4 Mar 2013

Stories of Grace, Stories of Forgiveness: Frederick Douglass Affirms the Humanity of a Slaveholder

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Black History, Forgiveness, Frederick Douglass, Grace, Kingdom, Race Relations
Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived. Far greater than Malcolm X. Greater still than Martin Luther King Jr. His name should roll off our tongues with the ease of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps even faster than the latter two. I place him in that elite category of Founding Fathers: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. They go together like Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
Douglass’ story is sadly not one that is told as frequently and deeply as it should. We have much to learn from this man among men. He wrote his story three times in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. In 1991 William S. McFeely published an extensive Pulitzer winning biography titled simply Frederick Douglass.
Colonel Lloyd

Born in about 1818 (Douglass was not sure the exact date) to a slave who had been used for the lustful gratification of the the “master” of the plantation. This was not exactly an unusual thing to occur in slavery. Douglass would eventually become the slave of Colonel Edward Lloyd who owned three to four hundred slaves in Maryland. He would be sent off to Lloyd’s son in law, Thomas Auld from whom he escaped in 1838.

Sixty-three years after his escape from human bondage on an early June morning in 1881 the world had changed greatly.  The slavery Douglass knew as a young man was gone.  The nation had been bloodied by Civil War. Douglas was known internationally and was a powerful moral force in the United States. On that morning the former fugitive slave, now Marshall of Washington D.C, was aboard a cutter heading up the Wye River off Chesapeake Bay. His mind could not have but recalled the landscape he had written about in his 1845 Narrative. Suddenly Douglass caught “the stately chimneys of the grand old mansion.” The mansion of none other than Colonel Lloyd. Writing in his 1893 Life and Times, “I had left there a slave and returned a freeman; I had left there unknown to the outside world, and returned well known.”

How would the family of Colonel Lloyd receive Douglass? How would Douglass act toward this family who had grow rich off the oppressed? How can the slave and the former oppressors come together? Is it possible for redemption to take place? Is it possible for reconciliation to be a reality in the face of the the grossest evil? The greatness of Douglass tells us that yes it can be done. Those committed to God’s good news for his fractured creation can indeed voice the blessed word, yes! it is possible! That is our word to the world bleeding from self-inflicted wounds.

Howard Lloyd, the great grandson of the colonel, greeted the elderly Douglass with as “hearty a welcome as we could have wished.” Saying his father was away on business, Howard offered to escort Frederick Douglass around the palatial grounds. Testifying to the powerful memories that flooded his mind he writes, “I found the buildings, which gave it the appearance of a village, nearly all standing, and I was astonished to find that I had carried their appearance so accurately in my mind for so many years.”

In a detail that is possibly overlooked but fraught with meaning for Douglass he saw the old room off the kitchen where he had slept in a bag. Only the dirt floor had disappeared under wooden planks. This room was Douglass’ introduction to the barbarity of slavery. From that room he had witnessed “Aunt Esther” with “wrists firmly tied” above her head. The top of her body stripped bare as she was whipped by Colonel Lloyd till she bled profusely on the ground below. He cries of mercy indelibly etched into his young mind for eternity. Of it, Douglass wrote in his Narrative “I shall never forget it whilist I remember anything.” But now Douglass was standing in that same room of bitter memories with Howard Lloyd.

Howard took Douglass next to the family cemetery. As they enter the grounds Howard offers Frederick a “bouquet of flowers and evergreens from different graves around us.”  Douglass is so moved by the gesture that he would bring it back to his home in Washington and preserve them as a testimony that grace can exist even in the most horrid of places. What memories and thoughts passed through the old orator’s mind as he stood over the grave of his former tormentor we do not know. But in that moment he forgave both him and his family.

After the walk through the garden of tombstones Lloyd took Frederick into the mansion itself and onto the veranda. Here the former slave whose flesh bore testimony to the whip was now at ease in the old master’s chair and receiving the greatest of courtesy from the family that he had excoriated as examples of the horrid evil of slavery.  And they where! Yet forgiveness was able to allow the victim and victimizer to fellowship in shalom as a testimony of the possibilities of God’s vision.

What does forgiveness look like? Douglass narrates for us a beautiful picture of what true and costly reconciliation looks like.  Forgiveness looks like Douglass and Howard standing over the grave of the Colonel and recognizing in one another a genuine fragility of humanity. No more and no less.

Captain Auld

Frederick Douglass relates another tale of forgiveness in his Life and Times.  Sadly, McFreely’s excellent biography barely touches on either of these powerful episodes. The example of Douglass makes no sense in a secularist worldview.  Douglass was adamant that the USA could not afford to forget the horror of slavery.  To do so would invite the resurrection of tyranny.  He was a prophet because tyranny was revived because the horror of slavery minimized (as in Gone with the Wind a pure apologetic for the Old South). Even today most Americans simply do not realize that the legacy of slavery is around us each and every day.

However, Douglass was for forgiveness. He showed us, white and black, how we can still embrace the humanity of those around us. Douglass tells us that he received an invitation from old Captain Auld (Lloyd’s son-in-law and a former master) who was now dying and confined to bed. The fiery orator was stunned by the invitation.

“To me, Captain Auld had sustained the relation of master – a relation which I held in extremest abhorence … He had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, had me property of my body and soul … I, on my part, had traveled through the length and breadth of this country and of England holding up this conduct of his … to the reprobation of all men who would hear my words.”

He could have easily refused to go. Most of us probably would have been among those who counseled against it. But Douglass agreed to visit Captain Auld. But why? “He was to me no longer a slaveholder either in fact or in spirit, and I regarded him as I did myself, a victim of the circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom” (my emphasis).

