The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.”
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”
Here — almost always — the response involves a tunnel vision that focuses, laser-like, on the rhetorical impiety: “welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel.”
Gasp! Yes, that clips the quote to distort what he actually said — “in preference to the gospel as preached by those Divines.” But willful distortion is the whole point of this response.
See? they say. He’s jettisoning the scriptures — elevating some personal political cause “in preference to the gospel.” Pearls and handkerchiefs will be clutched in an unconvincing imitation of horror and “concern” over how such inflammatory, impious rhetoric is sure to be perceived. This is why “liberals” like Douglass are perceived to “religion problem.” It is why they fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. It is why they are always told “Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.”
The italicized bits there, by the way, are also quoted from Douglass’ speech — which anticipates, and immolates, such objections. Douglass heard such disingenuous hand-wringing throughout his lifetime and had little patience for it. By 1852 he’d long since exhausted every attempt to extend a generous benefit of the doubt to this line of argument.
The problem for those attempting to argue that Douglass’ rhetoric was anti-Bible is that his supposedly anti-Bible rhetoric is taken directly from the Bible. It is — in both style and substance — explicitly and utterly biblical. He is imitating, emulating and directly quoting from the Bible itself.
The harshest condemnation of religion that Douglass presents is, in fact, a direct quotation. It is, emphatically, “in the language of Isaiah.” Douglass is quoting from the first chapter of Isaiah, a passage in which the prophet speaks words so hostile to conservative religious orthodoxy that they would make Paine, Voltaire and Bolingbroke blush. Yet Isaiah attributes those words directly to God:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
That’s from Isaiah 1:11-17, so it is quite specifically “the language of Isaiah.” But it’s also quite generally “the language of Isaiah,” in that the entire book is suffused with variations on this theme. Here, for example, is Isaiah 58. This again, according to the prophet, is the very voice of God — the bitingly sarcastic, social-justice-warrior voice of God:
Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
And it’s not just Isaiah. You can find similar “anti-religious” rants throughout the Bible. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” the prophet Amos reports as the words of God. The Almighty goes on to express divine contempt for church-going and prayer and hymn-singing. Why? Because of injustice. Because workers are exploited and the poor are turned away.
That’s the voice of God expressing God’s willingness to “jettison the Bible if the Bible was construed as legitimating slavery.” That’s God favoring justice in place of religion itself.
It’s no wonder that the slave-owners and slavery interests who ran the Southern auxiliaries of the American Bible Society were terrified of the prospect of allowing enslaved persons to read those words. They knew that would be a disaster for them. “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free and break every yoke” is not the kind of thing they’d want the people they were treating as property to be reading.
It was fine to support the Bible society’s efforts to distribute Bibles to every white family throughout the South. No worries there. White American Christians had all been carefully trained, for more than two centuries by this point, to read the Bible selectively. They could read the whole thing, cover to cover, and never even notice passages like the ones Douglass was quoting. Such passages were — and still are — invisible for most white American readers.
Those white readers were simply unable to see, understand or acknowledge anything beyond the carefully curated clobber-texts Concordanced out of context. They could be trusted to read the language of Isaiah without ever registering a single word of it, going right back to their feasts and their solemn assemblies, serving their own interests on their fast days and never imagining that God cared in the least if they oppressed all their workers.
And that’s largely still true. Just look at that passage from Isaiah that Douglass quotes. I don’t remember ever hearing those verses read or preached upon in any of the white evangelical settings I grew up in, and I’ll bet you’ve never heard that passage preached or expounded upon in any of the white evangelical settings you’ve been to either.
The very next verse, though, will be more familiar. Isaiah 1:18 is a beloved favorite passage that we hear all the time and are encouraged to commit to memory. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
That’s a favorite verse because it reminds white evangelicals that all we need to do is to pray in Jesus’ name and ask for our sins to be forgiven. It’s often paired up with 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But that’s not what Isaiah 1:18 says. Read the preceding verses. It’s not about divine forgiveness for our sins, but about “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean … cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. …” and then “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” (Oh, and that’s not a contradiction of 1 John 1:9 — unless you think that chapters 2-4 of 1 John contradict 1 John 1:9.)
We recite Isaiah 1:18 and we always get it wrong because we ignore Isaiah 1:1-17. We’ve been so thoroughly trained — for more than four centuries now — that everything in that chapter before verse 18 becomes invisible.
It’s worse than that, really. If someone cites the rest of that chapter, if they quote it to us, directly, reciting the Bible itself, we’ve been trained to recoil in horror at such a vicious attack on the authority of the holy scriptures.