Tag Archives: Frederick Douglass

Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist. Continue reading

Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Liveblogging the Frederick Douglass Readathon

2: 57 p.m. I’m sitting here in the tenth annual Frederick Douglass Readathon, the annual event sponsored by the New Bedford Historical Society during which the entire text of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is read aloud by people from the community. We just heard Barney Frank, our congressman, read; and Scott Lang, the mayor of New Bedford; and right now Carl Cruz is reading — Carl is a local historian who knows more about the history of people of color in New Bedford than anyone else that I’m aware of. Now Carl has finished, and a boy, about nine years old and wearing a pink shirt and a red tie, is reading a passage from Frederick Douglass’s childhood memories.

Right now there are about sixty or seventy people here. As you’d expect, the people who come to this are of a variety of skin colors — black and white and brown. This is a distinct contrast to the Moby-Dick readathon which takes place in New Bedford in January, and which draws a predominantly white audience. I like the fact that there are quite a few young people here — mostly children and pre-teens, but a few teenagers as well.

But the best part of this year’s Frederick Douglass Readathon for me is that it is being held here in First Unitarian. I got to welcome people here on behalf of the congregation, which was fun. And it’s great fun to have one of my favorite pieces of American non-fiction read aloud here.

4:40 p.m. The Readathon has gotten almost to the end of Chapter IX. I’ve read my section of the Narrative, the first third of Chapter VIII. The afternoon is darkening into evening, and we’re down to about thirty people now; which is too bad, because this is where the book gets most interesting; and we’ve had a good run of very good readers.

5:46 p.m. Frederick Douglass has just failed in his first escape attempt; and now has been discovered. It is a dramatic moment, and the person reading this passage is doing it just right: not reading dramatically, but in a deliberate and straightforward manner.

6:13 p.m. “…on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind….”

Itinerants to Freethinkers: Universalist preaching in New Bedford

Part one: 1825 to 1875

During the 1820s and 1830s, at least a few itinerant Universalist preachers visited New Bedford. By tradition, Rev. Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist theologians and preachers, came to speak in New Bedford c. 1825. In 1831, one William Morse preached a sermon on Universalism in New Bedford titled “On Revival of Religion. A Sermon delivered in New Bedford, April 17, 1831,” which was printed by Benjamin T. Congdon. In 1836, one Abraham Norwood preached Universalism in New Bedford and Fairhaven, with mixed success.

The first settled Universalist preacher was Rev. John Murray Spear, who preached abolitionism along with his Universalism. While he was minister, from 1836 to 1841, the Universalists built a church building on School Street (since demolished, the site is now the parking lot for Pilgrim UCC Church); they also were one of the few Massachusetts churches of any denomination to unequivocally declare their support for abolition. Nathan Johnson, a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford and conductor on the Underground Railroad, became a member of the Universalist Church. Frederick Douglass is known to have visited the church, but only to argue against the doctrine of universal salvation; Spear met Douglass during this visit, and the two men wound up sharing the lecture platform for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society many times in later years.

In 1841, Spear was hounded out of New Bedford for helping a fugitive slave evade her master. Spears’ biographer John Beuscher writes: “A slave, Lucy Faggins, traveled with the family that owned her to visit New Bedford, which was home to a sizable community of free Negroes. Spear was instrumental in arranging the legal process through which Faggins was able to opt for freedom. For depriving the southern family of their household ‘servant’ Spear was vilified in public as a ‘nigger stealer,’ threatened with legal action, and forced to resign his New Bedford pulpit.”

Following Spear’s sudden departure, Rev. Levi L. Sadler (1806?-1857) served as a supply minister during 1841. Sadler had previously preached in the recently-settled states of Ohio (1833, 1837) and Michigan (1835). Continue reading

Wright & Douglass

Ari, over at the American history blog Edge of the American West, gives a nice historical perspective on the Jeremiah Wright / Barack Obama mess. Ari asserts that what Obama is really trying to do, by distancing himself from Wright, is to avoid being labeled a “neo-Douglassian” — good old Frederick Douglass from the 19th C. is apparently still too scary for much of white America. Read it here.

Frederick Douglass, religious liberal?

I found a wonderful reading from an article written by William L. Van Deburg, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Van DeBurg claims that Frederick Douglass became more and more religiously liberal the older he got:

It would be a mistake to portray [Frederick] Douglass as a piously conservative Christian. His biographers have correctly noted that he was not orthodox in his doctrine. His belief that religion should be used as an instrument for social reconstruction led him to despise the passive attitude shown by many Negro ministers.

As he progressed in his abolitionist career, Douglass was influenced by those champions of Reason, Transcendentalism, and Unitarianism whose doctrines he had [once] condemned. In an 1848 essay, he noted that the destiny of the Negro race was committed to human hands. God was not wholly responsible for freeing those in bondage. By 1853, he was willing to criticize Henry Ward Beecher’s reliance on God to end slavery. If Beecher had been a slave, Douglass noted, he would have been “whipped … out of his willingness” to wait for the power of Christian faith to break his chains.

Increasingly, enlightenment terminology crept into Douglass’s writings and speeches. Negroes were adjudged to be ‘free by the laws of nature.”

The slaves’ claim to freedom was “backed up by all the ties of nature, and nature’s God.” Man’s [sic] right to liberty was self-evident since “the voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights.”…

Douglass was also affected by the words of transcendentalist preacher Theodore Parker. The [Unitarian] minister’s ideas on the perfectibility of man [sic] and the sufficiency of natural religion were eventually incorporated in the abolitionist’s epistemology. In 1854, Douglass noted, “I heard Theodore Parker last Sabbath. No man preaches more truth than this eloquent man, this astute philosopher.”

The article is titled, “Frederick Douglass: Maryland Slave to Religious Liberal,” and it comes from By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, edited by Anthony Pinn (NYU Press, 2001). If you’re a Unitarian Universalist, this whole book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to help you counter the people who say, “Oh, we’ll never get many African Americans in our Unitarian Universalist churches, they’re all Christians.” Pinn demonstrates that there is an important strand of African American humanist thought extending back at least into the 19th C. — if we Unitarian Universalists were more aware of that fact, we might discover that our churches are a lot whiter than they need to be.

Then we could go on to recognize the existence of Latino/a, Lusophone, and Francophone humanists and free thinkers….

Douglass in New Bedford

The New Bedford Historical Society is training volunteers to serve as guides for a walking tour of Underground Railroad sites in downtown New Bedford. I signed up, and attended the first training session this evening.

Tonight we got an overview of where we’ll take people on this walking tour. Generally, we’ll start out at the New Bedford YMCA, which stands on the site where Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna first came in to New Bedford on the stage coach, accompanied by two New Bedford Quakers who helped the fugitives on the last leg of their trip. Then we’ll take people to 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza, named in honor of the first all-black regiment that fought for the North in the Civil War. From there, we’ll lead people up to the site of Liberty Hall, where many an abolitionist spoke. Of course we’ll show off the statue of Lewis Temple next to the library — he was the African American who revolutionized the American whaling industry by inventing the toggle harpoon, which increased catches fourfold.

And we’ll wind up at the Nathan and Polly Jones House, home of two of New Bedford’s most active black abolitionists, who welcomed Frederick Douglass when he first arrived here in 1838. New Bedford’s connection with Douglass is, of course, the center of this walking tour. Douglass, perhaps the greatest African American of the 19th C., first found freedom here in New Bedford — earned the first wages that he got to keep for himself — saw with amazement that the schools in New Bedford were integrated — walked and breathed for the first time as a free man. What a compelling story, really the most interesting moment in New Bedford’s history.