169 Religion Has No Place in The Heroic Slave

Emily Philbrook; Owen Congdon-Moore; and Chase MacEachern

The United States of America is a country built on paradox. There is contradiction and debate surrounding what the Founding Fathers meant while writing the foundation of the nation. How could they be asking for freedom when many held slaves who were certainly not free? Unfortunately, much of this question was answered by using religion as a guise for justification to the horrors committed by the American slaveholders upon the enslaved.

The Heroic Slave confronts the term of freedom that is often thought of in this time in history. Madison as a character embodies the pain of losing loved ones and how in a way that keeps him from being truly free. He struggles with his identity after being separated from his wife; even though he was finally free from his enslavement, he is pulled back into the world of slavery. Madison’s monologue involving the interaction between the birds within the first act is what speaks out about the long-term effects of slavery, “They live free, though they may die slaves. They fly where they list by day, and retire in freedom at night. But what is freedom to me, or I to it? I am a slave,–born a slave, an abject slave,–even before I made part of this breathing world, the scourge was plated for my back; the fetters were forged for my limbs.” (Douglas 176). There is a sense of perpetual slavery that will always remain within the minds of those afflicted, that even though they are free, a lot of their memories and cultural connections are stripped away. Generational trauma causes the reverting to these new Americanized practices to stay alive and the transition for many to Christianity was just one aspect of this forced cultural conversion.

Religion is a complex cultural vision into the lives and beliefs of the society in which followers choose to live. However, in the case of Christianity within post-Revolution America, religion became an institution to justify and even promote the enslavement of African-Americans for American benefit.

This idea of American superiority is certainly not new and can be linked to the idea of Manifest Destiny that was developing in post-colonial America. As many expanded westward, there was a push to further both a political and religious agenda on Indigenous lands; this was based on the foundational principles set by colonizers who first took lands and brought enslaved peoples to the continent against their will. Throughout these eras, the oppressed found solace in nature. There is an element of untouchability of raw land that is free of the impurities of enslavement and evil that provides a comfort that is often only available to the masses through religion.

In The Heroic Slave, Frederick Douglass uses the absence of religious belief to create a space of freedom within nature through Washington’s perspective on the matter. “He shuns the church, the altar, and the great congregation of christian worshippers, and wanders away to the gloomy forest,.. Which the religion of his times and his country can neither console or relieve,” (12). In this passage, Douglass is clearly stating that Washington finds refuge in nature, rather than religion, and shuns the concept that anyone following any sense of morality would be in agreement with slavery. Christianity is convoluted in the United States with capitalism; the advancement of an agenda for a purpose of gaining something, whether conversion or currency. Washington is hyper-aware that religion is meant as a way to justify his enslavement, not to save him from it.

This position is furthered when Washington sees the praying old man in the woods on his journey to Canadian liberation. He states that he “gave little attention to religion and had but little faith in it,” (21).  Washington learned through watching generations of his community being beaten and oppressed that he had to take an active role in his liberation, for the christian God would not set him free. However, Washington asserts something even larger than renouncing religion in this passage. He goes on to say “I knew enough of religion to know that the man who prays in secret is far more likely to be sincere than he who prays standing in the street,” (21). This statement contains multitudes of meaning, the first being a relatively holistic take on religion as something intrinsic and deeply personal. Real faith is within the individual, rather than among crowds, and this is the flaw in American Christianity. However, the flaw is not held within the religion, but rather the expansion of the religion into an institution. This gives praying the same effect of virtue signaling, meaning that believers are praying for social acceptance, rather than true faith, and this is how the institution of slavery becomes intertwined with religion. When religion becomes an American institution, there is no longer true meaning beyond pushing the agenda of exceptionalism.

Throughout The Heroic Slave, Douglass brings light to the glaring oversight of American ideology regarding freedom and establishes a new genre of antislavery fiction based in overcoming even these grand adversities to real liberation, not punishment and conformity. This involves transcending the institution of religion to understand the spirit as needing to be free, above all else.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Emily Philbrook; Owen Congdon-Moore; and Chase MacEachern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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