February 16, 2021 Editor

Frederick Douglass’ Hope

Gerald McDermott

January 25, 2021

WN: This highlighted article is about challenge and hope.


In January 1862 Frederick Douglass, former slave who became America’s greatest socio-political prophet of the nineteenth century, declared that America was facing Armageddon. “The fate of the greatest of all Modern Republics trembles in the balance.” God was in control of the nations, and America was particularly a subject of his providence.

“We are taught as with the emphasis of an earthquake,” Douglass told his listeners at Philadelphia’s National Hall, “that nations, not less than individuals, are subjects of the moral government of the universe, and that … persistent transgressions of the laws of this Divine government will certainly bring national sorrow, shame, suffering and death.”

Douglass was describing America during the Civil War. In his mind the War was God’s way of providing atonement for America’s great sin—slavery.

If white Americans repented of this great sin, the nation could experience a rebirth. “You and I know that the mission of this war is National regeneration,” he told audiences from city to city across the North in 1864. The nation would have to pass through “fire” for the new birth to begin.

The fire came of course, with the death of six hundred thousand Americans and the destruction of much of the South. But the national regeneration which Douglass sought came, if at all, only in its beginning stages. The War brought a forcible end to slavery, but lynching and segregation continued. Douglass kept reminding Americans for the next forty years that their nation was in covenant with God, and that God would hold them accountable for the ways they treated their ex-slaves and their descendants.

Racial relations in America have come a long way since Douglass’ time when lynching was a regular occurrence. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s put an end to legal segregation. Affirmative action programs in government, corporations, higher education, and the media have opened access to women and minorities in unprecedented ways. Twice our nation has elected a black president.

Yet recently it has seemed that we are going backward as a nation. As Gerald Seib has put it, race remains “the great unresolved issue” in our country. “The country may have thought it had moved beyond its racial problems when the slaves were freed, when blacks were allowed to vote, when the army was integrated, when drugstore counters were desegregated, when civil rights legislation was passed or when an African-American man was elected president. But racial tensions keep recurring, like a virus that runs through the bloodstream long after you thought the disease was gone.

If Douglass were around today, he would insist that our racial dilemma cannot be understood properly without a religious perspective. Racism is sin, and one of our national sins—perhaps our greatest–has been slavery. Slavery did not begin here, and our nation’s history is filled with the quest for human rights. But Douglass was probably right. America has been sent into a kind of exile because of this massive iniquity against God’s covenant with this nation. Our continuing racial conflicts show that this exile continues. What must we do to come out of exile?

Please click on: Frederick Douglass’ Hope

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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