A More Faithful Witness: Black Prophetic Hope as Agency in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Black fidelity to Christianity and its Scriptures during Abolitionist-era America can be largely attributed to the agency that enslaved persons, such as Douglass, found in exercising a prophetic rejection of slaveholding religion and in claiming the hope of Christ’s liberating gospel for themselves. This presentation will focus on Frederick Douglass’ role as an American prophet and will emphasize how, as Sharon Carson suggests, he “claims the black community as a sanctified location for authentic Christianity.” At face value, Douglass’ Narrative exposes the corruption of a false, slaveholding “Christianity” while emphasizing that a truer form of the faith can be found. Further reflection reveals this truer faith situated within the genuine prophetic witness of Black enslaved persons. Though some argue Douglass’ faithfulness to “Christianity proper” was somehow co-opted or coerced by white slaveholding religion, the opposite is true. Zachary Hutchins suggests that Douglass’ religious language in the Narrative is mere “lip service” to Northern white sensibilities, but such a perspective fails to account for the authority that Douglass assumes in pronouncing biblical “woes” upon his white enslavers. Written in the form of a “jeremiad,” or a sermon in the tradition of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, Douglass’ Narrative inverts the hierarchical authority structures of his day by claiming for himself greater religious authority and a greater understanding of God’s character than even the most “religious” of white slaveholding men. By following the tradition of Old Testament prophets and in remaining faithful to the “Christianity of Christ,” black enslaved persons like Douglass found agency of belief and action not afforded to them elsewhere.

Author: Shelby Troyer