Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis of Chapter IX


Douglass could now give dates in his narrative. It was March 1832 when he went to live with Master Thomas Auld. It had been seven years since they last saw each other and both were strangers to each other. He and his wife were equally cruel and mean. Douglass once again felt the pangs of hunger, something he had not experienced for quite some time. It was actually not considered respectable to keep one's slaves hungry; no matter how coarse the food, it was commonly understood that slaves should have enough to eat. Douglass and his sister Eliza, his aunt Priscilla, and another woman named Henny were forced to beg and steal from neighbors.

Even though most slaveholders had some redeeming features, Douglass identified not a single one in Master Thomas. He never performed a single noble act. He was mean and made no effort to conceal is cruelty. His meanness was matched by his cowardice and his impulsiveness. He was not effective at enforcing rules and commands. He had only recently come into having slaves and was not able to imitate those men who had owned slaves for a long time. Neither force nor fear nor fraud could compel his slaves to do what he wanted.

In August of 1832 Thomas and Rowena experienced religious conversion at a Methodist camp meeting in Talbot county. Unfortunately, this conversion did not make them kinder or more charitable; rather, after Thomas's conversion "he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty." He maintained an intense pretension to piety. The house was filled with prayer, and many preachers came to stay with Douglass's master and mistress. The slaves were starved but the preachers were well-fed.

Once a young white man named Mr. Wilson came, and he set up a Sabbath school for the slaves to help them learn the New Testament. After only three sessions, a couple of the other preachers came in with sticks and other weapons to drive the slaves off and end the school.

Douglass continued to discuss how his master used religion to prop up his barbarism. He was most brutal towards Henny, the lame young woman who worked in the kitchen. He often whipped her mercilessly and quoted Scripture at her at the same time. She was often tied up for hours at a time and left alone, but when Thomas returned he would beat and whip her again.

The reason Douglass identified for Master Thomas's intense cruelty toward Henny was the fact that she was almost helpless. She had been burnt in a fire and could barely use her hands, thus making her more of a burden on Master Thomas. He seemed "desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence."

Master Thomas told Douglass several times that his city living had almost ruined him for every purpose. Occasionally Douglass would seek to bring this claim to fruition by letting his master's horse run away, and would follow it down to his father-in-law's farm where he could at least be assured of getting something to eat. Master Thomas became so frustrated with Douglass that he told him he was going to lend him to a poor man named Edward Covey for a year; Covey had a reputation as a breaker of young slaves on his farm. Covey was also a religious man, a leader in the Methodist church. Douglass was actually happy to try his luck at Covey's farm, only because he hoped for a full meal.


Frederick Douglass's Narrative explicitly deals with religion; his work is an attack on slaveholders' concept of Christianity and locates the true faith in the religion of the slaves. As Sharon Carson details in her influential article on liberation and theology in the Narrative, Douglass employs a rhetorical strategy that moves from subtle to explicit claims of religious authority, uses irony to rearrange white Christians' understanding of their religion, uses metaphor to "powerfully and symbolically [indict] mainstream Christianity at its foundation," and affirms the significance of traditional African religious tenets. The black community, not the white community that affirms and perpetuates slavery, is where real Christianity can be found.

The first reference to religion is in Douglass's disavowal of slaveholders' argument that slavery was legitimate because Africans were the children of the cursed Ham. Slaves' songs are referred to as prayers, and they are thus sanctified and part of a communion with God. In one of the Narrative's most explicit religious passages, Douglass writes that he believed his selection to leave Lloyd's plantation and move to Baltimore was due to divine intervention: "I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed this opinion" (30). Carson notes how the passage nearly turns sermon-like, but that "Douglass realigns [white Christian readers'] usual associations with this religious language and imagery."

The fact that Douglass believes himself to be "selected" is a claim for "absolute religious authority for African-American experience in antebellum America," as Carson writes. Since Douglass associates himself with the messianic authority of Christ, he makes a profound and fundamental assertion about how his and other slaves' religion, not that of white mainstream Christianity, is legitimate. In another evocation of religion, this time more violent and radical, Douglass calls on the avenging angel of a just God when he writes of the lamentable condition of his poor, abandoned elderly grandmother.

The Narrative also brings elements of a traditional African religious experience to the framework of Christianity. Many Africans embraced the biblical stories about the struggles of Israel. Douglass's autobiography claims the authority of an active, not passive, God, and appropriates the language of the New Testament as well. His challenge to his readers, accomplished through appealing to them with familiar language and stories, "shifts the round beneath their feet" and presents a serious contestation to their beliefs.

As for "folk" African religion, it is exemplified through the slave Sandy Jenkins's exhortation for Douglass to carry with him a special root that would prevent Covey and other slaveholders from touching him. This hearkens to a divine authority outside the Judeo-Christian framework. The root is more complex than it initially seems, for while it does not appear to actually work, it "becomes fused with action – the physical act of resistance becomes an incarnation, so to speak, of Douglass's appropriation of the sacred, in both its Judeo-Christian and African forms." Clearly, the power of this African tradition persisted beyond the colonial era where the fusion between Christianity and African religion was most pronounced. In Douglass's tale, it allows for confrontation, violence, and resistance to the evil of slavery (personified by Covey).

Religion is thus one of the most important themes of the Narrative. Carson concludes that Douglass "condemns mainstream Christianity as the spiritual undergirding of a corrupt slaveholding society. He draws clear connections, both metaphorical and explicit, between religion and the primary institutions of the nation. He ultimately locates 'true' religious authority in himself and the black community."

(Please see Summary and Analysis for Chapter XI and Appendix for more information about Douglass and religion).