Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, by D.H. Dilbeck
It is one of those ironies of history that it has required a place within the Church to make a genuine prophetic message. There are a great many people–Frederick Douglass included–who have criticized American churches for hypocrisy when it came to matters of justice for blacks, and in many cases this criticism was at least partially just, as it is frequently partially just to this day (if not as just as self-appointed prophets think). This book is a short biography of Frederick Douglass on the one hand, but one that focuses specifically on the role of religion in his life, for even if he had an ambivalent relationship with the church, he was always deeply influenced by his relationship with God and Jesus Christ and his commitment to the ideals of justice that he found in the Bible and that he believed American Christians should model, even though they all too often did not and do not. Like many of his associates in the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass had little sense for prudential morality, though he had more than some of his associates, and this has always been a failing of the left-wing varieties of Christianity that have sought to turn this fallen earth into a heavenly kingdom.
This book is about 150 pages long and it is divided into ten short chapters and three parts. The author begins with a discussion of Frederick Douglass as a voice crying out in the supposed wilderness of Christian slaveowning America. After this the author looks at Douglass as the seeking slave (I), with chapters on God and slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland (1), his religious awakening in Baltimore (2), and his move from slavery to freedom (3). This leads to his career as a zealous orator (II), including his beginnings as an abolitionist orator (4), his bearing witness in Great Britain (5), and his belief in the Constitution as antislavery as well as in righteous violence (6). After that the author discusses Douglass as a hopeful prophet (III) in the rest of his life, including his thoughts on the crisis of the Civil War (7), the reconstruction battles over racial and gender equality (8), his thoughts about the beginnings of Jim Crow (9), and the author’s thoughts about divine providence and progress (10), after which there is a conclusion, acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
In what sense was Frederick Douglass America’s prophet? For one, he certainly had a prophetic attitude about him. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on the circumstances. On the positive side, he certainly did accurately predict that the Civil War would be ultimately fatal for the cause of American slaveowners because of the way in which the conflict inevitably brought Union and liberty together, even if there was not (and is not) sufficient will on the part of either white or black to be at one with the other. The author, moreover, seems to rejoice in the idea of a multicultural society and thinks that this is a good thing rather than a problem, which tends to result in predictably skewed thoughts about identity as it relates to the United States. It is not that this book is a bad one, it is just that the author is not always a wise prophet and so it makes the account of Frederick Douglass a bit less than accurate as well. All too often we can be no wiser prognosticators ourselves when we seek to use historical figures to speak on our behalf, and that is the case here, even if this is still a worthwhile book for other reasons.