The Use of Religion in Du Bois and Douglass

Protest literature changed after the Civil War. A number of style devices – such as sentimentalism, omniscient narrators, the blurring of fiction and fact, apostrophe – were shed from the subsequent texts; but these losses accompanied a much more striking one: the entire genre lost its rallying cry. The slave institution was so horrifying, so glaringly at odds with human justice, morality, and freedom that it functioned as a point of departure for all political writing of the time. Though writers would find other causes in time – Upton Sinclair would attack wage “slavery” a few years into the turn of the century – Black protest literature lost, after Emancipation, a great guiding purpose of its movement.

Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois wrote on either side of this divide. Though towering figures of their own right, not merely “products of their times,” their writings, as documents meant to guide and instruct movements, were indelibly connected to the two different historical needs of the their respective historical moments. Douglass wrote looking at the Promised Land from the outside, and the Du Bois wrote looking at it from within. Douglass’ “What to the Slave of the Fourth of July?” was, thus, singularly channeled to affecting the overthrow of the institutionalized slave system. Du Bois, on the other hand, in The Souls of Black Folk, having witnessed this “dawn of freedom” that left more than four million ex-slaves floating without direction like a “dark human cloud” (Du Bois 17), takes up where Douglass left off, attempting to find historical meaning and direction in the aftermath of a practically illusory Emancipation. The divergence of these historical perspectives and intentions is capture nowhere better than in the rhetoric and formal language that Douglass and Du Bois use when they invoke religion. Douglass’ conception of Christianity was about unity and the hope for redemption; Du Bois used religion as a means to understand the founding division in America.

Christianity for the Abolitionists was the moral basis for bringing an end to the slave system. In his “Fourth of July” oration, Douglass channels Harriet Beecher Stowe by presenting Christianity as a creed that calls for the unity of all people. Christianity, he says, is “a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man” (Douglass 46). He calls slavery the “grossest infringements of Christina Liberty” (Douglass 46), because it violates this call to unity. To think anything else is to “strip the love of God of its beauty” (Douglass 47). This conception of religion as unity is the fundamental claim of abolitionist Christianity of the time period, and an important point in the protest literature tradition. Harriet Beecher Stowe consistently used the image of black and white hands touching, to portray an egalitarian social order propped up by Christian doctrine. She wrote that “in the gates of eternity, the black hand the white hold each other with an equal clasp” (Stowe 276).

A second characteristic of Douglass’ Christianity is its narrative arch. Like Stowe’s, Douglass’ conception was of a fatalist religion, where the damned can either remain in sin or can strive for redemption. His understanding of America was fit within this framework: damned, but still poised for redemption, an idea that was used powerfully by abolitionists in their call for the end of slavery and birth of the “millennium.” “Fourth of July” is divided into three sections, paralleling the Christian prophetic tradition: first, the original ideal of America, second, its present state of hypocrisy and finally, the potential for a hopeful future.

In accordance with the first part of the this narrative arc, the speech begins, as it must, with the statement of the holy “ideal.” Christianity is a monotheistic religion – it stipulates the existence of a set of fundamental, unalterable truths. Channeling this monism, Douglass rewrites the founding of America to be based on a similar set of unalterable ideals. To begin, he says that the Founding Fathers did not adopt the “fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts” (Douglass 38). This is a nod to Christian “transcendence,” where one is asked to look past worldly materialism (the acts of government), and instead appeal to a more essential code. Douglass then says that the founders fought against that which is “unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive” (Douglass 39). Thus, the transcendent ideal of America, according to Douglass, is this: “justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression” (Douglass 40), and it was on these principles that our nation was founded. This first part of the speech is biblical in that it attempts to portray men as prophets – whose “admiration of liberty” caused them to lose “sight of all other interests” (39) – and the founding of the country according to an transcendent and objective good.

The following section concerns the present, and begins with the claim that any understanding of the past is only valuable insofar as “we can make it useful to the present and to the future” (Douglass 41). This is a decidedly unmodern conception of history. It echoes Judeo-Christian use of the past: the bible is a series of stories and laws that occurred in the past but ought to be read as allegories imputing meaning onto our contemporary lives. Douglass declares that the present must be measured against the transcendent-monistic ideals established in the past. He writes:

Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery – the great sin and shame of America! (Douglass 42)

The failure of America is a measurement of itself against is own ideals, the slave institution and “everything that serves to perpetuate slavery” set side-by-side against monistic values such as liberty, the constitution, God, humanity and the Bible that were established at an earlier period. The present state is characterized as a “fall from grace.” Rather than point out the cruelty of slavery, he points to its hypocrisy. “At a time like this,” he says, “scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed” (Douglass 43). He makes the case that America is damned not by showing what the nation is doing, but by pointing to its contradictions, its “national inconsistencies” (Douglass 48). He lists the hypocrisies of a people that “boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization and your pure Christianity” that would speak with “fire at the mention of liberty for France” but “are as cold as an iceberg a the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America” (Douglass 48). So long as there is slavery, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future” (Douglass 42). This is the dynamic of sin – a nation inconsistent with his moral foundation, like a man who disobeys the word of God. Slavery is the “the great sin” (Douglass 42) of America.