When Douglass entered the elderly man’s room they “addressed each other simultaneously, he calling me ‘Marshal Douglass’ and I, as I had always called him, ‘Captain Auld.'”  Just as he had been moved by Howard’s symbolic gift of flowers – a gesture of letting old hate die – so now Douglass is moved to the core of his being that his old master called him “Marshal.”  The greatness of this apostle of liberty is on display as he responded to Auld in pure grace. “Hearing myself called by him ‘Marshall Douglass,’ I instantly broke up the formal nature of the meeting by saying, ‘not Marshal, but Frederick to you as formerly.”

Anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear recognizes immediately the risk Douglass is taking here. Risk to his own personhood. He risks his personal dignity.  He invites his former master to address him in familiar terms, terms closely tied to his former identity. So dangerously close to – boy! He is taking a political risk here with his black constituency.  But the former slave was more concerned in modeling the way forward to an America that was paralyzed by bigotry.  He allowed himself to be vulnerable even to Captain Auld because he saw that Auld was the victim of prejudice himself. Douglass gave him forgiveness. His forgiveness allowed him to see a person rather than simply a slaveholder.

As the visit came to a close Douglass relates,

We shook hands cordially and he, having been long stricken with palsy, shed tears as men thus deeply afflicted will do when excited by any deep emotion. The sight of him … his tremulous hands constantly in motion, and all the circumstances of his condition affected me deeply, and for a time chocked my voice and made me speechless.

The greatest orator in American history is speechless!

The scene is incredibly powerful. I believe that the former slave rendered mute by the trembling tears of his former master is intended to move us in the same way. Douglass in no way forgot slavery. He in no way forgot evil. He forgave a man who committed evil. His gift of the grace of forgiveness affirmed the humanity of even Auld. This kind of behavior does not make sense in our world but Douglass knew that such behavior was the only hope for the future.The spirit of forgiveness is the Spirit of Life.

Forgiveness, Gift of Grace

How I wish we knew more about such giants as Frederick Douglass. He has words to say to America about race relations today.  He has words to say to the rich and the poor. He has words to say to anyone who has been wronged, seriously wronged, by another human being.  We can learn what genuine “righteous indignation” looks like in his immortal “What to the American Slave is Fourth of July?” We can learn from him the passion of simply wanting to have an education.  What a lesson that is for today’s abysmally apathetic moms, dads and kids on education. We can learn from him the danger of collective amnesia. But we can also learn from him that even the grossest offenders and the weakest of victims can in fact forgive one another.  Justice is not simply about evening the score (ohhh that is what the world believes justice is). Justice bears fruit in shalom and reconciliation. This is a message that even Christians need to hear. Perhaps Christians most of all!

The stories of grace and forgiveness that Frederick Douglass models exhibit three biblical truths regarding the notion of forgiveness as it is put into practice.

1) Douglass rediscovered the humanity of the person who hurt him. As we practice the Spiritual gift of forgiveness we likewise must discover or rediscover the fallen, defaced and even broken humanity in the person who has wronged us. This is often a difficult and painful process because our own fallenness will want to defend our reasons for denying the essential humanity of the person who has grossly wronged us.  This is why the picture of Douglass over the grave of Colonel Lloyd is so gripping.

2) Douglass surrendered his right to get even with the tyrants. This is fundamental to biblical forgiveness. Douglass did not deny the pain, the suffering, nor the barbarism of slavery.  That is in fact the very evil needing to be forgiven. No, forgiveness affirms the bitter reality that the wrong has in fact been committed. Rather in forgiveness we choose, in light of rediscovering his or her humanity and the greater light of the cross of Jesus Christ, to give up the right of revenge. Douglass could have easily exacted retribution upon Captain Auld but instead became his equal. I am as speechless as Douglass was himself.

3) Douglass decided, this was a conscious decision, to revise his feelings toward the persons who had gravely wronged him. His feelings regarding slavery and bigotry did not change one iota nor should they.  What he changed was his feelings toward human beings.  Colonel Lloyd was a victim of a prejudiced upbringing and society.  Auld was a tragic figure himself. Frederick Douglass in light of the grace of forgiveness changed his feelings toward them.

Maybe the United States should put Frederick Douglass on the ten dollar bill rather than Alexander Hamilton. He deserves it far more. His is a great story.  Near the end of his life, one of the images he wanted us not to forget, was that even slaveholders and former slaves could come to see in one another the image of God and extend the most profound of blessings upon one another – the gift of forgiveness. At no time is a human being more like God than when they give the gift of forgiveness.

Who does not need forgiveness.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” – Jesus of Nazareth

2 Responses to “Stories of Grace, Stories of Forgiveness: Frederick Douglass Affirms the Humanity of a Slaveholder”

  1. Wade Tannehill Says:


    Thanks for sharing this powerful story of forgiveness. What a take on the old saying that “to understand all is to forgive all.” That Doulass could see Auld as a victim as well is astounding.

    Your applications to the various life situations in which we find ourselves are worth commiting to memory.

    I also think Douglass should be on the $10 bill. Not much I’ve read about Hamilton has impressed me and it’s about time we had an African-American of such notable distinction on our currency.

    Our family recently made a pilgrimage to the graveside of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. where he is buried at the same cemetary as Susan B. Anthony. Two freedom fighters from different eras resting within yards of one another.

  2. Cheryl Says:

    Thank you for this blog post. It really helped in my research for my web project on repentance from racism.


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