Africa Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Pitfalls of Private Faith

In Chapter 15 of My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass describes the ultimate incoherency of the notion of a fully privatized faith, which can lead a man to act with love at one time and utter malice at another while seemingly feeling no cognitive dissonance from it.

In this specific instance, he has just told of the merciless beatings he would receive from Mr. Covey, a man to whom he was sent for “breaking” as a horse or mule is broken. Mr. Covey believed that fear was the only motivator to compel slaves to labor. As Douglass himself remarks, there was “no earthly inducement” (note the modifier; emph. mine) to extract such behavior, so he would practice deception and spy on his slaves in order to get it. Covey taught his chattels with the whip that his presence should be feared and was never far away, even when he, a dominus absconditus, was not visible to them.

And yet, when it came time for “worship” with the family, Covey would not beat Douglass for failure to comply with his directives. During those times, it seems, Douglass was a man, while at other times, safely cordoned off from the sanctified hour, he could be abused as a beast. Covey’s religion seems to have been “safe” in that respect, requiring nothing of him in his treatment of his dependents. His religion could be contained and need not impinge on his libido dominandi or stay his hand from the lash.

But, with Mr. Covey, trickery was natural. Everything in the shape of learning or religion, which he possessed, was made to conform to this semi-lying propensity. He did not seem conscious that the practice had anything unmanly, base or contemptible about it. It was a part of an important system, with him, essential to the relation of master and slave. I thought I saw, in his very religious devotions, this controlling element of his character. A long prayer at night made up for the short prayer in the morning; and few men could seem more devotional than he, when he had nothing else to do.

Mr. Covey was not content with the cold style of family worship, adopted in these cold latitudes, which begin and end with a simple prayer. No! the voice of praise, as well as of prayer, must be heard in his house, night and morning. At first, I was called upon to bear some part in these exercises; but the repeated flogging given me by Covey, turned the whole thing into mockery. He was a poor singer, and mainly relied on me for raising the hymn for the family, and when I failed to do so, he was thrown into much confusion. I do not think that he ever abused me on account of these vexations. His religion was a thing altogether apart from his worldly concerns. He knew nothing of it as a holy principle, directing and controlling his daily life, making the latter conform to the requirements of the gospel.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

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