Finally, Douglass tells his listeners, that despite the picture he has drawn, “I do not despair of this country” (Douglass 50). In this way, he closes off the narrative arc of prophetic Christianity – fatalism with the promise of the millennium. The sin of slavery has inherent in it the promise of redemption. Two things are noteworthy. First, that he suggests that this is the natural progression of the world. Throughout the speech, Douglass calls Americans “children”: they received a “child’s share in the labor of your father” (Douglass 41). He notes at the outset that, “seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation” (Douglass 37). By calling Americans children, he places them at the beginning of a narrative arch, and suggests a certain teleological certainty that they will grow up to understand the injustices of their youth. He suggests that though our actions are a choice (like the freedom God conferred to us by allowing us sin), the end of slavery is inevitable. “‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain” (Douglass 50). Modernization, what he calls “commerce,” like growing from childhood to adulthood, is a force that will dispel injustice everywhere. It will spread like “fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light’” (Douglass 50). The second point of note, then, is that this narrative arc, accompanied by modernization, adulthood, the dispelling of light onto all palce in earth – that it comes to an end. Douglass castes this as a Judgment Day: he says: “no abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light” (Douglass 50). It is as if he were asking, though without saying any of the words, When the judgment comes, which side to you want to be on?

To this very question, fifty years later, Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk reflects the realization that there is no simple answer. Emancipation proved not to be a panacea. Thus ends the unity, hope and fatalism of Douglass – like a clan that predicted a Judgment Day that never came, or, more precisely, one that came as a false hope or empty illusion. Du Bois writes of the ex-slaves after Emancipation:

It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream; to see the wide vision of empire fade into real ashes and dirt; to feel the pang of the conquered, and yet know that with all the Bad that fell on one black day, something was vanquished that deserved to live… (Du Bois 64)

What was “vanquished that deserved to live” was the Christian belief in a final redemptive millennium. If Douglass’ conception of religion is the abolitionist twinning of unity between people and then hope for redemption, then Du Bois’ reflects the opposite: his discussion of religion explains its function in social division and how it will augur the permanence of struggle between people. The language that Du Bois mobilizes to discuss religion reflect the very ambiguities at the center of Du Bois’ famous statement, that Blacks do not strive for unity, but for simultaneous division, “to be both a Negro and an American” (Du Bois 5).

Du Bois’ most complete treatment of religion comes in his essay “Of the Faith of The Fathers.” The title points the reader back in time. Du Bois, like Douglass, believes that history can be used to reveal truth about the present; however, while Douglass maintains that we can measure ourselves against the past, as if it were a standard, an objective moral fiat, Du Bois sees the past as the very the source of our present conflicts. This is a key theme of the essay collection, and begins when states, as he does a number of times, that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois 1). The color line is the fundamental tension of our country, begun at our founding, with White masters importing Blacks half-way around the world to be enslaved. This conflict, he suggests, is an inextricable aspect of America’s national identity and will ripple from its historical origins out into every aspect of national culture, so that there are “millions of black freedmen and their sons, whose destiny is so fatefully bound up with that of the nation” (Du Bois 148). Douglass believed, as many protest writers did then and even today, that the world is flowing indubitably to an ideal, some perfect future that seems to always be receding from the horizon. Du Bois breaks from this tradition. He suggests that history cannot be perfected; it is always bound to the tensions of its origins. The “color-line” will persist in America throughout time.

Du Bois examines religion through this past-present framework, tracing the origins of the “Negro Church” to its present condition. Du Bois uses language of savagery in his description of the Church: the “frenzy of a Negro Revival” as a “sort of suppressed terror…a pythian madness, a demoniac possession” (Du Bois 155), “the stamping, shrieking, and shouting the rushing to an fro and wild waving of arms” (Du Bois 156). The present “Negro Church” came about by the rather simple, linear path it took from the “polygamous clan life” of Africa to the slave plantation, where its “religion became darker and more intense,” with the fatalism of Douglass and Stowe, aligned with the “dream of Abolition,” and finally to the “present critical stage of Negro religion,” in the aftermath of Emancipation. “No such institution as the Negro church could rear itself without definitive historical foundation” (Du Bois 159). The division inherent in religion comes from the realization that it owes its present state to the cataclysmic tensions of its origins – the “mingling of heathen rites” (Du Bois 160) with American Christianity, all within the broken family structures and topsy-turvy morality of the slave system.

