Slave-Holding as Character Suicide

Slave-Holding as Character Suicide

One of the books I listened to during my leave of absence was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I downloaded the audio free from Librivox, a remarkable website of free, non-professionally recorded books.

The book recounts Douglass’ rise from slavery to an oratorical force for abolition in America. He lived from 1818 to 1895. One of the most striking parts of this autobiography was the story of how slavery injures not only the slave, but the master. It destroys life in both directions, but in different ways. Here is a glimpse of how that happened to the wife of one of his owners, Master Hugh.

Mrs. Hugh had never owned a human being before. And instinctively began to treat Douglass as one—respectfully. She was teaching him how to read. Her husband realized what was happening and forbade her.

She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute.

. . . In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.

When I went there she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. . . . Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.

The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded. . . .

Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me the newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
(Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995, orig. 1885, p. 22).

The lesson for us here is the suicidal effects of sin, not only in the age to come, but now in the destruction of character. Sin is its own curse. And some day God will make it eternal, if we do not take the remedy of Christ.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.