In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass addresses the negative impact of religion on the slave institution through his use of literary terms including biblical references, allusions, and irony. Yet, many scholars suggest that his narrative does not just portray a negative impact, but an anti-Christian message to his readers. Scholars have interpreted Douglass’ use of these religious literary terms as a direct attack on Christianity as a whole, and an implication that Christianity contributed to causing slavery. Nevertheless, Douglass exhibits that his portrayal of religion was neither anti-Christian, nor in full support of Christianity.
Rather, he insists that religion was a negative influence on slaveholders that provided them a way to mask their guilt and acted as a means of justification for their brutality towards slaves, mostly doing so by misinterpreting scripture passages. Throughout his narrative, Douglass goes to great lengths to show this negative impact by comparing his religious slaveholders, as well as alluding to biblical characters and stories, and using irony to describe the slaveholder brutality. Though slaves and slaveholders are a complete representation of “inequality and exploitation,” Douglass portrays Anderson’s description of a nation imagined as a “deep horizontal comradeship” throughout his narrative (Anderson).
Despite the many differences, religion creates a commonality between the slaves and their slaveholders and a “community” is implied in the way that the negative impacts of religion affect the entire slave institution, not only the slaves. Douglass emphasizes religion’s effect on the slaveholders’ mentality, suggesting that they too suffered deeply from the impact of religion in the way that they allowed religious teachings to deceive them into believing their brutality was acceptable.
SallyAnn H. Ferguson’s “Christian Violence and the Slave Narrative” helps portray the role of violence within the slave institution and touches on the pattern of religion and Christianity influencing the brutality of slaveholders in different slave narratives. Similar to Douglass, Ferguson argues that religion was used by slaveholders to endorse their violence towards slaves. Ferguson also touches on the fact that although it seemed like slaves were the only ones suffering, the entire slave institution suffered as well, thus supporting Douglass’ implication of a “deep horizontal comradeship” in the institution (Anderson). Specifically, Ferguson states that since “physical torture is necessarily temporary, the slave masters then tried to sustain their supposedly exalted position through psychological manipulation of both themselves and their victims” (Ferguson 298).
Therefore, because the slaveholders commanded obedience and exhibited power over their slaves, they were trained to believe they carried Christ-like qualities and were imitating the actions of God. Because of the ideology during the time, white men believed they were favored by God and “imposed upon colored people an absolute power and control rivaling that of the Maker Itself” (Ferguson 298). In other words, religion psychologically trained slave masters into believing as if they were “divine” over their slaves and were meant to align themselves with the power of God, almost helping God by punishing the slaves for Him (Ferguson 298).
Douglass portrays the argument of religion allowing slaveholders to manipulate their slaves as well as themselves through different biblical allusions and references, specifically in his description of slaveholder Covey. Douglass describes Covey as being one of the cruelest slaveholders he’s ever had, despite being so religious (Douglass 61). He uses irony to describe Covey as a “snake” because of his “deceitful” and “cunning” ways, but he also mentions Covey’s ability to quietly sneak up on the slaves when they least expected it by saying “His comings were like a thief in the night” (Douglass 61). When referring to Covey as a snake, Douglass is exhibiting his devil-like qualities, which is seen as irony because one would not normally compare a highly religious man to terms used to describe the devil. One can assume that Douglass is alluding to the frequent portrayals of the devil as a snake in the Bible, specifically to the story of the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in Genesis. A specific quote from Genesis that relates to this description of Covey goes on to say, “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
Douglass carefully chooses this allusion to portray the similarities in which both Covey and the serpent demonstrate ultimate deception and evil. In the story, Satan deceives and tricks Adam and Eve by disguising himself as a serpent and convincing them to eat the forbidden fruit. Slaveholders, like Covey, also use deception to convince themselves and others that they are devoted Christians. This creates a “horizontal comradeship” within the institution by which the deception of slaveholders appearing to be true Christians leads them to falsely believe that by appearing to be so devoted to God, their sins are overlooked or pardoned by Him (Anderson). This ultimately leads religious slaveholders to be more violent with their slaves, causing the slaves to suffer even more from their religious implications. Because white Christians believed they were favored by God over black Christians, they truly believed they could do no harm in the eyes of God. This has therefore psychologically trained them to believe they were aligning themselves with God while at the same time suffering from this false mentality, causing slaves to suffer physically.
