The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Icon
Knowledge and Ignorance Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
The Inexpressibility of Enslavement Theme Icon
Fellowship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Icon

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is full of blistering critiques of slave owners who feign religious piety. Douglass’s experience often shows that the white southerners who participate most zealously in religious activities are often the same ones who treat slaves most inhumanely. These reprehensible people are quick to condemn slaves for the slightest violations of biblical principles, but are all too willing to twist scripture into justifying their own horrifyingly irreligious acts. For example, during Douglass’s time at St. Michael’s, a white man named Mr. Wilson starts up a Sabbath school designed to teach slaves how to read the New Testament. This reading group is violently broken up by Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, two men who led classes to teach scripture to whites, on the grounds that they don't want slaves to learn to read at all. One of Douglass’s masters, Thomas Auld, even quotes scripture to justify giving a brutal whipping to a crippled woman: “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

While this hypocrisy is extraordinarily harmful to the slaves themselves, it is also damaging to the masters. Religious slaveholders believe they have divine moral sanction for the atrocities they perpetuate, which further compromises their already-diminished ability to discern right from wrong and encourages them to sink to even more reprehensible depths. For example, male slaveholders rape their female slaves and sell their own children into slavery, all while nominally condemning such actions through their religious devotion. By rationalizing such actions with illogical religious workarounds, the slaveholders’ moral reasoning deteriorates even further, even faster. Throughout the autobiography, Douglass uses ironic language to condemn the two-faced “piety” of his oppressors. However, in an appendix to the book, he is careful to clarify that he objects not to Christianity proper, but to what he calls the “slaveholding religion,” which uses Christianity to justify atrocities. In fact, Douglass himself appears to possess a great deal of faith in a more humane Christianity; he writes, “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.” Ultimately, through his narrative Douglass is making the case that slavery is incompatible with true Christianity, and in doing so making the case against slavery on religious grounds.

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The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders appears in each chapter of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

Below you will find the important quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass related to the theme of The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

When Frederick Douglass introduces himself at the opening of his autobiography, his narrative is already constrained by his slavery; because he is a slave, he has been kept "ignorant" of the fundamental details of his life: the date of his birth, the identity of his father, the personality of his mother. Douglass cannot even begin his story without explaining the "law" and custom which governs interactions among slaveowners and slaves.

Yet Douglass can express his personal reaction to these laws. As Douglass admits the existence of these regulations, he also describes their inherent "odiousness." Douglass even uses the slaveowners' own values and morals to illustrate the immorality of their laws; their rule that slave women's children always become slaves allows slave owners to freely have sexual intercourse with their slave women. Their law permits and fosters their "lust" --  a feeling which leads to sin, according to the slaveowners' own Christian tradition. 


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On watching Captain Anthony whip Aunt Hester: “I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood- stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Captain Anthony, Aunt Hester
Related Symbols: The Whipping of Aunt Hester
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass recalls his life under his first master, he describes how  the overseer Mr. Plummer was "hardened" by his "long life of slaveholding"; slavery damages its slaveholders as well as its slaves. Captain Anthony, the master himself, was such a malicious individual that he whipped Douglass's Aunt Hester, drawing blood and screams from her, until he was too tired to continue. For Douglass, this anecdote is the first of a lifetime's worth. By only detailing one of these whippings, Douglass suggests how the horrors of slavery evade easy comprehension; even readers of his narrative can only ever be partial witnesses to the wholly unChristian and torturous behavior of the individuals who enforce the systems of slavery. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

On Old Barney and Young Barney: “No excuse could shield them, if the colonel only suspected any want of attention to his horses—a supposition which he frequently indulged, and one which, of course, made the office of old and young Barney a very trying one. They never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving it.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Colonel Edward Lloyd, Old Barney and Young Barney
Related Symbols: Old Barney and Young Barney
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In addition to recounting stories of inhumane cruelty towards slaves, Douglass tells anecdotes in which cruelty was spurred by lies and arbitrary whims. Any slave with tar found on his or her person was accused of attempting to enter the fruit garden (which had a tarred fence). Similarly, the two slaves who took care of Lloyd's excellent horses were often accused of negligence, regardless of whether they neglected Lloyd's horses or not. Their master was able to falsely accuse them of shirking their duties whenever that suited his whims. This story does not only illustrate the uncertainty that plagued slaves' daily lives; it also exposes the falsehoods delivered by slaveowners, and it suggests that Douglass's writing is in a separate moral sphere, one devoted to truth as well as justice.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: Demby
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass relates how another overseer, the solemn young man Mr. Gore, shot the slave Demby while Demby was submerging himself in a creek, in an attempt to assuage his pain after receiving wounds from the whip. Just as Mr. Gore coldly completed this murder, Lloyd calmly accepted it; Gore claimed that Demby was setting a dangerous example of uncontrollable conduct for the other slaves, and Lloyd determined that this explanation justified the murder. After presenting this specific instance, Douglass reminds the reader that such murders are not considered murders in Maryland -- "courts" as well as the "community" equally allow slaveowners to kill a slave without consequences. This simple description of the legal and social situation is thus grounded in a particular incident, allowing the reader to realize the emotional and powerful force of such law and social custom. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

“The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing which I could have enjoyed by staying…I looked for home elsewhere, and was confident of finding none which I should relish less than the one which I was leaving.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Douglas begins Chapter 5 by describing his special relationship to his master -- who served as a sort of "protector" to him and felt particularly attached to him because Douglass helped Lloyd find the birds he shot -- we quickly realize that Douglass was as deprived of domestic attachments as many slave children were. Indeed, when Douglass left his "home," he felt that it was not actually a home; he found he could not imagine a worse one. Slaves such as Douglass were not only deprived of material comforts and freedom, but rather they were also deprived of familial experiences which others may take for granted, and which Douglass only retrospectively realizes he was missing as a slave. Douglass here removes Northerners' mistaken perceptions that slaves could enjoy their lives despite the hardships and build supportive attachments to the spaces of their enslavement; their songs were not songs of joy, and their living spaces were not homes.  

Chapter 6 Quotes

On Sophia Auld’s transformation of character: “But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Sophia Auld
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Douglass' next mistress, Sophia Auld, initially appeared to be a virtuous slave owner ("of the kindest heart and finest feelings"), her quick transformation demonstrates that virtuous slave owners hardly exist for long; the mere fact of owning a slave causes individuals to become cruel ("red with rage," or with "harsh and horrid discord," like a "demon"). Essentially, slavery destroys slaveowners as well as slaves (although in a less physical and extreme way, of course), proving the adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Yet Douglass does not begrudge Auld for this; he pities her, introducing his description of her new temperament with "But, alas!" He refrains from accusatory language, revealing his own moral goodness while also indicating that he is more antagonistic towards slavery itself than towards slave-owning individuals.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination…at this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly after Douglass arrives in Baltimore, his first master dies without a proper will. All of his first master's property must therefore be valued, in order to determine how this property can be equally divided between the master's children, Andrew and Lucretia. As one piece of this extensive evaluation process, Douglass is called back to Baltimore. This suggests the power of slavery; masters can control a slave's actions even when this slave now belongs to someone else. Masters exert influence in their death, as in their life.

This anecdote also underscores how Douglass, like all of his fellow slaves, is treated as a mere piece of property; slaveowners have "horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being." When a man owns a slave, he treats a fellow human being like an animal, without engaging in any kind of shared humanity. In this way, slavery is "brutalizing" for "both slave and slaveholder." Douglass harnesses a striking visual -- an immense gathering of creatures and people -- to make memorable this structural criticism of the practice of slavery.

“at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Betsy Bailey
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after Douglass' first master dies, his children die as well, which causes all of his slaves to be divided from each other and their familial bonds, "in the hands of strangers." Douglass implies that his grandmother is treated the worst, however; she is sent to a desolate hut in the woods, to supposedly provide for herself for the rest of her days. Just as her present owners fail to acknowledge her present state (she has no hope of caring for herself, in her enfeebled condition), they also fail to recognize her prior experiences. She not only took care of her master throughout his life, but she also brought him a fair portion of his wealth: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

Douglass can only imagine how his "poor old" grandmother spent her last moments in "yonder little hut." He briefly lists the possibilities ("she stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies"), in order to fictionally be present with his grandmother, and to give at least a posthumous audience to her isolated suffering. Once again he appeals to the justice and truth of God, and wonders how he could allow such things to take place.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe and smoke-house, and our pious mistress was aware of the fact; and yet that mistress and her husband [Rowena Hamilton and Thomas Auld] would kneel every morning, and pray that God would bless them in basket and store!”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Captain Thomas Auld, Rowena Hamilton
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

While Douglass was living at St. Michael's, he and the other three slaves were each only allowed to eat "less than a half of a bushel of corn-meal" each week. As this depressingly exact description suggests, Douglass and the others were deprived of the variety and quantity of food necessary to comfortably sustain an individual. Yet, as they worked in this household, they were surrounded by abundance ("in the safe and the smoke-house"), and they were able to observe their owners' greedy and hypocritical prayers for further prosperity. Unlike slaves who work the fields, these slaves were in direct daily contact with their owners, and so could see the stark realities of their masters' hypocrisy.

