Frederick Douglass: A Profile of Faith for Black History Month

February 14, 2023
This article is excerpted from a sermon by Rev. Bill Barksdale, Grace UMC Missoula.  Most of this text are direct quotes from these sources:  
Perhaps the greatest black American human rights leader of the 19th century was Frederick Douglass. Christians in particular should be inspired by his story of faith, his prophetic voice, and his profound influence on events that ensured the United States would no longer be a country that condoned slavery.

Douglass was a living prophet of an American destruction, exile, civil war, and redemption. (In comparison to the Old Testament Israelite exile, civil war, and redemption.) The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah were his guides; they gave him story, metaphor, resolve, and ancient wisdom in order to deliver his ferocious critique of slavery and his country before emancipation.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February of 1818. Later when he had escaped north of the Mason-Dixon line he would change his last name to Douglass.
His grandmother Betsy raised him from birth through age six in a small shack some twelve miles away from the master’s main house.  Here, he was loved and nurtured.  He remembered and loved his grandmother dearly. His memory flowed with images her majestic presence, her “freshly-ironed bandana,” how “esteemed” she was on both sides of the Tuckahoe for her skills in planting and preserving “seedling sweet potatoes.” 

When Frederick turned 6, his grandmother told him they were going on a long journey, and she reluctantly walked the twelve miles to the master’s house holding his hand.  There, she had to leave him and he began his initiation of what it truly meant to be owned and enslaved.

Frederick struggled and suffered under slavery and witnessed atrocities of abuse. One of his earliest memories is listening while his aunt was whipped and beaten. The louder her cries echoed through the rafters, the harder she was beaten. His elementary years were spent in this brutal existence. 

Perhaps around the age of eleven or twelve, he was chosen to go to Baltimore out of a dozen or more slave children. His new slave owner’s wife was Sophia Auld.  This was Sophia’s first slave and not knowing the rules, she cared for him gently. For two years she taught him to read.   But Sophia was harshly criticized by her husband for teaching him to read and was forced to quit.  However, Frederick was now determined to teach himself to how to read and write. He would take the few minutes of free time he was afforded from the plantation and trade ‘biscuits for words.’
Sophia made delicious homemade biscuits. Frederick would fill his pockets with them and offer them to the white poor immigrant teens (who went to school) in the neighborhood.  He would give them a biscuit if they would teach him a word – what it meant and how to spell it.

In his teenage years Frederick had several spiritual awakenings.

There were two white Methodist ministers who influenced Frederick’s early faith. Sophia’s pastor from the local Methodist Church, Wilk Street Methodist Church, the Rev. Beverly Waugh.  When he visited Sophia, Frederick would linger nearby and listen.  Waugh would go on to be elected Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836.
Frederick also liked listening to the sermons of another Baltimore Methodist pastor,  Reverend Hanson.  In his autobiography he notes that he learned from Rev. Hanson that “all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were by nature rebels against God’s government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ.”

Is it also possible that Frederick heard the Reverend Hanson preach on Paul’s letter to the Galatians? “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28.  Had Hanson possibly stumbled on 2 Corinthians’ famous passage, with a young slave sitting in the back of the congregation? “But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality.” 2 Corinthians 8:14.

His awakening also came from his conversations with African American preachers. Fundamental ideas, sermonic cadences in his speeches and writings can be traced to the African American religious community of Baltimore that Frederick soaked up in his teenage years.

Through a time of “misery of doubts and fears,” the desperate teenager underwent what he called a conversion to “faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He now saw the world “in a new light,” he recalled. He felt new impulses for living, “new hopes and desires.” He even “loved all mankind—slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever…My great desire now was to have the world converted.”

He was mentored by an African American elder, Charles Lawson, who quickly became his deepest influence. Lawson exuded a spirituality Frederick had never before encountered. Lawson lived only a short walk from Hugh Auld’s house and connected often with Douglass. Douglass called Lawson alternately “uncle” and “Father.” Above all, he was Frederick’s teacher. Lawson could read only a little, but he could interpret their meanings which greatly helped Frederick.

“I could teach him ‘the letter,’ ” wrote Douglass, “but he could teach me ‘the spirit.’

Lawson gave Douglass two priceless gifts. One was faith; the other was the insatiable desire for knowledge through a love of words. Lawson instilled in the youth a belief about which Douglass wrote intensely. God “had a great work for me to do,” he recalled as Lawson’s charge, and the impressionable youth made a surrender to faith.
Another Methodist Church connection was meeting his future wife, Anna Murray, likely at the AME church in Baltimore. 

Anna Murray was a free black woman who earned meager wages in domestic-service positions in white people’s homes. Anna did manage to save some money and owned two feather beds and other household goods; but her daily life was a battle against poverty, paying rent for her lodging, buying firewood, always striving to be the efficient and prim housekeeper the family expected.  Anna knew that Frederick was created for a greater purpose than slavery.  According to family lore, Anna sold one of her feather beds to raise cash for Frederick’s journey, for a train ticket north. She borrowed and tailored an official Union Sailor’s uniform for him to wear and Frederick acquired someone’s free papers to use at various checkpoints in case he was stopped.  The Union Navy had many black seamen and the people at checkpoints did not stop him.  He escaped to New York at the age of twenty.  Anna as a free woman, then moved to New York where they married.

Frederick Douglass was brilliant, courageous, and possessed a truly uncommon endurance. He wrote many words that will last forever. His literary genius ranks with that of many of America’s greatest writers of his century.

As Isaiah “came . . . and said,” and Jeremiah followed God’s call to “go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem,” so Douglass proclaimed antislavery oracles to vast public audiences in proslavery America.

As God had visited Jeremiah and instructed him, “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth,” and given him his calling, so too had Frederick Douglass received his call to be the voice of freedom as the country engaged in a brutal civil war over slavery.

Today may we be inspired by Douglass’ story, his faith in Christ, and his powerful witness to the world during the Civil War and beyond.  May we be proud of our Methodist heritage that led Frederick to faith and of the church where he met Anna who risked everything so he could be free and they could be together.  In our moments when we feel stuck or no longer useful may we turn our lives over to God as Frederick did and see what next exciting plan that God has in store for us!

As Isaiah said:
“It is not enough that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.