There are two forms of Christianity represented in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and each are described and function differently throughout the text. Based on Douglass’ personal recollections and thoughts in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, there are both real and false versions of religion and generally, the real or “true” form of Christianity is practiced by himself as well as some whites who are opposed to slavery. The false form of religion, or what the author explained in one of the important quotes in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “the hypocritical Christianity of this land” (95) is practiced by whites, most notably Mr.
Covey, and is a complete bastardization of the true ideals behind genuine Christian thought.
Through his discussions of religion that are interspersed throughout The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the reader gets the sense that slavery and true Christianity are opposing forces and one cannot be present while the other exists.
Not only is the simultaneous existence of the true version Christianity with slavery impossible, it appears that even if real Christianity does exist in a pure form, the introduction of slavery corrupts it inevitably and completely. As thisthesis statement for The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass suggests, it is for these reasons, Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to reveal the underlying hypocrisy of the slaveholding South as well as the potential redemptive value of his version of true Christianity. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but an overtly political statement about how ideals can be easily contorted to fit the current situation.
It is important to preface this discussion by defining Douglass’ own views of Christianity, aside from the expressions included in his essay at the end. In general, despite his criticisms about how the religion has been subverted and used as an instrument of power within the structure of slavery, Douglass holds quintessential Christian views and clearly does not detest or blame the religion for how it is used by people like Mr. Covey and other members of the Southern churches. For Douglass, giving thanks to God and recognizing good deeds and moral behavior is important and is part of what defines the “true” or “real” form of Christianity rather than the hypocritical slant taken by slave-owning whites. It is clear from the first part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that Frederick Douglass has a firm understanding of the central tenants and stories of the Bible, not necessarily because he espouses that he’s read it multiple times or has been instructed formally about it, but because he is able to apply moral stories to his situation.
For instance, near the beginning, Douglass thinks about slavery in the context of biblical and Christian thought when he discusses the children who have been born to white slave owners. He states in one of the important quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “if their increase will do no other good, it will do away with the force of the arguments, 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…” (24).
In his narrative, Frederick Douglass relates biblical and Christian knowledge to his feelings about the inherent wrong of slavery and considers the way these children will grow up with “those fathers most frequently their own masters” (24). By beginning the text with a biblical and Christian statement, Frederick Douglass is signaling to readers his own faith and is placing himself within it. While he goes on to place men like Covey who use the bible as a shield (while practicing none of it) on the hypocritical or “false” end of the Christian spectrum, he is demonstrating his position on what true Christianity is—word from the bible and an inherent sense of right and wrong. According to true Christian doctrine, he later shows his faith again by giving thanks to God instead of using the figure of holiness to appear religious when he recognizes that “Providence is in my favor” and the “good spirit was from God and to him I offer thanks giving and praise” (13) after being moved to Baltimore.
Based on Douglass’ descriptions in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the shift from the true to the false religion, or the Christian to the non-Christian, happens as a direct result of slavery. It is almost as if its very existence fosters some malignant response from slave owning whites and causes them to turn from the “true” Christianity Douglass believes in. As one scholar puts it, “Submerged in his [Douglass’] narrative is the claim that theology as a discourse has functioned to support this warfare of the self” (Carter 37).
In other words, the Christian rhetoric, especially in its bastardized form (hypocrisy for instance) is useless and perpetuates a kind of useless struggle between the real and false Christianity and has thus not only lost meaning but has become almost damaging. One of the best examples of this is the case of Mrs. Auld. When Douglass is first introduced to her he is amazed at how kind she is—how unlike the white women of his previous experiences. It is most interesting to note how, without granting descriptions of her church or religious activities, he represents her as angelic and holy and as a perfect model for a Christian woman. He says of her, “Her face was made of heavenly smiles” (14) which makes her immediately angelic along with his discussions about how she did not judge and would allow slaves to look her in the eye like an equal.
With the coming of her instruction on how to treat slaves from her male counterpart, however, it is as if the true Christianity is no longer present or compatible with slave owning. As she “learns” how to treat Douglass, she literally appears to turn into the devil and becomes, in terms of imagery, the opposite of an angel. As Douglass puts it, “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice…. that… angelic face place to that of a demon” (14).
