Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas published in 1845 is a classical autobiographical piece. In the book, Douglas described multiple injustices that American slaves faced on a regular basis and provided arguments against the practice of slavery.
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He extensively utilized Biblical references and allusions to support his messages. It is possible to say that along with the passionate tone of Douglas’s narration, such a rhetorical strategy made his writing particularly convincing. Considering that the knowledge of scriptures was common in the 19th century, the author’s appeal to religion fostered readers’ better understanding. Based on this, in the present paper, two examples of biblical allegories used by Douglas in the Narrative will be analyzed to show why his audience could find those passages persuasive.
One of the most interesting biblical allusions that Douglas applied is the cursing of Ham as described in the book of Genesis. African people were regarded as the lineal descendants of Ham and, it is mentioned in the Narrative, that many slaveholders thus used the passage about their cursing to justify American slavery. However, by referring to the same biblical text and using bullet-proof logic, the author refuted slaveholders’ argument and noted that every year thousands of slaves were born to white fathers, like Douglas himself.
Thus, even if the prophecy about the cursing of Ham was valid and “if the lineal descendants of Ham [were] alone to be scripturally enslaved,” the fact that many of new slaves partially had European origins made slavery unscriptural (Douglas 4). It is possible to say that this statement is very convincing not only because it is impeccably logical but also because he employed the very same words that the supporters of American slavery used and were familiar with. At the same time, he provided a fresh perspective and demonstrated that those who enslave people could not be considered real Christians.
To support the latter statement, Douglas cited the book of Mathew and, in particular, the passage where Jesus exposed Pharisees as hypocrites. For Douglas, the Christians of America, especially those who sanctioned slavery, were similar to Pharisees who separated themselves from common people and attempted to represent themselves as pious and pure. However, in fact, Pharisees were sinful and immoral as they “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men” and neither could enter it themselves nor let others do so (Douglas 103).
In other words, American Christians who supported slavery treated racial minority representatives as lower beings, and separated themselves from them could not reach the kingdom of God. At the same time, they also prevented slaves from being members of the church while diminishing their value as human beings and showing no respect to them. Therefore, the parallel drawn by Douglas between ancient Pharisees and the 19th century American Christians seems valid. Since Christian values pervaded the US society at that time and were regarded as the ultimate standard of morality, Douglas’s claims against slaveholders and disclosure of their wickedness could have a tremendous impact.
Overall, as the analysis demonstrates, the use of biblical references was rather common during the time when Douglas wrote the Narrative because many of the slaveholders also cited some passages from the bible when trying to justify slavery. Nevertheless, Douglas demonstrated that they interpreted many of the biblical events, including the cursing of Ham, erroneously.
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The reference to the same concepts as the ones applied by his opponents was one of the major strengths of the author’s rhetoric strategy since it ensured that the target audience had the right knowledge background to understand the meaning of his messages. Secondly, Douglas’s arguments were persuasive because he talked about the ultimate Christian values. By exposing the immorality of American Christians, he could provoke a strong emotional response in readers.