The Slave Narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass
Selective Christianity in the Slave Narrative
Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass were among the most influential black writers that came out of the Pre-Civil War era. In their slave narratives, they both endured similar hardships throughout their lives as slaves, though one was allegedly taken from Africa and the other was born in America. These two men lived vastly different lives and their works were published with over half a century between them, the oppression and torment that they endured were of the same vein. Christianity often plays a key role in slavery for both the slaves and the slaveholders. Each party has their own way of looking at religion, and they both use it to justify their actions, whether it is for abolition of slavery or for the right to own slaves and to treat them as such. From the time Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789 to the time Douglass published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, with David Walker’s “Appeal” appearing in the middle in 1829, the theme of this “selective-Christianity” between the slaves and slaveholders has remained a constant throughout and can still be found today in our own society.
Equiano’s work is regarded by many as the prototype of the slave narrative. Not only is it the same first-hand testimony style as many others that would follow, but it also has the same recurring themes that are found in later works by slave writers that came after him. His emphasis on the horrors of slavery is purposely being brought into the foreground, persuading readers to call for immediate abolition. He states, “May the God of heaven inspire your hearts with peculiar benevolence on that important day when the question of Abolition is to be discussed” (191). He is using God to his advantage here by telling them that when it’s time to discuss abolition, God will inspire them with the will to do good because Christianity and abolition go hand in hand.
Equiano uses an important rhetorical strategy by telling of his African origin to create the sense that he is a person that the reader can believe, especially when he openly criticizes imperialism. He describes in great detail the physical and mental abuse he endured as a slave on the Middle Passage, until finally he says, “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” (209). This quote is an undeniable reference to the Christian hypocrisy he observes from the white slaveholders. If you follow God, and God says to do unto all men as you would want others to do unto you, how is it justifiable to own slaves and to degrade them as such? It is important to note that Equiano was a slave himself that made his way across the Atlantic and saw first-hand the atrocities of slavery and the corruption of power in the hands of the white slaveholders. He relies on biblical references to convince readers that Africans are in fact human and that they do feel pain. The Bible is full of passages that speak of the equality of all men, so if these people are Christian, why aren’t they following their own religious text? Equiano could have quoted the Bible itself with Deuteronomy 24:7, which says “If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and though shalt put evil away from among you”. Given this is speaking directly about the brethren of the children of Israel, if the slaveholders believed that all men are created equal, this should apply to the blacks as well. Equiano makes connections in his narrative between the African people and the Jews. Exodus 21:16 says “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death”. This verse is very straightforward in saying that it is wrong to steal a man, even from a pagan land, like Equiano was.
Even with all of these Bible verses that are clearly against the holding of slaves, the slaveholders were still able to justify their own actions using the Bible. Jesus himself never actually said anything in the Bible about slavery, but the Bible is full of quotable verses about slavery being justifiable. For example, Ephesians 6:5 says “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ”. Leviticus 25:44 says “Thy bondmen, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen …And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever”. This is only two of many verses in the Bible that condone the slaveholders’ actions for holding slaves. Equiano and the other slaves are all from Africa, a heathen nation. This verse is clearly stating that they can take slaves from pagan nations around them. This is what can be called “selective Christianity”, where you pick and choose verses that correspond with your own beliefs and disregard the others. This willful ignorance and Christian hypocrisy is just as prevalent among slaveholders half a century later.
Frederick Douglass published “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” in 1845. Douglass was born in America so he didn’t have fond memories of Africa to draw sympathy from his readers like Equiano did. Instead, he uses his own rhetorical strategy that would later be used by other black writers like Booker T. Washington. In these early narratives, sympathy from the reader was extremely important, especially if the author wanted them to change their position on slavery and support abolition. His text is yet another first person account of the cruelty of the institution of slavery. His first encounter with this brutality is during the scene where his aunt Hester was whipped for disobeying her master’s orders. Douglass is so horrified by this display that he couldn’t even write his feelings about it on paper. “’Now you d—-d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor” (398). This scene of Douglass’s Aunt Hester’s whipping is very powerful. It not only reflects the brutal nature of the beatings the slaves received, but it also supports the idea that slaves are in fact human beings after all. White people that read this passage would yield sympathy for Aunt Hester and for young Douglass for having to watch it happen. Douglass hid in a closet while all of this was happening, full of terror, drawing more sympathy from his readers all the while. There are other scenes with similar outcomes, such as the slave Demby’s shooting by Mr. Gore, and the Hands at the yard beating Bailey. All of this violence throughout Douglass’s narrative shows with full intention the hypocrisy of Christianity at this time among the slaveholders. This all ties in with the selective Christianity that Equiano saw throughout his narrative.
To Douglass, it wasn’t only this false Christianity that made slaveholders so cruel toward their slaves. Sophia Auld was Frederick’s new mistress in Baltimore after he moved. He says “…here I saw what I had never seen before, it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions” (408). As a woman, the readers would expect to see her with kindly emotions. She was a caring woman with a kind heart, but irresponsible power took hold of her. “Alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such… 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” (409). Douglass is arguing that it isn’t just the people’s ideals and using the Bible as justification that has made them so cruel; he is saying that anybody can become cruel and hateful under the influence of slavery. Slavery itself is responsible for their cruelty. Auld had never owned a slave before at this point, so she was untainted by the horrors that it brings. Not only does slavery de-humanize the slaves themselves, but it also makes the slaveholders just as barbaric. This is yet another instance where he is using sympathy to win over his readers.
Douglass uses Mr. Auld’s conversion to Christianity to further the argument of false Christianity. Auld puts on an image of being a proper Christian, but after his conversion, the cruelty only increases. “In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp meeting held in the Bay-side… I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate the slaves… and if he did not do this, it would at any rate; make him more kind and humane” (419). Douglass, as well as his readers, would imagine that a master converting to Christianity would make him a kinder master, but it was the opposite. “It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. 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” (419). This again refers back to the selective Christianity theme and the hypocrisy of the Christian slaveholders. On one hand they hold themselves as upstanding citizens, but in actuality they are using this false image that they have created to justify cruelty and atrocious behavior toward Douglass and the other slaves. Douglass mentions that there are only a couple of true Christians in the community and that they have actual sympathy for slaves. This is important because he is further separating the line between a “true” and a “selective” Christian.
Throughout the era of the slave narrative, there are recurring themes of the role of violence in slavery, the comparability of Christianity to the abolition movement, and the selective Christianity held by the slaveholders. There are passages in the Bible that can accommodate almost any belief, as long as you take verses that conform to your ideas literally and disregard the ones that don’t. Both Equiano and Douglass saw that this was happening, and used their writings to call out the hypocrisy of Christianity. They argued that “true” Christianity and abolition go hand in hand, and they questioned the validity of the slaveholders even calling themselves Christian, in hopes that their readers would sympathize and help them in their quest for the abolition of slavery.
Gates Jr, Henry Louis, and Nellie Y. McKay. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2ed. New York: W.W. Norton and company, 2004. Print.
The King James Bible. Ed. Thomas Nelson. Nelson Regency, 1990. Print.