“In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion…if it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Captain Thomas Auld
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass continues to describe his experiences under the service of Thomas Auld at St. Michael's, he describes how "adopted slaveholders" such as Auld, who acquired their slaves later in life through means such as marriage, were actually the worst sort. A similar contradiction applies for religious slaveholders; when Auld "experienced religion," this actually made him a more cruel (and, thus, less Christian) owner. Here, Douglass continues to unpack the paradoxes of slavery that might be unapparent to a reader in and from the North, as he also elicits questions about the significance of religion as a kind of "experience" rather than a doctrine, and as a phenomenon that is adapted to suit one's other interests and ideas. Douglass illustrates how fellowship, in particular contexts such as the religious communities which Auld joins, can paradoxically breed harshness and cruelty.

Douglass also provides the example of Mr. Wilson's "little Sabbath school," a religious undertaking which did indeed provide religious comforts to those in need (particularly, the slaves at St. Michael's). In dong so, Douglass situates the cruelty of slaveowners with slavery, not merely with religion. He is a Christian himself, but condemns the use of Christianity to uphold and justify slavery.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey…I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Edward Covey
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass then works as a field hand for Mr. Covey, his most brutal master yet. Under Covey's demanding, and often furtive, watch, Douglass and his fellow slaves are relegated to a life of "work, work, work." Douglass claims that even his innate intellectual curiosity is extinguished under this man's control, as Douglass loses his passion for literacy also with his optimistic outlook. Furthermore, he feels himself fundamentally broken, transformed from a man into a "brute" -- essentially experiencing the underlying project of slavery itself (the dehumanization of an entire race of people). Yet Douglass also describes how, during this period of his life, he would often deliver "an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships" -- eloquent declarations about freedom and bondage that serve as tribute to his enduring human spirit. 

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Edward Covey
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass experiences a "glorious resurrection ... to the heaven of freedom" during his time under Mr. Covey's watch. One hot August afternoon, at the Biblically significant time of 3pm (the same time of Christ's crucifixion), Douglass finally loses his physical strength. When he is whipped by Mr. Covey, as expected, he decides to complain to his master about Mr. Covey's behavior -- which he later does. On his way back from his master's house (his journey after complaining to his master), Douglass receives a superstitious root from the slave Sandy Jenkins. The root seems to prevent Douglass from being beaten; as Douglass carries it, Mr. Covey speaks to him kindly. Then, the next day, when Mr. Covey attempts to whip Douglass, Douglass engages in a physical combat with Mr. Covey.

Douglass successfully fights Covey off; they brawl, and Covey does not whip Douglass as he intends to do. With this physical victory, Douglass has reclaimed his "manhood." He is a slave in "form," but not in "fact." He has taken one step towards freedom, and this progression begins to suggest how complicated and difficult the process to attaining freedom must be -- it doesn't just mean physically escaping the South, but also rebuilding one's identity as a human being in full possession of one's self.

“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass moves on January first, 1934, and then comes under the control of William Freeland, who replaces Covey. In Douglass's estimation, Freeland is not as nefarious as Covey; he does not maintain a pretense of Christian piety, which serves as a protective barrier (a "dark shelter") which can most powerfully cover "the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders." Here, Douglass redefines who the worst slaveowners are; they are not merely "adopted slaveowners," who receive slaves later in life, but they are the Christian owners who attempt to justify their deeds (the most foul actions) with the covering of hypocritical piety.

Appendix Quotes

“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, 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.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass provides an Appendix here in order to clarify certain points which he feels he may have misrepresented in his narrative. Firstly, he comments on religion; as a Christian man himself, Douglass clarifies that he is not against Christianity, but is only opposed to the hypocritical form of Christianity common among slaveowners. After the narrative proper, Douglass directly praises Christian doctrine itself -- as "good, pure, and holy," and as essential to life. He thus aligns his narrative with the Christian audience from the North, allying himself to his likely audience through the medium of religion, while also avoiding any criticisms that he is "unchristian" because of his condemnation of religious slaveowners. Indeed, this critique of people who twist and corrupt religion for their own cruel purposes is one of the most enduring lessons of Douglass's narrative.