom is promised our everlasting hope for peace, justice, and righteousness on earth (Isa. 7:14; 9:6-7).