“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and African American Secularism

On this day in 1852, Frederick Douglass gave one of the most powerful antislavery speeches of the 19th century, an effort that historian David Blight refers to as “the rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism.”[1] Douglass’s speech in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall is rightfully viewed as an important enunciation of black abolitionist thought and black political theory. Indeed, when I have taught the early U.S. history survey or advanced courses on American intellectual history to the Civil War, that is how I have presented the work. I’d like to suggest another reading for the speech, however, namely as one of the first articulations of African American secularism.

Douglass begins his speech by praising the Founding Fathers and the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence. He quickly moves to a critique of America’s civil religion, however, noting that “this Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”[2] After blasting America’s civil religion, Douglass goes on to offer one of the strongest critiques of American Christianity among 19th century black abolitionists.

Douglass notes first that because American churches support the Fugitive Slave Act, “that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards men.” If ministers throughout the North were to treat the Fugitive Slave Act as a violation of Christian liberty, he argues, there is no way the law would stand. At the same time that the church is indifferent to the sufferings of the slave, he posits, it also “takes sides with the oppressors. It had made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slavehunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.” For his part, Douglass thundered that he would “welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! In preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines.”[3]

Douglass’s strident anticlericalism articulated in this speech would be a key feature of African American secularism from the mid-19th century to the present. African American secularism can be defined as a commitment to promoting liberty, equality, and economic justice through a focus on reason and human rights rather than the authority of God. This commitment has most often been present among atheists and agnostics, however one’s specific theological orientation is not as important as one’s commitment to fostering the public good by relying on reason and not faith. While Douglass’s religious views, in his words, “pass[ed] over the whole scale and circle of belief and unbelief, from faith in the overruling Providence of God, to the blackest atheism,” for most of his career after the speech on the Fourth of July, he articulated humanistic and secularistic viewpoints when it came to freedom for slaves and equality for blacks.[4] As he notes in his speech before the final meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1870, while many people have thanked God for freeing the slaves, “I like to thank men…I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and such women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere.”[5]

[1] David W. Blight, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, with Related Documents 2nd edition (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 146.

[2] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” ibid, 156.

[3] Ibid, 163, 164.

[4] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, Volume 2, ed. John W. Blassingame, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 130.

[5] Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter” in Anthony B. Pinn, ed. By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 79.

Comments on ““What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and African American Secularism

  • This is a fantastic post, and an important way of seeing the famous Douglass speech. Many folks I know on Twitter and Facebook were posting the speech yesterday. I’m curious–do you (or any others on this blog) think there are any 20th century equivalents to this speech? As in, an African American public figure making an address that not only indicts American civil religion but, in some sense, strongly condemns perceived passivity by American clergy on major issues? I could probably think of a few candidates who’d make such a speech.

    • I have certainly read a couple speeches to that effect by Malcolm X, including “The Ballot or the Bullet” and I believe his “Message to the Grassroots” as well. It’s actually hard not to find a Malcom X speech where he isn’t denouncing the “so-called Negro preachers,” but his anti-clericalism did not extend nearly as far as that of Douglass.

  • Well done Chris. I have long wondered why so many in the African American community do not hold this view more openly and more often. So many of us have adopted the religions that were used for more than a century to justify enslaving our ancestors, it has never made sense to me. Yet research shows that African Americans are more likely to self-identify as religious.

    As the far right has fought harder and harder to claim faith as its own we have seen things like Barack Obama identified as a muslim, a radical Black Christian, and an atheist, each of these things has been coded as un-American. Still is is difficult to imagine any major African American figure openly denouncing Christianity in the way Douglass does in this address.

    Lots to think about, great post. I am looking forward to reading this blog.

    • Thank you Bryn. It is very surprising that there have not been more black secularists in American history, but of course religious ideology and language has been a powerful tool for achieving abolitionism and civil rights, among other political goals. Most of the recent black freethinkers I have come across have either been artists and writers such as Nella Larsen and Richard Wright who were not as worried about holding unorthodox views, or labor and civil rights activists such as A. Phillip Randolph and James Forman who downplayed their irreligiosity.

  • This is a very interesting reading of Douglass’s speech. I look forward to reading more about Douglass in the history of African American humanism.

    In the meantime, per Robert’s great question, a parallel speech that quickly comes to mind is an April 1952 address that W. E. B. Du Bois delivered to a Baptist minister’s conference at Abyssinian Baptist in NYC—about 6 months after famously defeating the US government and its claims that he was working for Moscow. Titled “The Church and War and Peace” Du Bois chastised the church for its complicity in war-mongering and unwillingness to stand up for peace: “Not only is this program patently unchristian, but it is so large and difficult a task that it certainly calls for thought and investigation,” he said. Du Bois believed that the basic message of Jesus Christ equipped clergy to offer an alternative voice to the choruses clamoring for war. “Remember, you are supposed to bring to this moral problem an unusual point of view laid down by Jesus Christ which declared, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. . . But I say unto you, love your enemies and bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.’” Du Bois lamented, “The history of the Christian church has not been the following of this creed; and the question which faces you today is whether or not you still profess this creed or have definitely surrendered it?” Du Bois answered his own query by observing, “There is no war from the year 1 to 1952, which has not had a majority of the church militant shouting and singing, ‘The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain, His blood-red banner floats afar, who follows in his train.’” As Du Bois did in other late-career speeches, he reworked biblical passages to fit the political situation of the historical moment: “But we have not yet learned with Zechariah ‘not by might nor by power,’ not by atom bombs and germ warfare can righteousness prevail.”

    While one speech does not capture the nuances of Du Bois’s thoughts on civil religion—Ed Blum’s book addresses this in detail, as does David Howard-Pitney’s excellent chapter in the collected titled The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections—let alone definitively answer the question of Du Bois’s secularism (see Phil Zuckerman’s writing on Du Bois’s “irreligiosity”), pairing these speeches (as well as those already suggested in the comments) would make for an interesting analytical comparison as a classroom exercise or as a scholarly project.

    The text of Du Bois’s 23-page 1952 speech is available in the Du Bois digital archive: http://credo.library.umass.edu/cgi-bin/pdf.cgi?id=scua:mums312-b202-i026

    • Thank you for these excellent sources Phillip. My book on black freethinkers is going to have a chapter on early 20th century black politics and secularism so Du Bois will likely figure large in it. I had come across some of his arguments against religion in his autobiography so these will be a great addition.

    • This Du Bois speech is an excellent parallel to Douglass. In both cases the criticism is not of the religion itself, but of the failures of its leaders to promote what Douglass and Du Bois each see as the underlying principles of the faith. As you note, Chris, Douglass says that ministers could have the power to tear down the Fugitive Slave Law. We might say that he’s holding out hope that religious leaders could decide to use their authority to promote the public good. I am always struck by this sort of dwelling in possibility that emerges in African American protest.

  • Thank you for this post. In my own work I have been very interested in Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s critiques of civil religion during her anti-lynching crusade, especially overseas. This post and the subsequent comments present new and interesting perspectives for me. I look forward to more.

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