The Opening Paragraphs of "The Church and Prejudice" by Frederick Douglass

In delivering the short speech "The Church and Prejudice" to the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society on November afternoon in 1841, Frederick Douglass gave one of his first major anti-slavery orations (Peacock). Douglass's purpose was not unambitious. Indeed, it was his intent to rebut one of the abolition movement's most serious challenges: the idea that the Bible sanctioned the institution of slavery.

Despite this, his argument is not particularly theological; he offers no distinct Biblical interpretation of his own. Instead, he makes extensive use of parody to highlight incongruities between the behavior of white people in religious settings and the values implicit in their faith. Through the use of powerful anecdotes, he is able to offer a perspective that forcefully undermines religiously-based pro-slavery rhetoric.

“At the South I was a member of the Methodist Church”, Douglass begins. “When I came north, I thought one Sunday I would attend communion, at one of the church's of my denomination...” (Foner). In some ways, the speech hinges on these seemingly innocuous opening lines. By using them, Douglass makes two claims crucial to setting the stage for his rhetoric: first, he identifies himself as not just a Christian, but a Methodist, indicating by his specificity a certain level of religious fluency. This identification will allow him to criticize practices of the church from within rather than without; it is a claim, which legitimizes not just his experiences within the church, but also himself as someone capable of relating those experiences reliably.  Second, he indicates religious continuity in his life that persisted irrespective of station:  he was a Methodist as a slave in the South, and a Methodist as a free man in the North.  The thrust here is strategic rather than tactical: it offers a way for white audience members to identify not just with black free men, but with those still in bondage. They all share a common religious identity.

Having established himself as an experienced member of the church, Douglass is free to move to his first anecdote, in which minister espouses equality under the eyes of God even as he gives communion to white members before black members. Rather than explicitly indicating the incongruity, Douglass makes a metaphorical argument.  Referencing a verse in the book of Matthew (Matthew 13:47-48, New International Version), he wonders if the kingdom of heaven might not be likened to a net, which, when drawn ashore, “these pious Christians [...] had to set down and cull out the fish.  Well, it happened now that some of the fish had rather black scales; so these were sorted out and packed by themselves” (Great American Documents, 1841).

Douglass then moves on to his most poignant anecdote. He tells of a black girl who, having been “baptized in the same water as the rest”, thought she might sit at “the Lord's table” and take sacrament with the white people (Foner). Again, as with his opening lines, Douglass defines the relevant categories in a way that will ultimately suit his rhetorical ends.  He does not call the table “the white table”, though we are meant to understand that it was populated with white people: he calls it the “Lord's table”.  The imagery he evokes to express the shared religious identity is vivid. When the cup of the sacrament was handed around, there was palpable discomfort when the girl accepted it. When she attempted to pass the cup to the young lady next to her, however, a young lady “who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Savior” (Great American Documents, 1841) -the young lady turned up her nose and walked out of the church.

By avoiding legalistic, theological arguments, Douglass does not leave himself open for rebuttal; instead, by indicating incongruities with limited commentary, he relies on his audience's implicit beliefs and assumptions to buttress his case and make his point for him. Ultimately, these anecdotes set a baseline for indignation at prejudice that will make the latter portion of his speech, in which he speaks not of prejudicial sentiments in the North, but outright slavery in the South, much more powerful.

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