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  • Frederick Douglass: America's Prophet by D. H. Dilbeck
  • Teresa Blue Holden
Frederick Douglass: America's Prophet. By D. H. Dilbeck. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. [xii], 191. $28.00, ISBN 9781-4696-3618-4.)

In Frederick Douglass: America's Prophet, D. H. Dilbeck narrowly interprets written and spoken works of Frederick Douglass to bolster the claim that Douglass possessed and proclaimed a "prophetic voice" that was rooted in evangelical Christianity (p. 45). Dilbeck situates the book as a religious biography and draws almost solely on Douglass's own words, relying heavily on the second of Douglass's three autobiographies, his speeches, and articles from his publications. Unlike previous biographers, Dilbeck focuses on Douglass's [End Page 167] conversion to Christianity and the ways Douglass deployed Christian beliefs through his utterances and writings in a few selected instances. Dilbeck differs from other scholars by providing evidence that Douglass maintained Christian beliefs until the end of his life, but the work's narrow focus offers a limited perspective on Douglass. In its attempt to elevate Douglass to the status of a religious prophet, the book ignores other, less heavenly facets of the man, and it does not recognize the evolution of his intellectual thought and religious beliefs.

Dilbeck describes Douglass as a prophet in the same auspicious company as the biblical Elijah and Jesus. In the first half of the work, Dilbeck uses My Bondage and My Freedom (Douglass's 1855 autobiography, which is the most descriptive of his early spiritual journey) to document Douglass's religious initiation. Dilbeck defines Douglass as "born-again," arguing that Douglass experienced a conversion to "evangelical" Christianity during his boyhood in slavery (p. 4). Dilbeck acknowledges that later Douglass notoriously rejected American Christian institutions because they did not forcefully promote full integration of all races and people. Still, he identifies Douglass as evangelical without disambiguating the term's definition over time. By doing so, Dilbeck seems to align Douglass with the positions and loyalties of current-day evangelicals in direct contradiction with Douglass's worldview. Further, Dilbeck accepts without question Douglass's self-depiction as a singular figure, one who was set apart—first, from other enslaved people and, later, from other free black people—for a higher purpose, while not recognizing Douglass's penchant for self-promotion that other scholars have noted. This interpretation undergirds Dilbeck's claim that Douglass was a prophet.

The second half of the book highlights instances in which Douglass voiced a Christian worldview at pivotal moments after he escaped slavery and during his career as an abolitionist and reformer. Explaining the role of a biblical prophet as one who articulates both scorn and hope, Dilbeck highlights how Douglass did both, proclaiming scorn toward those who practiced hypocrisy and oppression and hope for people (and nations) who repented and demonstrated justice and mercy. Examples include Douglass's affiliation and eventual split with Garrisonian abolitionists, his dissent from religious institutions, his discussions with women' s rights activists over passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and his leadership during the controversial "Colored People' s Day" at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Dilbeck asserts that Douglass, during his later life, downplayed God's role in human events and underscored human agency to motivate African Americans to energetically take action rather than to passively submit to white oppression. Focusing exclusively on Douglass's words, Dilbeck illuminates Douglass' s usage of Christian themes and biblical allusions, but Dilbeck often lacks a full explication of the context of each situation.

Dilbeck offers compelling evidence that Douglass maintained Christian faith until the end of his life. His insistence on Douglass' s stature as a biblical prophet who voiced a message from God to the United States lacks evidence. This claim boxes Frederick Douglass into an evangelical corner of the sort that he pushed against throughout his life. [End Page 168]

Teresa Blue Holden
Greenville University


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pp. 167-168
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