Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born into slavery in Maryland. He escaped slavery as a young man, and became the most prominent black abolitionist of his time. He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, and was a powerful orator. He was a firm believer in the equality of all people and often said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” In this selection from his autobiography (pages 82-84), Douglass declares that it was faith that enabled him to endure the sufferings of slavery, and it was faith that gave him the hope that he would someday be free. He was an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Previously to my contemplation of the anti-slavery movement, my mind had been seriously awakened to the subject of religion. I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God: that they were by nature rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise.
I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.
While thus religiously seeking knowledge, I continued my acquaintance with Lawson. This man not only prayed three times a day, but he prayed as he walked through the streets, at his work, on his dray– everywhere. His life was a life of prayer, and his words when he spoke to any one, were about a better world. Uncle Lawson lived near Master Hugh’s house, and becoming deeply attached to him, I went often with him to prayer-meeting, and spent much of my leisure time with him on Sunday. The old man could read a little, and I was a great help to him in making out the hard words, for I was a better reader than he. I could teach him “the letter,” but he could teach me “the spirit,” and refreshing times we had together, in singing and praying. These meetings went on for a long time without the knowledge of Master Hugh or my mistress. Both knew, however, that I had become religious, and seemed to respect my conscientious piety.
…Uncle Lawson was my spiritual father and I loved him intensely, and was at his house every chance I could get… The good old man had told me that the “Lord had a great work for me to do,” and I must prepare to do it; that he had been shown that I must preach the gospel. His words made a very deep impression upon me, and I verily felt that some such work was before me, though I could not see how I could ever engage in its performance. “The good Lord would bring it to pass in his own good time,” he said, and that I must go on reading and studying the scriptures. This advice and these suggestions were not without their influence on my character and destiny. He fanned my already intense love of knowledge into a flame by assuring me that I was to be a useful man in the world. When I would say to him, “How can these things be? and what can I do?” his simple reply, was, “Trust in the Lord.” When I would tell him, “I am a slave, and a slave for life, how can I do anything?” he would quietly answer, “The Lord can make you free, my dear; all things are possible with Him; only have faith in God. ‘Ask, and it shall be given you.’ If you want liberty, ask the Lord for it in FAITH, and he will give it to you.”
Thus assured and thus cheered on under the inspiration of hope, I worked and prayed with a light heart, believing that my life was under the guidance of a wisdom higher than my own. With all other blessings sought at the mercy seat, I always prayed that God would, of his great mercy and in his own good time, deliver me from my bondage.
I Peter 5:6-7 — Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Luke 11:9-10 — (Jesus said), “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
John 8:36 — So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Frederick Douglass’s Prayer for Freedom:
O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!… O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it… I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; 100 miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God is helping me, and I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.