Aside from the devil-like qualities used to describe Covey, Douglass also seems to suggest that slaveholders contain Christ-like qualities as well. Douglass’ references of Covey’s “comings like a thief in the night” in his narrative could be interpreted as an allusion to the Second Coming of Christ in the Bible. Specifically, the passage states, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (Thessalonians 5:2). Because Douglass is alluding to both the devil and Christ, he portrays that although extremely deceitful, slaveholders reveal Christ-like qualities in the way that they command respect and obedience from their slaves. The Second Coming of Christ revolves around the idea of Jesus appearing without any warning for a Day of Judgement in which sinners who have been unfaithful and have disobeyed God’s teachings and commandments will be punished.
Douglass’ use of this allusion shows how the desire for power and the interpretation of scripture has compelled slaveholders to align themselves with these religious teachings, thus believing they had to follow in the footsteps of God/Christ. Because God sends Jesus to punish sinners, Covey believes he needs to follow Christ’s example in punishing slaves who act out against Covey, disobey his orders, or show restraint. This effect’s Covey’s mentality in the way that he convinces himself that if he does not punish his slaves, he will be punished for his own sins. This belief establishes in a way a paranoia and obsession in which slaveholders believe that if they stop punishing slaves that act out, they are at “risk baring their immoral mortal souls to divine judgment” (Ferguson 305).
In other words, the slaveholders believe that the more punishment they inflict on their slaves, the less punishment they will receive from God. It is almost as if the slaveholders have convinced themselves that they are helping God by punishing these slaves so that God does not have to do it Himself. This relates back to Anderson’s term of an “implied community” by the negative effects of religion on the institution. Because of these misinterpretations, both slaves and slaveholders suffer. Slaveholders, like Covey, are constantly watching and ready to appear to slaves when they least expect it and as a result, slaves constantly live in fear not knowing when they will be punished.
Scholars would argue that such devil-like and Christ-like references in Douglass’ narrative cast an anti-Christian message, attacking Christianity as a whole. Zachary McCleod Hutchins touches on this in his article entitled, “Rejecting the Root: The Liberating, Anti-Christ Theology of Douglass’s Narrative.” He specifically references Douglass’ mentions of Covey and insists that by characterizing Covey with both devil-like and Christ-like qualities, Douglass is suggesting that both Christ and the devil played a dominant role in the enhancement of slavery (Hutchins 307). Hutchins goes on to say that, “Douglass conflates the figures of Christ and Satan in Covey to demonstrate that both biblical figures sanction slavery, that African Americans ought to condemn Christ in the same way that many white abolitionists blamed Satan: as a root cause of North American slavery” (Hutchins 307). In other words, scholars have interpreted this reference and several others in Douglass’ narrative as Douglass suggesting that Christianity was a major cause of slavery during the time, thereby rejecting and criticizing Christianity. This argument contradicts Anderson’s term of community by implying that Frederick Douglass is going against Christian teachings, creating a divide among him and other practitioners.
To counteract such a notion, Douglass incorporates several references and allusions to argue that he was not attacking the Christian religion itself, but the way Christian teachings were interpreted by slaveholders. In the Appendix of his narrative, he refers to these interpretations as the “slaveholding religion,” in which slaveholders distorted religious teachings to rationalize their actions (Douglass 100). He uses an example of the slave master, Auld, brutally whipping a lame slave until she bled (Douglass 57). Through this example, Douglass shows a specific instance in which scripture was used as a means of deception.
Upon brutally beating the woman, Auld quotes a specific passage from the Bible that states “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Douglass 57). This passage from the Bible is taken out of context and serves as a “religious sanction” for the brutality Auld inflicted on the slave girl (Douglass 57). The example of Auld and the lame girl is a way for Douglass to clearly portray how easily the slaveholders could misinterpret scripture and manipulate themselves and their slaves into believing slave brutality was accepted by scripture, thus creating a community centered around these false interpretations.
Douglass also proves his faith in God still remains strong and throughout the text by alluding to specific religious stories or figures. In his narrative, Douglass references lions two separate times. One can assume that Douglass’ references of lions alludes to the the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den in the Bible. Douglass says that he “felt like who has escaped a den of hungry lions” (Douglass 93) and he “had escaped a worse than lion’s jaws” (Douglass 51). In the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, King Darius is persuaded by Daniel’s jealous rivals to throw him into the lion’s den.
By faith, Daniel was saved by God and an angel was sent to shut the mouths of the lions. Douglass references this particular story to relate to the way Daniel was protected and escaped mistreatment by his trust in God. One can imply that by maintaining his faith in God, Douglass is saved from oppression. He uses this reference as a way to show that despite the negative religious influence on the slave institution, Frederick Douglass remains a true Christian and that he is hopeful the slaveholders will begin to see the true version of religion. The way that Douglass uses his religious beliefs as a mental escape from the cruelty he undergoes is similar to the way slaveholders use religion to mask their guilt of their cruelty.
