"In God we trust". Dualism of Christianity in "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"

Academic Paper, 2013

13 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Silent Second Text?

3. American Civil Religion

4. The Road To Heaven Is Paved With Selfish Intentions

5. From Inch To Ell

6. Bibliography


1. Introduction

In his 2007 essay "The Rise, Development, and Circulation of the Slave Narrative", American literature scholar Philip Gould claims that the representation of the religious conversion of a slave and his or her Christian feelings was an important convention of the African American slave narrative (Gould 19). While Frederick Douglass's Narrative is no exception to this convention, Douglass also pursued "the central abolitionist project of exposing the evils of the Southern plantation" (Gould 19). Among other things, Douglass did so by describing the cruelty of one of his masters, Thomas Auld, a devout Christian and, at the same time, slaveholder.

In this paper, I want to argue that Frederick Douglass exposed the American double standard towards Christianity and thereby "dismantl[ed one] of the dualisms that existed in antebellum America" (Stauffer 204f.). To verify my thesis, I will firstly put Douglass's Narrative into context - both into the context of its time as well as into the context of its genre, the African American slave narrative. Subsequently, I will introduce American sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s term and definition of “American Civil Religion” to then apply a close reading of Douglass’s Narrative through Bellah’s findings, which will show how and why Douglass unveiled the Christian yet cruel values of Southern plantation owners to his readers. By means of conclusion, I will show that Douglass's Narrative paved the way for other abolitionist slave writers, who might not had been able to tell their story if the American Christian double-standard had not been exposed by Douglass. I will also give a brief outlook on how the so-called 'neo-slave narratives' reconstructed the dualism of Christianity unveiled by Douglass to "explore the nature of moral ambiguity" (Smith 181).

2. The Silent Second Text?

Olaudah Equiano’s self-proclaimed autobiography titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself published as early as 1789 was certainly not the first narrative ever written or published by a slave, but is considered by many the “archetype” (Gates X) of its genre: the slave narrative. Why is that so? Creating something new, in this case a literary genre, commonly is done by transforming, developing or reshaping something already known - just as many other ‘new’ forms of art, the genre of the slave narrative simply found its model of “imitation and repetition” (Gates X) in Equiano’s narrative. Equiano’s autobiography was a significant success in both economic profit and socio-political impact and was thus serving as a role model for later men and women freed from bondage who sought to share their stories with a predominantly white readership. As Gates states: “No group of slaves anywhere, at any other period in history, has left such a large repository of testimony about the horror of becoming the legal property of another human being” (Gates IX). Just as many scholars from various disciplines, Gates further claims that Equiano’s narrative served as a model also to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass from 1845, being “Douglass‘s ‘silent second text’” (Gates XIII). I agree with Gates insofar that Equiano’s and Douglass’s autobiographies resemble each other in terms of style and literary form, but I claim that both narratives differ so significantly from one another within their storylines, their generic approaches, and interaction with the abolitionists, that Douglass’s narrative strategy itself provided a new role model within the genre of the African-American slave narrative.

Equiano’s slave narrative is known, among other things, for its detailed description of the horrors and hardships of the Middle Passage, the slave transport by ship from Africa to the Americas. Although numerous scholars today doubt that Equiano has actually undergone the Middle Passage, the focal point is his claiming of being from Africa - and consequently not being African-American, but an African having lived temporarily on American soil. His appeal to his readership has consequently to be a different one than Douglass’s: Equiano cannot, or does not want to, claim himself to be American, while Douglass’s African heritage is merely a fraction, if a decisive one, in his American identity; an important detail which not only influences the storylines of both authors respectively, but which also gives away the authors’ generic approaches to their narratives.

The narrative of Olaudah Equiano takes its power from the compelling intermingling of various genres; the generic framework, however, is the captivity narrative (Pierce 84). Upon capture, the African Equiano is shipped to the Americas to endure the hardships of slavery. In his times of suffering, he abandons his (presumably prior existing) spiritual beliefs and finds Christianity - a conversion, which paves his way to redemption and is presented by Equiano as the key to freedom in general and manumission in particular. Douglass’s generic framework could not be more different: In his Narrative, Douglass does not rely on benevolence, which is commonly associated with Christianity, but fashions himself as a self-made man in a Franklinian tradition (Stauffer 2014). Just like the former U.S. president, Douglass centers his success within the importance of education - his long road to freedom starts with the first steps towards literacy.

At the center of the story or merely as a narrative tool, Christianity, and the perversion thereof, is a central theme in both narratives. Its use to interact with abolitionists or abolitionists-to-be, however, is very different. Douglass dares to unveil the dualisms of Christianity, as I will show in the chapters to follow, while Equiano has to emphasize his “Christian rebirth” in what fundamentally is a “spiritual autobiography” (Sinanan 64). The central belief that his soul, just as the soul of any other slave, can be saved first and foremost mirrored then-contemporary debates in a country on a continent Equiano at this point called home: Europe in general and Great Britain in particular. In his narrative, Equiano consequently “represents European concerns” (Sinanan 65/68) while Douglass’s concerns are both American and individual, giving voice to African-American slaves having fled to the North and joining the abolitionist cause. The two authors consequently address their cause to not necessarily overlapping readerships. Christianity is Equiano’s promoted tool to free the slaves while Douglass tries hard to convince his readership that the ‘American perversion’ of Christianity is the pretense to hold the slaves in bondage. Just as his former ally William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass believed that “churches were entrenched in a slave-owning culture” (Sinanan 67) - a belief personified by his former master Thomas Auld in Douglass’s Narrative.

3. American Civil Religion

To unveil the dualisms of Christianity in early to mid-19th century American society, Douglass had to argue within the structure of the religious dimension. American society was and still is deeply rooted in a religious framework, which is often and commonly referred to as ‘the American way of Life’ (Bellah 421). Questioning antebellum American core values, such as the coexistence of a predominantly Christian culture and slavery, can thus only bring about fundamental change when understood and negotiated with. A negotiation with religious beliefs and Christian double standards calls for knowledge of socio-religious relations; Douglass proves his theological knowledge by heavily basing his arguments on biblical references (Stauffer 206f.) - consequently, Douglass positions himself within the socio-religious discourse of his time.

But how can this discourse be describes and characterized? I want to suggest that sociologist Robert N. Bellah and historian John Patrick Daly provide the retroactive framework of this discourse with Bellah’s term “American Civil Religion” and Daly’s picturing of the tightly knitted net of religious and social entities within the Southern institution of slavery. Bellah borrows the term ‘Civil Religion’ from philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau, who coined the term as early as 1792 to describe the moral, spiritual, and religious foundations of society (Bellah 426). Picking up on the term, Bellah developed Rousseau’s concept into an own theory applicable to American society; in this paper, I will only present those aspects of the theory, which are related to slavery in antebellum America and my thesis, excluding Bellah’s negotiations of the political sphere and governmental personas. In his theory, Bellah argues that there is a religious dimension in America, which is neither Christian nor Jewish, but omnipresent unaffiliated with any religion or confession (Bellah 421).


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"In God we trust". Dualism of Christianity in "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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dualism, christianity, narrative, life, frederick, douglass
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Ann Kathrin Weber (Author), 2013, "In God we trust". Dualism of Christianity in "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/274286


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