Review: Frederick Douglass

Daniel L. Fountain

Professor of History at Meredith College.

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Daniel L. Fountain, "Review: Frederick Douglass," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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D. H. Dilbeck. Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 191 pp. ISBN 9781469636184.

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Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet by D. H. Dilbeck is a religious biography of one of the nation’s greatest orators as well as one of the most articulate and passionate advocates for liberty and equality.  Dilbeck emphasizes the role that Christianity played throughout the activist’s life, thereby offering a contrast to other biographies of Douglass that emphasize certain time periods or even downplay the impact that faith had on his outlook and social justice endeavors.  The book is divided into three separate sections that coincide with different periods in Douglass’ life and faith journey: “The Seeking Slave, 1818-1838,” “The Zealous Orator, 1839-1852,” and “The Hopeful Prophet, 1853-1895”.  Dilbeck contends that despite experiencing peaks and valleys in his religious life, Douglass’ teenaged conversion to Christianity guided and inspired him throughout his entire life.  According to Dilbeck, Douglass’ steadfast faith transformed him into the American equivalent of an Old Testament prophet who called the nation to repent of its many sins against those it oppressed and to live up fully to its espoused ideals.  In particular, the author compares Douglass  to Isaiah, driving this point home by ending the book with the Hebrew prophet’s demand that his nation “’Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression’” (163).  This brand of fiery religious idealism led Douglass to eschew formal church affiliation and even clash with the institutional church’s leadership, a fact that other scholars cite as proof that Douglass’ faith diminished in later life as he favored humanism.  Taking authors Waldo Martin and William Van Deburg to task on this issue, Dilbeck argues that Douglass’ clashes with the church demonstrated his refusal to compromise on issues of conscience and his praise for activists’ contributions to emancipation was not a denial of God’s role in history but proof that “the work of God and the work of human beings could remain mysteriously united in shaping events” (145).  For Dilbeck, Douglass’ penchant for critique demonstrated his total commitment to “true Christianity”  (163). The faith that gave him the strength to escape and combat slavery still burned within his heart when he died fighting against the rise of Jim Crow.

Dilbeck’s thesis is both clear and convincing.  The brief biography is not short on substance as the author draws heavily upon Douglass’s written and spoken words.  While Chapter Ten’s critique of Martin and Van Deburg feels overly pressed at times, the portrayal of Douglass as a prophetic voice is well documented and demonstrated throughout the book.  The writing is clear and the book is a quick read that will appeal to general readers as well as scholars of history and religion.  Those familiar with Douglass will not find Dilbeck’s book to unveil any dramatic new revelations about major events in his life. But the focus on his Christian beliefs and the framing of Douglass as and American prophet does offer an important new interpretation of the man and his motivations.  The book also serves as a useful reminder that the nineteenth century African American Christian community was no more monolithic than it is today.  As such, it is a recommended addition to any personal, public, university, or church library.