Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

“A Poor, Brokenhearted Mourner”: Douglass’ Repentance

In a prior post, I said that I would post Frederick Douglass’ account of his conversion, from Chapter 12 of My Bondage and My Freedom, so I do that here. I am not qualified to comment on his religious development; apparently he is sometimes seen as a liberation theologian avant la lettre, and the identification of D.F. Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach as his two of his favorite philosophers does not inspire confidence as to the soundness of his theological judgments.

Nevertheless, I have no desire to attempt to pass sentence on the “reality” or “sincerity” of what is related below. What Douglass indicates by the words themselves is that he was brought by the preaching of a Methodist minister to known and own that he was a sinner, a rebel who must repent, who could do nothing for himself (“I was wretched, and had no means of making myself otherwise”), and who must therefore repent and flee to Christ and Redeemer and Savior.

What results from repentance and faith, he says, is (1) a new-found love–he even discovered a love for slaveholders that co-existed with a hatred for the institution and system of slavery; (2) a desire to know the things of God, and especially the Bible; and (3) practical discipleship. If one is not moved by his account of gathering Scripture from the gleanings of Baltimore gutters so that he “might get a word or two of wisdom from them,” I know not what to say.

Previous to my contemplation of the anti-slavery movement, and its probable results, my mind had been seriously awakened to the subject of religion. I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector. My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me; but one thing I knew very well—I was wretched, and had no means of making myself otherwise. Moreover, I knew that I could pray for light. I consulted a good colored man, named Charles Johnson; and, in tones of holy affection, he told me to pray, and what to pray for. I was, for weeks, a poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by “casting all one’s care” upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.

After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires. I loved all mankind—slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted. The desire for knowledge increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the bible. I have gathered scattered pages from this holy book, from the filthy street gutters of Baltimore, and washed and dried them, that in the moments of my leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from them. While thus religiously seeking knowledge, I became acquainted with a good old colored man, named Lawson. A more devout man than he, I never saw. He drove a dray for Mr. James Ramsey, the owner of a rope-walk on Fell’s Point, Baltimore. This man not only prayed three time a day, but he prayed as he walked through the streets, at his work—on his dray everywhere. His life was a life of prayer, and his words (when he spoke to his friends,) were about a better world. Uncle Lawson lived near Master Hugh’s house; and, becoming deeply attached to the old man, I went often with him to prayer-meeting, and spent much of my leisure time with him on Sunday. The old man could read a little, and I was a great help to him, in making out the hard words, for I was a better reader than he. I could teach him “the letter,” but he could teach me “the spirit;” and high, refreshing times we had together, in singing, praying and glorifying God. These meetings with Uncle Lawson went on for a long time, without the knowledge of Master Hugh or my mistress. Both knew, however, that I had become religious, and they seemed to respect my conscientious piety.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.