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David Walker and Frederick Douglas
Many people think of Frederick Douglas as the quintessential ex-slave abolitionist but fewer are familiar with the name of David Walker, even though he came first. Both Walker and Douglas were religious men who took Christianity and the message of God to heart but they were also men who lived in a time when white Americans didn’t want them to read the word of God for themselves and punished them frequently for doing so, sometimes, for even being religious at all. The cruel times they lived in shaped their views on Christianity, their struggles to learn it and come to terms with its role in their lives, and how they applied it to African Americans as a people.
Both men had issues with Christianity as it was practiced in America. Douglas went as far to say that there was a distinct difference between the “Christianity of this land” and the “Christianity of Christ”. Walker went further when he spoke on how those slain by the hand of God for their wickedness in Sodom and Gomorrah would come down upon the white Americans, Bibles in hand, and condemn them for the things they have done. Walker was also known for pointing out Scripture that calls for a man to be put to death for hurting or killing a Christian and applying this in juxtaposition to all the violent crimes acted out against black slaves by white Americans for reading the Bible or practicing its teachings. Walker focused on how Christianity could point out the wrongs of the slave owners. He believed that white Americans secretly knew in their hearts that blacks were also men since God made man in his image and a man is a man despite his color. While Walker was pointing out scripture to white Americans to make his points, Frederick’s comment clearly shows that he felt that the two faiths shouldn’t even be seen the same. These separate views caused them both to approach Christianity differently despite many other similarities.
Both men spoke on the difficulties faced by slaves in learning the word of God, Walker from speaking on the views of a man named Caldwell and Frederick from his own experiences. Caldwell believed that the intention to give slaves an education was too often seen as a blessing to them and would, in fact, turn out to be a curse. He believed that it would only serve to expose them to a world they could never be a part of. He said that it is best to “keep them in the lowest state of degradation and ignorance,” because, “the nearer you bring them to the condition of brutes, the better chance you give them of possessing their apathy.” Walker’s mentioning of this man and his views in his “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” is evidence of the horror he felt at the views that white Americans could possess. Walker wanted to show that the white Americans truly felt that black slaves should be treated no better than any other beast of burden. Treating them in this way, by necessity, keeps them from the word of God that Walker cherished so deeply. Frederick speaks on his personal experiences in trying to teach his brethren to read the word of God:
“It was understood among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whiskey, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”
In these words we feel the sense of desperation and quietness about the procedure and the importance it held in the hearts of these slaves. Douglas later notes, with great bitterness, that the meetings were eventually broken up and with great violence. We see in these examples, how Walker speaks to his readers with an imploring hope and that Frederick speaks with bitterness and with a sense of demanding action. This is likely a cause of their differences in how they view Christianity and its place in America since a view of using Christianity and the Bible as methods to argue with the whites lends to Walker a way to attempt to console black slaves and to implore white slave owners to reconsider their ways. On the contrary, Douglas’ views on Christianity as an abomination in this land and utterly separate from the way it is practiced among the black slaves, gives him the standpoint of fighting for freedom against the white Americans, as opposed to Walker’s method of working with them for a solution.
Both men, as ex-slaves and abolitionists, spoke out to their brethren about Christianity and its place in their lives. Walker does this by comparing the views of Mr. Clay and Bishop Allen. Mr. Clay believed that America should send the slaves back to Africa to spread Christianity there and that doing so would “cleanse” America of her acts of theft, murder and slavery which, as Mr. Clay puts it, “we had been the innocent cause of inflicting.” Walker compares this desire with the words of Bishop Allen who questions how uneducated freed black men are supposed to civilize or Christianize anyone in Africa when they have been denied instruction on how to accomplish this feat. Walker goes on at length in praising Bishop Allen and calling him a brother to all African Americans in his actions. Douglas, on the other hand, goes on about the cruelty of religious slaveholders, which Walker happens to agree with. He believed that they used their faith as justification for their actions and that this made them deplorable. Douglas spoke on the Christmas season and how, were it taken away from slaves that a slave uprising would immediately result. He believed that this season was important to religious slaves and nonreligious slaves alike in that it gave them time to get their affairs in order, religious or otherwise, as well as have time to relax from the never-ending duties of slave life. The importance of this holiday season, as stressed by Douglas, was an important aspect of slave life, and, as such, is evidence of the impact Christianity had for the slaves despite whether or not they were Christian themselves. He goes on to talk about Christianity as a beam of light that can educate a slave and bring him from his place of degradation to a place of dignity. Douglas writes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to, annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
The differences between the two men are subtle. Clearly they are both abolitionists and clearly they have tasted the bitter flavor of slavery for themselves which gives them a different view than other abolitionists. They both felt that there were grave hypocrisies in the Christianity of the white Americans but Walker felt that pointing out these similarities could strengthen Christianity and bring the white Americans to their senses whereas Douglas saw this as a useless battle and felt that they should just be seen as true worshippers of Christianity and leave the heretical white Americans to whatever fate God deemed worthy. They remind me much of the Catholic versus the Protestant debate in the times of Martin Luther. Luther felt that the Catholics had grown hypocritical as well and that the Church needed reform. He felt, similarly to how Walker felt, that the Church would see its hypocrisies and crimes and that it would reform. Luther’s followers, much like Douglas, felt that the Catholic Church was an abomination that could not be saved and went on to start the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps, if we could gleam into the history of our nation a bit more and look at which slaves followed Walkers views and which fell in line with Douglas we would begin to notice a pattern similar to the events that lead to the Protestant Reformation in medieval Europe. Perhaps we would find that Walkers followers were those that tried to reform American Christianity and cleanse it of the sins of the white Americans, and maybe we would find that Douglas’ followers were those that were, sometimes violently, overthrowing white Christians in order to implement a sense of Christianity that they felt suited them and was free from the hypocrisy and the lies that tainted their first interactions with the faith.
I write on this today for a very important reason. We have all heard that he who does not learn from his past is doomed to repeat it. Maybe repetition isn't always so obvious. Maybe slavery isn't the evil we might repeat but rather the hypocrisy and the habit of hiding behind faith as an excuse for our actions might be seen as the evils that we are doomed to repeat. Many are easily aware of slavery in America's past (and in the past of other countries as well) but not as many are aware of the use of Christianity to fuel both sides of the argument, for and against slavery. It is my hope that reading the arguments against slavery from ex slaves themselves will open eyes to the cruel and misleading ways that faith can be used to back up evil acts. I hope that anyone and everyone that reads this will see it as a reason to look at their own logic and their own faith to make sure that they aren't twisting them to support personal gain but to support what is fair, right and true.