The Fourth of July holiday is a day set aside to celebrate the independence we enjoy as Americans, but that Independence was not always enjoyed by every American. And many Americans still struggle to reap the full benefits of America’s promise.
On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass made a powerful speech exposing the hypocrisy of asking a slave to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a symbol of freedom as he was paraded around the country by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on speaking tours. Douglass was an effective spokes person because of the education and natural abilities he possessed. As one biographer observed, “As a youngster, he learned to read and write. He purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of rhetorical masterpieces that Douglass used the same way it was used in the schools…Douglass’ rich voice, handsome physique and superb command of the English language gave him the attributes which ordinarily would make a speaker very persuasive, but these same qualities made some of his early listeners doubt that he was a fugitive slave”. Douglass’ credibility was strengthened by the publishing of his book, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It is against this backdrop that Douglass gives his speech on July 5th 1852.
The historical impact of this speech is measured by not only its effectiveness when it was given but by its lasting significance. Coupled with the speeches of others, this speech gave a visible symbol to the American people of what an educated black man could accomplish. Together with the mounting rhetoric of the abolitionist movement, it was these ideas which eventually led to the Civil War, and the emancipation of the slaves.
I find it interesting to notice that during his speech, Douglass employed the language of liberty to expose the hypocrisy of slavery, often citing scripture to leverage his point, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” This quote from Psalm 137, written while Israel was in exile is descriptive of a people who do not live up to their destiny. Douglass was pointing out like Israel of old, America was not living up to the greatness of her potential.
As Douglass goes on to point out, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
It is obvious that America has not always lived up to the great principles of life, liberty, and justice for all. But thanks to people like Frederick Douglass and others, these principles are now embraced by all. I wonder how many times, like America, the church has not lived up to our calling? I think that perhaps our Sunday services are sometimes testimonies to our hypocrisy rather than our worship. I think we should all answer a few questions, why do we come to church? Are we Christians by culture or commitment? And what to a slave of sin is a Sunday morning service at any church in town? The sad commentary is that many of us have become consumers of the latest gospel products rather than culture changing, world changing catalyst that Christ intended for us to become. We have forgotten that our mandate was to go to all the world with the gospel, not to all the pews. When we do come together it should serve to remind us that there are still “slaves” who are waiting to be liberated, Christ commissioned us to do this, it our call and it should be our priority.
America continues to make progress toward the ideas embodied in “The Declaration of Independence” but too slowly for those who need help. And too often we move backward quicker than we move forward.