When the master of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) discovered that his wife was teaching his 12-year-old slave to read the Bible, he stopped her. “If he learns to read the Bible it will make him ever unfit to be a slave,” her husband said. In no time “he’ll be running away with himself.”
In his later years, Douglass reflected on that incident as the first antislavery lecture he had ever heard, and it inspired him to do anything he could to read more of the Bible. Eager to know more about the Bible, Douglass recalled, “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.”
The fact that Bible pages were in gutters while men and women were still enslaved gives some indication that the application of the Bible to all of life was not registering with a lot of Christians.
Douglas had begun to realize what his “master” understood” “There was power, indeed subversive, revolutionary power, in reading and interpreting the Bible for oneself, and that the institution of slavery in fact depended on controlling biblical literacy — who can read the Bible when and how.”
Years later Douglass wrote,
“Let the reader reflect upon the fact, that, in this Christian country, men and women are hiding from professors of religion, in barns, in the woods and fields, in order to learn to read the Holy Bible. Those dear souls, who came to my Sabbath school, came not because it was popular or reputable to attend such a place, for they came under the liability of having forty stripes laid on their naked backs. Every moment they spend in my school, they were under this terrible liability; and, in this respect, I was sharer with them. Their minds had been cramped and starved by their cruel masters; the light of education had been completely excluded; and their hard earnings had been taken to educate their master’s children. I felt a delight in circumventing the tyrants, and in blessing the victims of their curses.”1
This is the way Christians read and understood the Bible. Its message was revolutionary. But something happened along the way…