One could assume that scripture was used by slaveholders as a way to make their sins and brutality seem “morally acceptable” in order to avoid the feeling of guilt caused by their cruelty. Douglass portrays this through his slaveholder, Covey, by showing how maintaining his reputation contributed heavily to his actions. Throughout Douglass’ narrative, it is apparent that the slave institution was based off of status and appearance; especially how slaveholders were viewed through the eyes of their fellow slaveholders. Wealth and power were extremely important for slaveholders to uphold in the institution and they would go to great levels to maintain their positive status. In fact, Douglass claims “Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker” (Douglass 70).
Covey, a symbol of power in the institution, encouraged the act of adultery on one of his slave girls, obtaining the necessary funds to remain wealthy and powerful in the institution. There is evidence in the text that Douglass is led to believe Covey used religion as a way to take away his guilt of breeding a slave girl for his own benefit. He believed that Covey “sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God” (Douglass 62). By acting as a strong practitioner of Christianity and praying multiple times daily, Covey manipulated himself and others into believing he was a better Christian than he actually was. Breeding a slave girl is considered a serious sin, breaking one of the 10 Commandments. Claiming to be a religious man, one would say that Covey was aware of this and believed he could cover up his wrongdoings by appearing so faithful.
One would argue that slaveholders such as Covey knew that what they were doing to slaves was wrong, however in order to align with the ideology of the time and the pressure of the institution, they had to continue to treat them this way. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they used religion as a way to mask their guilt and put the blame on something other than themselves. This example shows the negative impacts of religion on both slaves and their masters in the way that religion was being used for essentially all of the wrong reasons and slaves and slaveholders were suffering as a result from it. In other words, “Christian violence was so effective at purifying guilty whites and defiling innocent slaves” (Ferguson 314). Slaveholders were affected negatively by this mentality in the way that they were convinced that appearing to be faithful and devoted to Christ would automatically cleanse them of their sins, which in a way provided them an excuse to sin even more.
Likewise, Ferguson touches on this in her article and suggests that Auld uses scripture to convince himself and others that his cruelty actually helps the slave girl, not hurts her (Ferguson 301). The word “stripe” appears many times in the Bible, but specifically in relation to Christ’s suffering, who “bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His stripes you are healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Because the slave girl “bore heavy burdens” (Douglass 69), Auld was convinced that punishing her would pave his way to salvation (Ferguson 301). As Christ took on the burden of our sins through pain and suffering, Auld was convinced the lame slave girl would accept the burden of his own sins.
Thus, Ferguson writes, “he tries to rationalize the disorder that he himself has caused and pretends that his viciousness saves his victim rather than himself” (Ferguson 301), to show the psychological effect that compelled slaveholders to align their actions with passages in the scripture. Not only does this lead slaveholders to worship a “false version” of Christianity, but it trains them to believe this justification negatively impacts slaves and slaveholders in the way that slaveholders are meant to believe they must have a “suffering servant” to save the slaveholder from their sins such as Jesus did (Ferguson 301).
Furthermore, the word “stripe” in this context is used as a symbol to represent a form of punishment, and a mark on someone’s body. However, the word “stripe” is also often associated as being a strip of something that differs in color. Taken in this context, one can relate it to the ideology during the time and the difference in color between slaveholders and their slaves. This use of the word “stripe” as a symbol reiterates the fact that there are noticeable differences within the slave institution but both slaves and slaveholders are all negatively impacted by religion in a “horizontal comradeship.”
It is apparent throughout Douglass’ narrative that he strongly believes religion has had a negative impact on the slave institution, creating a horizontal comradeship among slaves and their masters. He makes it known to his readers through literary terms that he is not attacking Christianity as a whole, but merely the slaveholder interpretation of it. Because slaveholders were able to use scripture as a means to justify their brutality, it affected their mentality and led them to falsely interpret several aspects of Christianity, which therefore contributed to their levels of brutality towards slaves.
- Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
- Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1983.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 2003. Print.
- Ferguson, SallyAnn H. “Christian Violence and the Slave Narrative.” American Literature
- Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 297-320. https://www-jstor-org.proxy-ln.researchport.umd.edu/stable/2928299?seq=18#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 12 November 2018.
- Hutchins, Zachary McLeod. “Rejecting the Root: The Liberating, Anti-Christ Theology of Douglass’s Narrative.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 68, no. 3, 2013, pp. 292–322. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2013.68.3.292.
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- “100 Bible Verses about His Stripes.” Edited by Stephen Smith, What Does the Bible Say About Salvation?, OpenBible.info, 11AD, www.openbible.info/topics/his_stripes.