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Although Frederick Douglass is speaking in the context of the antebellum era, when the abolition movement had gained momentum and the nation wrestled with what to do about slavery, his words move me. I can feel his righteous anger at the hypocrisy of those who claim Christ. In the 21st century, millennials and many other Americans are turned off at the thought of the institutional church. So many of today’s Americans find the church judgmental and petty, squabbling over inconsequential debates and hurting those they claim to help. Hypocrisy and Christianity are nothing new. But Douglass, a slave who escaped, bought his freedom, and became an outspoken abolitionist, scathingly addresses the planks in the eyes of American Christians:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise….

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen….

Today, as ever, we see the specks in other eyes and miss the planks in our own. What are today’s Christians getting wrong?

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845; ed. Benjamin Quarles, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), 117-121.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

5 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “Today, as ever, we see the specks in other eyes and miss the planks in our own. What are today’s Christians getting wrong?”

    One obvious one from The Carolinas … our segregated churches literally sitting side by side on adjacent blocks, yet we stay out of each other’s … and, we would welcome and be welcomed if we just visited each other … but when we have opportunity to attend a visiting congregation … we choose one of the same color as us …

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Wow. The bright light that hurts the eyes. Thank you, Rebecca.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Ouch. The righteous lash – a lash of words from the Bible in judgment against a church which condemns others while forgiving itself lightly without a change of heart. “But seldom ready to show mercy.” May every church be stung by those words.

    Lord have mercy upon us.

  • RLG says:

    You say, many millennials are turned off by the institutional church, even as Douglass was turned off by the Christianity of the land. What would you expect? That is always going to happen. Why? Because we all interpret the Bible differently and are easily offended when someone uses a different set of principles by which to interpret the Bible (a different set of hermeneutics). Prior to the abolitionist movement few (even in the institutional church) thought of slaves as being equal with the slave owners. And the white church had enough support from the Bible to uphold such belief. They were not bad people. But then came the advent of the abolitionist movement and a new hermeneutic came into vogue. For a time these two hermeneutics were in conflict, hence the civil war. Finally the new hermeneutic won out and slavery formally went out the door. The old adage that the Bible can be made to say anything is absolutely true.

    I remember well when my mom, and my grandmothers, would never be caught wearing pants, especially to church. That would be disrespectful to men and the principle of male leadership which was so prominent in the Bible. Do you ever hear sermons today advocating for male leadership in the home, society, or the church? That’s what I’m talking about. A new hermeneutic, new principles by which to interpret the Bible.

    Watch carefully. We’ll soon see a change in hermeneutic when it comes to homosexuality in society and the church. The change is already in process, even though the United Methodist church wants to slow that change down, along with our Reformed churches. But watch. It’s coming. But we won’t be using the old hermeneutic, but a new one. Until that happens the millennials will continue to be turned off by the institutional church. And then new issues will crop up along with new principles by which to interpret the Bible. And that’s our solid foundation?

  • David Stravers says:

    I like Douglas’s distinction between the Christianity of America and the Christianity of Christ. We definitely face the same problem today, leading some of us to profess, “I’m not a Christian and I’m not an Evangelical. I am a Follower of Jesus.” However… Douglas himself was a product of his age. He scathingly dismissed all Native American claims as unworthy and critiqued Native Americans as inferior to African Americans. All this in the age of broken treaties, “Removals” and the Trail of Tears. So Douglas himself was a racist.

    An additional note: The anti-Christian Mark Twain wrote that the best way to end lynchings in the post-bellum South was to import Christian missionaries from overseas, and post one missionary in every Southern town: “Let us import American missionaries from China, and send them into the lynching field.” He observes that U.S. missionaries trying to convert the Chinese to Christianity are already dealing with a colossal uphill battle in a country that boasts a “birth rate of 33,000 pagans per day.” The missionaries’ zeal, including their moral courage, would be much more effectively put to use in civilizing their own people in the God-fearing South. “O kind missionary, O compassionate missionary, leave China!” Twain pleads. “Come home and convert these Christians!”

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