February 20: Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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Frederick Douglass

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.

Collects

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.

Lessons

Isaiah 32:11–18

Hebrews 2:10–18

John 8:30–32

Psalm 85:7–13

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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11 Responses to February 20: Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    Gospel: This Gospel is only 3 verses. The only thing I can say is: It is too short.

    Bio. 3rd paragraph: ‘Douglass eventually moved to New York and edited …’ Where? New York City? Rochester? Buffalo? Sleepy Hollow? Its a big state with lots of towns and cities.🙂

    Note, too, that the ‘Northern States’ are capitalized. If that is the style sheet for HWHM then that needs to be consistent throughout HWHM. For example: ‘Southern States’ or ‘the South’ whenever they are mentioned in bios.

    • Michael Hartney says:

      How could I have missed it? He needs a ‘he died in 1895’ statement.

      Collect: The phrase ‘whose impassioned and reasonable speech moved the hearts of a president and a people …’ is awkward. Why not drop the reference to the President? Just say ‘moved the hearts of people …”. If the collect keeps the reference to the President shouldn’t it be capitalized (as it is in the bio)?

      • Charles Fogarty says:

        One of Lincoln’s strengths is that he continued to grow more inclusive in his thinking and heart throughout his life. Several sources indicate that not only was Douglass moved by his interaction with Lincoln, but the President himself was changed by his meeting Douglass. All this is to say that I think the reference to the President should stay in the collect.

  2. Bruce Alan Wlson says:

    Erm. . . the article says that Douglass was a Methodist. Why is he proposed for our calendar?

    • Charles Fogarty says:

      What I love about our calendar of saints is its inclusiveness. Here we celebrate what Lewis called mere Christianity–not the things that rend the Body of Christ, but those things that heal and unite us. I learned the rudiments of the Christian faith from my Methodist mother which began my pilgrimage, so why not celebrate our Methodist brother, Frederick Douglass?

  3. that John LaVoe says:

    Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895
    .
    A good man and a worthy cause, but I feel the commemoration too far falls short of its potential to let it stand uncritically, yet it is difficult to pinpoint any single cause. The bio has several weaknesses, the collect is incomplete, and the selection of lessons could be better.
    .
    BIOGRAPHY:
    1. To take up Michael’s cry, it lacks (and needs) “why important” and “where/when born and died” statements, with specific places/dates if available.
    2. I don’t see why sentence 1 doesn’t end at “eight,” or why it’s important to introduce the Aulds by name (or at all) — or his transfer from one to the other. The “unfit to be a slave” statement is an eye-opener, but could be worked into the last sentence of the paragraph as a barometer of general attitudes and to highlight his accomplishment in acquiring literacy skill.
    3. The birth name and name change would seem to belong with introductory info.
    4. The only sentences addressing his faith are in paragraph 2, “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.” This seems like too little and insufficiently integrated within his larger story.
    5. In the above quoted sentence, do away with “had” in “had experienced.”
    6. Paragraph 3 is a bit of a hodge podge with nothing organizing the narrative or tying the facts together. Chronological generalities might help (e.g., “from 18xx -18yy he …. In 18zz he toured England to….” ) “Eventually” could be specified, and “until” could be added. “He went to” is fuzzy and weak, and this whole descriptive sequence seems carelessly vague.
    7. In paragraph 4, “was highly critical of” is a weak way to say “criticized.” In fact, the two sentences of that paragraph, with appropriate editing, could more effectively be combined as: “Criticizing churches that refused to condemn slavery, Douglass cited Jesus’ denunciation of 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)
    8. Paragraph 5, first sentence: doesn’t that say the same thing three different ways?
    9. Remaining sentence (about meeting with Lincoln): it hangs like an unresolved chord (which in American history, sadly, it was), but as part of a commemoration it still needs to draw that snapshot to a conclusion. BEYOND THAT, there’s no ending here that draws the whole write-up to a close. It just seems to, you know, sort of, well, I mean. … (fade out).
    .
    COLLECT: I’m good with the collect until I get to “a deeper obedience to Christ,” at which point I think “IS that what the bio described,” and “ISN’T there a more apt and more accurate description?”
    I don’t doubt slavery is an abomination in God’s eyes, or that FD would heartily agree, but based on what the bio shows us, I’d say he moved people to a deeper respect for life, or to valuing all humans as equal in God’s sight. Everybody on both sides probably felt “obedient to Christ” – so it doesn’t seem to describe FD’s cause. Slavery is ubiquitous in the whole bible and even Jesus spoke as if it were a “given” in society. See Rom 6:16 or 1 Cor 7:22. (Frequently we soften “slave” to “servant” in translation.) FD was about ending slavery, affirming human freedom and equality of dignity, and urging the moral imperative to take a stand upon all institutions of power. At least, that’s what I get from the bio.
    .
    Whether the next part of the collect is construed as petition or as the “so that” piece, it assumes a subtle “one-up” viewpoint, praying for “those” supposedly unenlightened (one-down) folk. (In effect, Strengthen “us” to straighten “them” out by telling “them” what’s what.) As if “we” don’t need to be straightened out, nor to repent of our own injustices and inequity toward others? That’s self-deluded, subtly arrogant ignorance. I’d say the collect needs a major overhaul.
    .
    READINGS: These are not good selections, period. The OT should be YHWH hearing the cries of the Hebrew people in the slavery of Egypt. It’s not that NO case could be made for the present selection; it’s that one would be REQUIRED for anyone to understand why this one was selected!
    .
    While these psalm verses sound beautiful, cherry-picking them from the first 6 verses of the psalm distorts their scriptural/canonical integrity: they’re an oracle in response to a lament, and this ignores the lament and makes it sound like Santa Clause (God) is coming to town. If these verses are to be used, this whole (short) psalm should be used in its integrity. Otherwise, find verses that can be extracted without violating the very scripture we’re drawing from!
    .
    NT LESSON: Hebrews, as selected, might be okay, but it’s not a lucid choice, IMO. Possible alternative: Gal 4:3-7.
    .
    GOSPEL: Luke 4:16-21 would be better.

    • John LaVoe says:

      I’ve expressed this before, but “Prophetic Witness” strikes me as a title we use when we’re not sure what else to say. In Frederick Douglass’ case I can see that he brought his case to American and Engish audiences and to the church and government as institutions that exercised influence and power, moral, social and poitical. But on what basis do we say “Prophetic”? Prophetic as a declaration of the gospel? Prophetic as a direct “thus saith the LORD” kind of revelation? Prophetic as a call to repentence and a return to the norms of being God’s community? I can see these in his case. Nevertheless, “Prophetic Witness” is an extremely general concept, and I think it better to have a title indicating something specific, more focused, more descriptive and directly stated, something that names the kind of thing he actually did — and not just a general concept that doesn’t name his kind of contribution except as an indictinct generaity, would be preferred.

  4. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Diouglas was a great man and a opponent of slavery and black degredation. He did all this a a Christian. Some may hesitate tocall him a saint, but he was a fighter for truth and human dignity.
    He deserves to be commemorated in the Christian calendar.

  5. Nigel Renton says:

    Line 1, first paragraph: add “February” after “in”.

  6. Pingback: February 20 – Frederick Douglass : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  7. Pingback: February 20 – Frederick Douglass : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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