There are two forms of Christianity represented in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and each are described and function differently throughout the text. Based on Douglass’ personal recollections and thoughts in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, there are both real and false versions of religion and generally, the real or “true” form of Christianity is practiced by himself as well as some whites who are opposed to slavery. The false form of religion, or what the author explained in one of the important quotes in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : An American Slave, “the hypocritical Christianity of this land” (95) is practiced by whites, most notably Mr. Covey, and is a complete bastardization of the true ideals behind genuine Christian thought.
Through his discussions of religion that are interspersed throughout The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the reader gets the sense that slavery and true Christianity are opposing forces and one cannot be present while the other exists. Not only is the simultaneous existence of the true version Christianity with slavery impossible, it appears that even if real Christianity does exist in a pure form, the introduction of slavery corrupts it inevitably and completely. As thisthesis statement for The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass suggests, it is for these reasons, Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to reveal the underlying hypocrisy of the slaveholding South as well as the potential redemptive value of his version of true Christianity. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but an overtly political statement about how ideals can be easily contorted to fit the current situation.
It is important to preface this discussion by defining Douglass’ own views of Christianity, aside from the expressions included in his essay at the end. In general, despite his criticisms about how the religion has been subverted and used as an instrument of power within the structure of slavery, Douglass holds quintessential Christian views and clearly does not detest or blame the religion for how it is used by people like Mr. Covey and other members of the Southern churches. For Douglass, giving thanks to God and recognizing good deeds and moral behavior is important and is part of what defines the “true” or “real” form of Christianity rather than the hypocritical slant taken by slave-owning whites. It is clear from the first part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that Frederick Douglass has a firm understanding of the central tenants and stories of the Bible, not necessarily because he espouses that he’s read it multiple times or has been instructed formally about it, but because he is able to apply moral stories to his situation. For instance, near the beginning, Douglass thinks about slavery in the context of biblical and Christian thought when he discusses the children who have been born to white slave owners. He states in one of the important quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : An American Slave, “if their increase will do no other good, it will do away with the force of the arguments, that god cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…” (24).
In his narrative, Frederick Douglass relates biblical and Christian knowledge to his feelings about the inherent wrong of slavery and considers the way these children will grow up with “those fathers most frequently their own masters” (24). By beginning the text with a biblical and Christian statement, Frederick Douglass is signaling to readers his own faith and is placing himself within it. While he goes on to place men like Covey who use the bible as a shield (while practicing none of it) on the hypocritical or “false” end of the Christian spectrum, he is demonstrating his position on what true Christianity is—word from the bible and an inherent sense of right and wrong. According to true Christian doctrine, he later shows his faith again by giving thanks to God instead of using the figure of holiness to appear religious when he recognizes that “Providence is in my favor” and the “good spirit was from God and to him I offer thanks giving and praise” (13) after being moved to Baltimore.
Based on Douglass’ descriptions in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the shift from the true to the false religion, or the Christian to the non-Christian, happens as a direct result of slavery. It is almost as if its very existence fosters some malignant response from slave owning whites and causes them to turn from the “true” Christianity Douglass believes in. As one scholar puts it, “Submerged in his [Douglass’] narrative is the claim that theology as a discourse has functioned to support this warfare of the self” (Carter 37). In other words, the Christian rhetoric, especially in its bastardized form (hypocrisy for instance) is useless and perpetuates a kind of useless struggle between the real and false Christianity and has thus not only lost meaning but has become almost damaging. One of the best examples of this is the case of Mrs. Auld. When Douglass is first introduced to her he is amazed at how kind she is—how unlike the white women of his previous experiences. It is most interesting to note how, without granting descriptions of her church or religious activities, he represents her as angelic and holy and as a perfect model for a Christian woman. He says of her, “Her face was made of heavenly smiles” (14) which makes her immediately angelic along with his discussions about how she did not judge and would allow slaves to look her in the eye like an equal.
With the coming of her instruction on how to treat slaves from her male counterpart, however, it is as if the true Christianity is no longer present or compatible with slave owning. As she “learns” how to treat Douglass, she literally appears to turn into the devil and becomes, in terms of imagery, the opposite of an angel. As Douglass puts it, “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice….that angelic face place to that of a demon” (14). In this passage, she is the shift from true to false Christianity personified and she literally turns from an angel to a devil with the simple introduction of slavery. Douglass mourns this soul’s turning away and says, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I was there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she did not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (16). It seems as though Douglass wishes the reader to equate the state of slavery with a turning away from true Christian values and wants to demonstrate that it can turn even the most docile and pious woman into a creature with “tiger-like fierceness.”