The 19th century human rights giant was no passive consumer of religion or religiosity. Douglass frequently criticized the complicity of organized religion in the barbaric institution of slavery. He often locked horns with black church leadership who faulted him for not “thanking” God for the progress the country and the abolitionist movement made in dismantling slavery after the Civil War. In 1870, Douglass said “I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance,” and “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.” Douglass’ rebuke of the knee jerk dogma of religious observance was made in response to the passage of the 15th amendment during an Anti-Slavery society convention address in which several speakers waxed on about God’s divine intervention and influence upon Emancipation. Then, as now, a group of Negro preachers came out of the woodwork to wield their “God-given” moral authority like a bludgeon. Outraged by Douglass’ opposition to teaching the Bible in schools, they quickly passed an anti-Douglass Resolution that said:
That we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race, and will not vote to retain the Bible…in our public schools.*
Buried in the over-heated rhetoric about the critical role of organized religion in the African American experience is seminal criticism of Christianity by Douglass and other forerunning African American activist thinkers. So Douglass’ example is important for two reasons. One it highlights the intellectual resistance to the received norms that prevailed during the post-bellum period. Secondly, it allows African American skeptics, freethinkers and others to claim a parallel humanist tradition amidst the theologically tilted legacy of black liberation.
*From Herbert Aptheker, “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter,” ed. Anthony Pinn, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism.