Black History

The Lost History of Frederick Douglass and the Black Church

While the oratorical skills and written works of Frederick Douglass have long been discussed and studied, at one time he was only known as a lay preacher in local Black churches.

His acculturation began in early childhood in the Tuckahoe region of Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Methodist camp meetings were regularly held in an improvised church. For those familiar with the history of America’s oldest Black institution, it should come as no surprise that Douglass’ initial development as an advocate for the liberation of his people, like so many others both before and after him, began in the church.

During the recent premier of the four-part series, “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” which continues to be shown on PBS, historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates provided insight to the lesser-known roots of Douglass as forged in the Black Church.

Before his self-emancipation in 1838, Douglass attended religious and community services at several churches serving the Black community, even risking retribution to serve as a Sabbath schoolteacher to the free and enslaved in Talbot County. In and around Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, he found mentors, men of faith who would foretell his great importance as a conduit for divine work. Drawn to the anti-slavery doctrine of Methodism, he came to understand that his peculiar condition was indeed unnatural.

Settling in Massachusetts upon his escape, he became both influenced by and involved, with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church. His decision to settle with the church would be fueled by his discovery that another local Methodist church in New Bedford, Massachusetts did not uphold the anti-slavery tenet which Douglass knew to be central to the denomination. In the services of the Black ministry of that town he found “devoted men” of “high character” who would have an ineradicable influence on his career.

Published just weeks after his death on Feb. 20, 1895, and subsequent funeral service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church just blocks away from the White House, Douglass had written to AMEZ Bishop James Walker Hood.

“I look back to the days I spent in little Zion, New Bedford, in the several capacities of sexton, steward, class leader, clerk and local preacher, as among the happiest days of my life,” he wrote. “As early as 1839, I obtained a license from the Quarterly Conference as a local preacher and often occupied the pulpit by request of the preacher in charge. No doubt that the exercise of my gifts in this vocation helped to prepare me for the wider sphere of usefulness which I have since occupied. It was from this Zion church that I went forth to the work of delivering my brethren from bondage.”

The Black church has been, all at once, a seat of government, a schoolhouse and a cultural and spiritual repository for African Americans. Its bishops and ministers have served as its congress, its teachers and its custodians of their faith and traditions.

With a thorough study of this far-reaching history, we can gain new perspective on the many networks of devout, stalwart Black ministers who found a prophetical voice in Frederick Douglass.

Moving forward there remains an incredible opportunity to mobilize existing church and faith-based networks and communities within the District and Baltimore metropolitan regions to share a more complete story of Frederick Douglass and the Black Church.

John Muller, author of “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” (2012), is co-founder of Lost History Associates, with Justin McNeil. McNeil attended Saint Augustine Catholic School in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse College in Atlanta.

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