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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What are the conflicts between religion and slavery in Frederick Douglass's Narrative?

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Religion plays a key role in Frederick Douglass ’s arguments against slavery. He explicitly addresses Christianity, as it both supports and nurtures enslaved people by giving them hope. Douglass also insists that Christianity is at odds with the very concept of slavery and that the practice of enslaving others is...

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Religion plays a key role in Frederick Douglass’s arguments against slavery. He explicitly addresses Christianity, as it both supports and nurtures enslaved people by giving them hope. Douglass also insists that Christianity is at odds with the very concept of slavery and that the practice of enslaving others is harmful to the slave owners and slave traders. These beliefs fit within what he calls True Christianity. Douglass sees a clear dichotomy between this vision and that of what he calls False Christianity, which is a distorted view that supports slavery on the basis of racism, with the idea of spiritual uplift of the “inferior” races. Hypocritical owners embody the falsity of their practices. They hope to expiate their sins by attending church, but the outward show, he insists, cannot disguise the internal corruption. He strongly criticizes clergymen who speak out in favor of slavery.

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Douglass explicitly points out that many people who owned slaves were also Christians, even the most brutal and sadistic masters. There is a conflict between what Douglass views as authentic Christianity and slavery, but many southerners saw slavery as divinely sanctioned and betrayed little sense of contradiction.  Douglass dismisses the form of Christianity practiced by slaveholding southerers as hypocritical and inauthentic, because it was not simply silent about the issue of slavery, but actively involved in providing ideological and moral reinforcement for the institution:

The slave auctioneer' s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

In another sardonic passage Douglass reflects that the fact that many masters fathered children with their slaves might have the result of undercutting the common claim among slaveholding whites that blacks had inherited the "curse of Ham":

...a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world (who) owe their existence to white fathers...

Throughout the book, Douglass means to show that the claims of biblical justification for racial slavery are specious and contradict what he deems to be an authentic Christianity. 

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