February 20: Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895
February 20, 2011 11 Comments
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About this Commemoration
Born as a slave in 1818, Frederick Douglass was separated from his mother at the age of eight and given by his new owner, Thomas Auld, to his brother and sister-in-law, Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia attempted to teach Frederick to read, along with her son, but her husband put a stop to this, claiming, “it would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Frederick learned to read in secret, earning small amounts of money when he could and paying neighbors to teach him.
In 1838, Frederick Bailey (as he was then known) escaped and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. At the age of 14, he had experienced a conversion to Christ in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his recollection of that tradition’s spiritual music sustained him in his struggle for freedom: “Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.”
An outstanding orator, Douglass was sent on speaking tours in the Northern States by the American Anti-Slavery Society. The more renowned he became, the more he had to worry about recapture. In 1845 he went to England on a speaking tour. His friends in America raised enough money to buy out his master’s legal claim to him so that he could return to the United States in safety. Douglass eventually moved to New York and edited the pro-abolition journal North Star, named for the fleeing slave’s nighttime guide.
Douglass was highly critical of churches that did not disassociate themselves from slavery. Challenging those churches, he quoted Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees: “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23.4)
A strong advocate of racial integration, Douglass disavowed black separatism and wanted to be counted as equal among his white peers. When he met Abraham Lincoln in the White House, he noted that the President treated him as a kindred spirit without one trace of condescension.
I Almighty God, whose truth maketh us free: We bless thy Name for the witness of Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned and reasonable speech moved the hearts of a president and a people to a deeper obedience to Christ. Strengthen us also to be outspoken on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation, continuing in the Word of Jesus Christ our Liberator; who with thee and the Holy Spirit dwelleth in glory everlasting. Amen.
II Almighty God, whose truth makes us free: We bless your Name for the witness of Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned and reasonable speech moved the hearts of a president and a people to a deeper obedience to Christ. Strengthen us also to be outspoken on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation, continuing in the Word of Jesus Christ our Liberator; who with you and the Holy Spirit dwells in glory everlasting. Amen.
Preface of a Saint (2)
Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.
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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?
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