Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. As a young man around the age of thirteen he was converted to Christianity under the preaching of a white Methodist preacher, named Hanson. Of that preacher Douglass said, “He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ” (My Bondage and My Freedom, p. 68. Kindle Edition). Under conviction of sin, he sought out the counsel of a black Christian, Charles Johnson, who guided him on how to pray. Weeks later he finally trusted in God through Christ for salvation and was born again.
After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires. I loved all mankind—slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted. The desire for knowledge increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. (Ibid, p. 68)
Another black Christian named Lawson, became a mentor and a guide for Douglass who helped him increase his faith and knowledge. He also gave Douglass a hope for freedom and a vision for how God would use him in his future beyond slavery.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838. He and his wife, Anna, eventually settled in Massachusetts and joined with an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church where he would become a licensed lay preacher. In fulfillment of the incipient vision cast by Rev. Lawson, he would become one of the nations finest orators and activists for abolition.
In 1852, at an antislavery society meeting in Rochester, New York, Mr. Douglass delivered a powerful speech on the hope and promise of the Fourth of July, Independence Day. He found hope in the founding principles of liberty enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The latter he called a “glorious liberty document” when interpreted in a way consistent with the eternal principles that lay at its heart. Mr. Douglass also expressed profound admiration for the country’s founding fathers.
I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
But even more than the founding fathers, he cherished the founding principles of liberty and the self-evident truths upon which the republic stood, “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.”
I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight. ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Although Douglass found great hope in the nation’s founding principles, he found the fulfillment of their promise falling exceedingly and egregiously short of their glory. In that speech about the Fourth of July, he also excoriated the nation for allowing the monstrous inconsistency of the reality of American slavery, and the racism upon which it stood, with those principles of American freedom to continue. His excoriation was also a warning, given less than a decade before the beginning of the Civil War, about the ever-increasing, coiling tension in the nation because of these contradictions. And he stated his case in a blistering, scathing critique of the hypocrisy despite pleas from some quarters for him to be more genteel and “winsome” in his oratory.
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever! ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Frederick Douglass’s deep desire was that the Fourth of July would eventually be a celebration for everyone in the country including people of color. Despite the tyranny and the villainy of the slavery that still existed when he gave that speech on July 5th, 1852, because of his faith in Jesus Christ and in the principles of liberty upon which the United States was founded, he was confident that it eventually would be.
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
In his condemnation of the “great sin and shame” of the nation, slavery, including support of it given by too many churches and theologians, Douglass’s words only amplified and magnified the strong condemnation delivered by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley himself (see “Thoughts Upon Slavery” and Wesley’s letter to William Wilberforce). Douglass’s words also magnified and amplified the words of a special anti-slavery statement delivered and published in newspapers around the country from the 1800 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, presided over by Bishop Francis Asbury. Unfortunately, anti-slavery statements and proposals, which was the original and official position of the early Methodist movement, were being met with increasing resistance from culturally accommodated Methodists, especially in the South. Nevertheless, that 1800 General Conference published an anti-slavery statement formulated by a committee, led by Ezekiel Cooper, William McKendree, and Jesse Lee. It attacked slavery as “repugnant to the unalienable rights of mankind, and to the very essence of civil liberty.” They also declared that it was hideously contrary to the “whole spirit of the New Testament.” Moreover, the statement decried the egregious inconsistency of American slavery with the value of American freedom so cherished and enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. It called for the gradual but universal emancipation of all slaves (see American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wigger, p.293).
The tension of those internal inconsistencies were there at the founding of the United States from the very beginning. The founding fathers knew it in large part because of our forefathers and mothers in the Methodist faith, who refused to compromise with the culture. But as Frederick Douglass pointed out, too many other Christians, Methodists included, were too complacent, lukewarm, or coldly indifferent, if not openly hostile, to fight the good fight against the evils of slavery and racism. Many others, like Orange Scott, one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843, and William Loyd Garrison, were more than willing. Unfortunately, it would take the bloodiest war in American history for slaves to finally be freed; it would take another hundred years for equal rights under the law to become a reality for people of color. Douglass did live to see emancipation and then some before he died in 1895. Even before emancipation, his faith in the Lord and his great hope in the promising principles of liberty in the founding documents of the United States of America gave him confidence that he would.
Douglass’s ministry and his activism for liberation was one with a Spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that he received in his own new birth. It was also inspired with great hope rooted in the founding principles of the country that he so cherished, even though it did not fully cherish him. Early counter-cultural Methodists, white and black, Frederick Douglass, and many others through the civil rights movement led by the Baptist preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appealed to the principles of 1776 to call America to live up to and consistently with its highest ideals. That and a spirit of reconciliation and hope changed the world for the better.
Today, however, another movement that finds its fuel in what happened in 1619, the year that the first Africans slaves were brought to America, seems to have rejected what happened in 1776 altogether (See “The 1619 Project” and find a critique HERE). They seem to insist that everything and everyone associated with the founding of America in 1776 is hopelessly tainted by slavery and racism. They seem to believe that what some call America’s original sin—what Douglass called America’s “sin and great shame”—is the unforgivable sin. Hence, the move to condemn even the founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson, and hence, the call of some even to condemn the Fourth of July celebration. This is a movement that seems bereft of forgiveness and historical humility that only seeks to highlight America’s low-lights and condemn her completely for what they see as the twin sins of racism and capitalism.
But, as Frederick Douglass knew, America is not just a country of low-lights. He knew that the United States of America was hopefully mendable not hopelessly damnable because of its founding principles. We would do well to remember his exhortation to cling with all our might to the ring-bolt, that is the Declaration of Independence, and to the founding principles of liberty and justice in the midst of the storm in which we currently find ourselves.
Thanks to men like Frederick Douglass, the Fourth of July, with so much more of the promise of America’s founding principles fulfilled, can and should be celebrated by all Americans everywhere, “from sea to shining sea.” Even as we continue to pray for God to mend our every flaw.
Happy Fourth of July!