The tensions are manifold, but each, as Du Bois presents them, are characterized by their binary structure. Faced with impotence after Emancipation, the ex-slave, in regards to his religion, became radical or complacently resigned, “the one almost ready to curse God and die” and the other “too often found a traitor to right and a coward before force” (Du Bois 165). There is the Sorrow Song which “breaths a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things” (Du Bois 213), contrasted against the “Frenzy” of the Church revivals. There is the modern use of the Church as a “social centre of Negro Life” (Du Bois 157) and then the primitive manifestation of its polygamous origins in its revivals’ atmosphere of “demoniac possession” (Du Bois 155). In effect, Du Bois invokes two conflicting vocabularies, each borne out of the irreconcilable elements of the slave’s condition. He write that there exist in the slaves, “two extreme types of ethical attitude which I have thus sought to make clear that wavers the mass of the millions of Negroes, North and South; and their religious life and activities partake of this social conflict within their ranks” (Du Bois 167). Du Bois’ religion, in this respect, is the very opposite of Douglass’s. Religion is a stage to play out the double consciousness, the two-ness that he suggests is at the heart of the Black condition, where “the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as an American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet struggling in the eddies of the fifteen century…” (Du Bois 164) applies to his religion, as much as to the way that he relates to American society.

In other words, religion encapsulates the very extremes forces and ambiguities that the ex-slave has to negotiate within himself in his attempt to find a place within American society. “He would not Africanize America” just as he “would not bleach is Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (Du Bois 5). These two forces are working within the “Souls of Black Folk,” just as they are working within America, as if in a productive dialectical contention. This contrast is epitomized in the closing religious section of the essay “Of the Coming of John.” John comes back to his rural hometown in southern Georgia, from his stay at college in the North. In church, people ask: “This silent, cold man, -- was this John?” (Du Bois 195). His demeanor appears to be foreign. He stands before the congregation and begins to speak about the “broader ideas of human brotherhood and destiny” (Du Bois 196). He speaks of the role that Blacks were going to face in a new world, in an age that “demand[s] new ideas” (Du Bois 196). The speech he gives is a classic discussion of liberal, modern values. But it is greeted with silence. “A painful hush seized that crowded mass” (Du Bois 196). No one moves until “an old bent man arose,” walks to the pulpit and “burst into the words, with rude and awful eloquence” (Du Bois 196) – he gives a retort to John, dismissing his “‘fool notion’” (Du Bois 195), and calls for solidarity. “John never knew clearly what the old man said; he only felt himself up to scorn and scathing denunciation from tramping on the truth Religion” (Du Bois 197). John then arises “silently, and passed out into the right” (Du Bois 197).

Religion is not, as it was for Douglass, a source hand in hand with the process of modernity, the continued dispersion of “light” into all corners of the world. Instead, religion is in conflict with modernity – it is a countervailing force to the pure Americanism, its Mammonism, which Du Bois despised, but also its cultural ties with the West, to which Du Bois, in some respects, dedicated his entire life. Inherent in the religion of the ex-slave is the division faced between the modern and un-modern, the radical and resigned, the “soul” of Black folk and the “soul” America, and all the divisions that are caught up with the difficulties of relating into an American society without forfeiting one’s identity. How one accomplished this, it is still not clear today. To conclude: Du Bois, in his discussion of sorrow songs in the final essay and his juxtaposing them through with European hymns, suggests an answer: integration through the self-assertion. He wants both Black and White elements of society to be at once productive and self-containing, to interacting in the theatre of society as “co-worker in the kingdom of culture” (Du Bois 5). These Sorrow Songs represent all that is important to Du Bois’ conception of religion; in them, there are all the gifts that Blacks brought to America, “the soft, stirring melody,” the “the gift of sweat” and the “gift of Spirit” (Du Bois 214). Thus, religion encapsulates the divisions that not only threaten to paralyze blacks, but also the very divisions that make their identity so important. He asks: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” (Du Bois 215).

These are the differences in the religious conceptions of Douglass and Du Bois. Douglass used religion to unite people, to damn them and to promise their redemption. Du Bois used religion to communicate a sense of eternal division, of conflict within society and within the individual “soul” – but in addition to the costs of division, come the pride of identity, of owning a gift that is unique in its beauty. In keeping with the initial observation that no two great men can be pushed together as if they were simply products of the time, the two sketches of religious conceptions were made independently. But they relate in the important fact that within their respective conceptions they summed up much of the anxieties of protest literature at their respective times: for Douglass, the fierce demand for freedom, and for Du Bois, the struggle to find meaning in the wake of this realized freedom, to be more than empty and not to be totally confused.


Bois, W.E.B. Du. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, 1996.
Douglass, Steven. "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Stauffer, John. Literature and Arts A-86. Cambridge, 2007. 37-52.


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