- Frederick Douglass: America's Prophet by D. H. Dilbeck
In this concise biography, D. H. Dilbeck focuses on the development of Frederick Douglass's prophetic Christianity and its "core moral and [End Page 156] theological convictions" as integral to his political activism (6). The book is divided into three parts. The first, "The Seeking Slave, 1818–1838," focuses on Douglass's childhood of enslavement in Maryland through his daring escape to the North. Using Douglass's autobiographies as his source, Dilbeck juxtaposes Douglass's critique of Christian slaveholders with his encounters with black Methodism in order to illustrate his emerging prophetic consciousness. In part 2, "The Zealous Orator, 1839–1852," Dilbeck traces Douglass's career as a political activist in the North and during his 1845–46 speaking tour in Ireland and Great Britain. Dilbeck shows how Douglass's earlier antipathy to slaveholders' Christianity expanded into a forceful critique of all so-called Christian institutions that condoned slavery. Through his interpretations of the Bible as an antislavery text, Douglass articulated a "true Christianity," and Dilbeck intriguingly suggests that an antislavery biblical hermeneutics informed Douglass's evolving view of the Constitution as a fundamentally antislavery document (60). In part 3, "The Hopeful Prophet, 1853–1895," Dilbeck sheds light on how Douglass balanced hope and despair during the tumult of the Civil War and in his postwar suffrage activism. In the final and most theological chapter, Dilbeck also makes the case for the orthodoxy of Douglass's prophetic religion. Contrary to Waldo Martin's claim that Douglass departed from his "traditional God-centered religious philosophy" and adopted a "liberal human-centered religious philosophy," Dilbeck contends that Douglass was a true Christian to the end (141).1
Although the book does offer a major reinterpretation of Douglass, Dilbeck's eloquent prose and the book's relative brevity would seem to make the biography well suited for introductory or survey courses. Yet there are some underlying methodological concerns. For example, the early chapters draw on Douglass's autobiographical accounts of his childhood without also discussing the construction of these texts. Given the array of recent scholarship on autobiography, spiritual memoirs, and slave narratives, this is a surprising omission. Further, while the middle chapters acknowledge the larger abolitionist networks and communities to which Douglass belonged, these become background rather than vital to Douglass's developing thought. How did Douglass's relationships with black Protestants, white and black Quakers, freethinking abolitionists, and women's rights activists, as well as Irish nationalists, inform his prophetic Christianity? Too often Douglass appears removed from these relationships and seems more like a lone prophet crying in the wilderness than someone whose religious and political consciousness was shaped by his interlocutors and historical contingency. Looking to Douglass's correspondence as well as the religious ideas of his friends and colleagues would have better filled in [End Page 157] the larger social world to which he belonged as well as provided explanation about how Douglass's prophetic Christianity might have changed in different contexts and over time.
This lack of contextualization is also a problem in the last chapter, in which Dilbeck advances his more pointed argument about Douglass's Christian faith. Through analyzing several speeches Douglass delivered in the disappointing post-Reconstruction years of the 1880s and early 1890s, Dilbeck argues that Douglass did not become a liberal humanist who lost his belief in God's providential plan. Instead, Douglass's prophetic Christianity combined his providentialism with a call for human activism. Dilbeck could have used Douglass's speeches to explore the racial dynamics of the emergent social gospel. As Curtis Evans has argued, black people's "otherworldly" religion was increasingly used as evidence that blacks' "primitiveness" rendered them unqualified for citizenship.2 Was Douglass aware of these ideas? Did he engage with them when he cautioned against passivity? Instead of asking these questions, Dilbeck writes something more akin to apologetics as he defends Douglass's orthodoxy against those who would see his acceptance of human agency to be a heretical rejection of...