“I Dwell Here in no Hackneyed Cant …”

“I found that God never began to hear my prayer for liberty until I began to run. Then you ought to have seen the dust rise behind me in answer to prayer.”
- Frederick Douglass, May 19, 1870 Address, Baltimore, Maryland

Professor Paul Cameron is working on the topic of post-slavery humanism among African Americans. He’s posting at US Intellectual History and his own blog.

This is an almost unexplored topic. It’s not surprising that folks who had suffered slavery under Christian masters would have a jaundiced view of the religion. Many would attempt to chart out new courses, but most of their voices have become lost to us.

The most prominent black voice of the age, Frederick Douglass seems to have split the difference by becoming a theistic humanist. He did seem to believe in a God who created humanity, but now it was up to humanity to make its own way.

This humanism got him in trouble with the emerging black clergy, who grew suspicious of his tendency to thank men but not God for contributions to abolition. In an address in Philadelphia, on April 26, 1870, Douglass dropped the rhetorical bomb on them:

I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance…. I object to it largely, because I find that class of men who have done nothing for the abolition of slavery themselves, and would do nothing for the abolition of slavery, but led everything against the abolition of slavery, always holding us back by telling us that God would abolish slavery in his own good time. So they want us to join them in thanking God for the deliverance.

God has given to man certain great powers, and man, in the exercise of these great powers, is to work out his own salvation—the salvation of society eternal justice, goodness, mercy, wisdom, knowledge, with these gospels of God to reform mankind, and my thanks tonight are to willing hearts and the willing hands that labored in the beginning, amid loss of reputation, amid insult and martyrdom, and at imminent peril of life and limb. My thanks are to those brave spirits who in an evil hour had the courage and devotion to remember and stand by the cause of liberty, and to demand the emancipation of the bondmen.[Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 5,p. 96]

Douglass’ voice survives, but countless others have been lost. Hopefully Professor Cameron will be able to weave together what little we have until we can see a coherent picture.

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