The Holiness and Greatness of Frederick Douglass

We have been meditating lately on the marks of holiness such as Joy, Courage, Justice, and Generosity that underscored the life, work and martyrdoms of Sister Dorothy Stang and Alexei Navalny.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass in 1880 by Civil War photographer Matthew B. Brady. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Black History Month. When one thinks of the holiness of great heroes and sheroes of black America, one thinks of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Howard Thurman, Sojourner Truth, and many other musicians, writers, poets, actors, and athletes. 

Let us also hold up the amazing story and stature of Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), who has been called “the most influential black man in 19th-century America” who underwent “untold acts of brutality” as a teenaged slave, but then “audaciously willed his own freedom and escaped from slavery.”   

An exquisite orator and writer, he is said to have “mastered the master’s language” and “saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation.”*  He has been called a social reformer, abolitionist, writer, orator and statesman.

James Earl Jones reads Frederick Douglass’s historic speech from 1852, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Video by Democracy Now! 

His three autobiographies—1200 pages of reflections on his storied life—include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (published in 1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892).

Douglass published an abolitionist newspaper for 16 years, supported the Underground Railroad by which fellow slaves escaped to the northern states; became the first African-American to receive a vote for President of the United States; journeyed to Ireland and England where he was bought out of slavery, because his success in lecturing and publishing in the US rendered him so visible, he could be yanked back into slavery; and both counseled and criticized Abraham Lincoln, who welcomed him to the White House on three occasions. 

A poster announcing a lecture by Frederick Douglass, 1863. Image in public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

He also strongly supported the women’s rights movement, and attended their first conference held in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848, which declared that “all men and women are created equal.”  However, he failed to convince the two founders, Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to include black women in their movement for justice for women.

Among his teachings that seem especially pertinent today, 129 years after his death, is this: The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.  

To be continued.

* What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies | HISTORY

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest, pp. 300-326.

And Fox, Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth.

And Fox, Original Blessing.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Freeing of the Slaves, a mural in the Law Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Art by John Steuart Curry, 1942. Wikimedia Commons. 

Queries for Contemplation

How does Douglass’s call for honesty, truthfulness and virtue strike you as being pertinent to today’s politics and media in America?

Recommended Reading

Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Revised/Updated Edition)

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.
“The unfolding story of this irrepressible spiritual revolutionary enlivens the mind and emboldens the heart — must reading for anyone interested in courage, creativity, and the future of religion.”
—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self

Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth

Fox’s spirituality weds the healing and liberation found in North American Creation Spirituality and in South American Liberation Theology. Creation Spirituality challenges readers of every religious and political persuasion to unite in a new vision through which we learn to honor the earth and the people who inhabit it as the gift of a good and just Creator.
“A watershed theological work that offers a common ground for religious seekers and activists of all stripes.” — Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.

Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox lays out a whole new direction for Christianity—a direction that is in fact very ancient and very grounded in Jewish thinking (the fact that Jesus was a Jew is often neglected by Christian theology): the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, the Vias Positiva, Negativa, Creativa and Transformativa in an extended and deeply developed way.
Original Blessing makes available to the Christian world and to the human community a radical cure for all dark and derogatory views of the natural world wherever these may have originated.” –Thomas Berry, author, The Dream of the Earth; The Great Work; co-author, The Universe Story

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7 thoughts on “The Holiness and Greatness of Frederick Douglass”

  1. Avatar

    Yes, the average person can not distinguish truth from falsehood. People can be convinced that other people are not human. Appearance vs. truth – koan – WORDS ARE TRAPS. “Let’s call these people animals and make money from slavery.” Think and feel about the contradiction inside the slave owners, that they must have tried to suppress when they made slaves have sex with them. Then, were slave owners performing bestiality in their minds? Emotional savagery hides all around us. Remember the Ku Klux Klan?

  2. Avatar

    There is the Golden Calf and the Golden Rule.

    When Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of the law (a version of the golden rule) he saw his people worshipping the golden calf (the accumulated wealth of his people). Today we are witness to politicians and media trashing the golden rule (truth justice virtue) when it interferes with access to the flow (teats) of money.

    Frederick Douglass is just one example of what Jesus had to say about truth:
    “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, and nothing hidden that will not be made known.” Luke 12:2.

  3. Avatar

    I only first heard this speech as an adult over 40. Its brilliance and truth were astounding. Douglas was a saint in my estimation. And surprisingly he spoke eloquently first about the founding of America and its first principles before he bared his soul of the pain, oppression and longing for liberation.
    I hope people will see the movie Harriet ( on Netflix) for another example of a woman’s fierce desire for freedom and her acts of setting others free. This IS American history. We all need to acknowledge it. Thank you for bringing Frederick Douglas to our minds today!

    1. Avatar

      Harriet was truly a remarkable woman, and I hope, with you, that people will watch the movie. It is tragic that here in Florida and elsewhere teachers are afraid to teach history about slavery for fear of making some white child “uncomfortable”. The notion that slavery had any benefits at all to the slaves is presented as truth, as if slavery were some kind of trade school. Honesty, truthfulness and virtue are still at risk. We must all do our part to support the truth.

  4. Avatar

    The words of Frederick Douglass recited by James Earl Jones in today’s enclosed DM video are very powerful that still apply to many Americans, especially the racist ignorant MAGA followers of Trump!!! They are so deluded and brainwashed by their autocratic racist ‘leader’ who wants to become president again with more oppression and vengeance in mind, like Hitler did with German society in the recent last century. All of us who truly believe in democratic and spiritual values such as LOVE, Truth, Equality, Peace, Justice, Freedom, Compassion… need to be vigilant and courageous in speaking, writing, acting, and asserting these values for not only our True American values, but around the world for humanity because they are also Universal Spiritual values of Loving Diverse ONENESS….

    1. Avatar
      Sister Joanne Walters OP

      I say amen to everything that Damon has written. Our tumultuous world has never needed peace more than now and freedom and we still need to have freedom for our black brothers and sisters. I will Latino brothers and sisters, all of our brothers and sisters all those who are so afraid to accept as brother and sister, and I pray that the words of Frederick Douglass will touch the heart of many, and open us more deeply to accept those prejudices which we have had in the past, and pray that we will no longer have them, and we will embrace everyone as our brother and sister as our brother Jesus has commanded us.

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