In this passage, she is the shift from true to false Christianity personified and she literally turns from an angel to a devil with the simple introduction of slavery. Douglass mourns this soul’s turning away and says, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I was there, she was a pious, warm, and tenderhearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she did not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (16). It seems as though Douglass wishes the reader to equate the state of slavery with a turning away from true Christian values and wants to demonstrate that it can turn even the most docile and pious woman into a creature with “tiger-like fierceness.”
The fact that Christianity and slavery in the south seem completely at odds is present in other cases throughout the text aside from the turning of Sophia. For instance, of Thomas Auld Douglass says that after going to a religious camp he turned, “more cruel and hateful in all his ways, for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before” (67). Despite the teachings of goodwill and other Christian values, slavery seemed to be exempt from these guidelines, which is certainly quite hypocritical. As if to reveal how far separated the true values of Christianity are with those espoused by the Southern church, Douglass revels an instance involving a brutal display of how Christianity could be used to justify ultimate violence. As Auld whipped a crippled woman he used the bible, saying, in one of the important quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes” (68).
This event comes to mind again later in the text when Douglass says, “I asset most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity…a shelter under…which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (86). In many ways, by relating this false form of religion to the institution of slavery, Douglass is showing how the subversion of ideals (in this case Christian concepts of good will and charity) can take place at any level. Although he has already defined his belief in what Christianity is about and should mean, he is demonstrating how any ideal can be twisted to serve the personal and even economic and political needs of a group of people. After this scene it is almost difficult to understand how Douglass can go on believing in the same tenants of Christianity these people use without cringing or giving pause to question his own thoughts.
Aside from the above event involving the bible being used to justify and even form the background for brutality, the most extreme form of the “false” version of Christianity represented in the autobiography is personified by the slave-owning, bible-touting, and wholly hypocritical Mr. Covey. While Sophia Auld may have been swayed away from her essential Christian angelic nature by the presence of slavery and Mr. Auld the “victim” of religious rhetoric, Covey is completely immersed in the culture of slavery and is thus the most flagrant violator of the true Christian ideals that are expressed by Douglass. Again, it is necessary to go back to the idea stated earlier that the very existence of slavery tends to breed anti-Christian actions and thoughts (at least according to Douglass). The case of Covey points to the fact that this really is the case since he is an overseer and is thus more in the thick of slavery than some of the other characters.
When discussing Covey, Douglass makes certain to point out how his version of Christianity versus that of Mr. Covey differs completely. For instance, Douglass’ ideals (and the antithesis of them) are expressed in the Appendix when Douglass states, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (95). By his cruel, cowardly, and hypocritical actions the other version of Christianity as it existed in the slaveholding South is represented. Because of this consistent juxtaposition of the two types of Christianity represented in the autobiography, the true and pure versus the hypocritical and self-serving, “by the end, Douglass is teacher, leader, protector, and now, authenticator” (Lee 51) since he has finally affirmed himself after the fight and because he has been able to uphold the ideals and values white men and women were unable to with the influence of slavery.
In sum, the two versions of Christianity represented in the autobiography serve several different purposes. First and foremost, however, is the fact that Douglass goes out of his way to define his own sense of Christian righteousness and morality and to place himself within it somehow, despite the rampant hypocrisy. In other words, “Douglass’ Narrative is his call to testify and demonstrate his claim to divine authority and religious sanctification for not only his opposition to slavery, but more important, for his own life, for his self-definition over and against any other definitions proffered to him by white society”(Wohlpart 181). He has created his own view of true Christianity based on what he knows it is not—that it is not that which is practiced by white church leaders such as Reverends Weeden and Hopkins and Covey and he uses this knowledge along with his learned eloquence to deliver an anti-slavery message that is infused with a very strong sense of Christian ideals and what they should be.
While the Appendix of the text might be an addition in order to clarify the negative representations of Christianity in the South, it nonetheless drives home the point that the two versions in the autobiography must remain at odds and that one of them, as most would likely agree, is far more correct and morally righteous. As this thesis statement for The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass suggests in terms of religion, Christianity, and hypocrisy, he fact that Douglass chooses to end the piece on a note about religion, however, should signify that the issues discussed in this analysis are of vital importance to the work in general and are a testament to the potential for wrong simple belief in a moral system can carry.