A Call for the British Nation to Testify Against Slavery

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “A Call for the British Nation to Testify Against Slavery: An Address Delivered in Exeter, England, on August 28, 1846.” Exeter Western Times, 5 September 1846. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 352.

A Call for the British Nation to Testify Against Slavery: An Address Delivered in Exeter, England, on August 28, 1846

Exeter Western Times, 5 September 1846.

  • Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, then rose, and was received with overwhelming enthusiasm. He said—he really thought on rising that he should feel great embarrassment, but the hearty manner in which he had been received had removed what little embarrassment had arisen when he looked on this extraordinary and crowded meeting. He would not allude to the resolutions, which embodied all that he could say on the subject—but would address a few words to them in reference to the great principle on which they should co-operate in removing slavery from the United States.
  • When he first thought of the interference of British Christians with slavery in America, he was somewhat fearful that that interference would do their cause an injury rather than a good. But his mind had undergone a change on this question, and he now believed that England possessed a power, superior to any power in the United States to operate against slavery—(cheers). Some sins, some evils in communities, could be best removed by the virtuous efforts of individuals composing these communities, but it was not so with slavery. That is such a monstrous system, such a giant crime, that it begets a character favorable to its own existence, vanquishing the moral perception, and blinding the moral vision of all who come in contact with it; and a nation has not the moral energy necessary to its removal.
  • He therefore felt himself abundantly justified in calling in the aid of all Christians—of all who were of good report in the British nation to testify against American slavery. He felt he was not only at liberty, but justified in directing the attention of all the world, and fixing on it the indignant eye of condemnation from every portion of the globe. He felt that that general voice of indignation would be effectual—the slave owners were sensitive, and would writhe under it. Well had the poet Campbell said of their flag—

Your banner bears two emblems,

The one it freedom claims,

The other that it bears

Reminds you of your chains.

Of white man’s liberty the types

Stand blazing in your stars;

But what’s the meaning of your stripes?

They mean your negroes scars—(great cheering).

  • Slave owners wither under these sharp rebukes, they feel that it is true, and they will be ashamed of that deed of deep damnation. It is then important that England should bear her testimony against this system— you have done much already, yet much more remains for you to do. They had whispered the truth—he was there to call on them to speak with a trumpet tongue, and in such a language that the slave owner in America could not misunderstand—(cheers). Let no distinction be made between the slave holder and his sin—let England taunt the slave owner with his sins, treat him as a sinner, regard him as a sinner, and their testimony could not fail—(cheers).
  • A great deal had been said about deputations, his friend Garrison had hoped that no more would be sent from religious bodies in England, unless they sent better men—(cheers). Another gentleman (Mr. Hellings) had said something in extenuation of the deputation sent out some years since by the Baptist denomination. Now, said Mr. Douglass, I wish to say something about a deputation in order that you may learn from what they did in favour of the slave owner what you may do against slavery.
  • In 1844, the Free Church of Scotland sent out a deputation, consisting of five ministers of that denomination, who were to represent their church in the United States. When the slaves of America heard of a free church, we had reason to believe that the day of our redemption drew near. Knowing nothing but slave churches before, we had reason to believe that a free church indeed had arisen in the midst of us, and that at least the deputation would have demanded emancipation for the long oppressed down trodden slave—(cheers)—but no such thing. They left us with the intention of going into the slave states, but before they left New York, they were earnestly remonstrated with against going into the slave states of the Union at all—they were told that they would have to sacrifice their principles, and stain their cause with the contaminating touch of slavery. But they accepted the slave holders’ invitation, took their money; paralysed their own Christian feelings, turned a deaf ear to the groan of the slave as they went on their way through the South— were dumb on the question of slavery—were invited by the slave owners to their pulpits—dined at their tables, sat in their pews—heard them preach to their slave congregations—took the blood money which was offered them, and brought it to Scotland, to pay the Free Church ministers—(loud cheers).
  • I charge them with having gone into a land of manstealers—among men whom they knew to be manstealers—they struck. for the sake of money, for the sake of filthy lucre, an alliance with these men—went into their country, saw millions of slaves driven to the field, treated like beasts—denied even the right to read the word of God, that being a crime severely punishable—and yet they never raised a whisper against it, because they received this blood money from the slave owners— (loud cheers). I say this much that it may be borne on the wings of the press to that Free Church of Scotland, and that they and the friends of the slave owner may know that the Christian people of England have a controversy with them on this question.
  • Englishmen gave money to this Free Church, and the dissenters lavished their silver and gold on them—we want you to say certain words to them, which they will understand. Tell them to send back to America that blood stained money—(cheers). Dissenters of England say to this Free Church of Scotland, that your money and the blood stained money they received from the slave owners of America shall not clink in the same coffers together—(immense cheering). Say to them, send it back, for by sending it back, a great work will be done on behalf of the slaves’ cause in the United States.
  • The Free Church has the power of doing a noble work, and of giving slavery a blow that shall send it reeling to its grave, as if struck by the bolt of heaven—(great cheering). They have the power to raise such a question in the southern states as never was raised before. Let them send it back also, because it does not belong to them—the Free Church of Scotland has now stolen money in her treasury, and the English Christian knows it. I say then to the dissenters who shake hands with these slave owners—whether in the Evangelical Alliance or out of it— that they are shaking hands with men who are wielding the bloody lash over three millions of men, passing from time into eternity.
  • Sir, I want to speak to you of the religious condition of the slaves in the United States—three millions of people under the drippings of the American sanctuary, are denied the right of marriage—think of it— imagine what must be the state of society there—and yet this is in a land of Bibles, in a land of churches, in a land of missionaries—you will not believe it. It is creditable to your humanity that you are unwilling to do so—yet it is, nevertheless true. That is the practice of the American Church, and I mean by the American Church, the combination of all those bodies, ranging under the names of Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Unitarian, or Episcopalian, and numberless others whose names would take up half the evening to enumerate. These I regard as the Church of America, and under the sanction of this church this state of things exists.
  • Sanctified man stealers are members of these churches; women are sold to pay for the communion service in these churches; men are sold into slavery to pay for the churches themselves, or to send the Gospel to the Heathen. The slave prison and the church, stand next door to each other, and the groans and cries of the poor slaves are drowned in the hymn of praise of the slave’s religious master. The blood-stained gold the price of the slave goes to support the pulpit, and the pulpit in return covers this infernal business with the garb of Christianity—(immense applause). The man who claimed to hold these hands, and to own me as his property (Thomas Halls), he is a Methodist, a class leader in that church; yet I have seen that wretch tie up by the two hands a young woman only eighteen years old, strip her and keep her half suspended, and standing on the ends of her toes for five hours at a time, and lash her with the bloody cowskin, until the warm blood dripped in a pool at her feet; and repeating at the time this passage of Scripture, “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” s It would be out of place to speak much of myself—(loud cries of no, no).
  • I have known what slavery is by experience. I have felt the slave dr~ver’s lash, and I carry those marks on my back, and they will accompany me to the grave. I was a Methodist; 6 it was not until I was satisfied that that church was upheld by and guilty in every way of upholding slavery, that I became willing to say a word against it. My case is the case of thousands associated with my friend Garrison, who have rendered themselves obnoxious because they opposed churches which recognised slavery. We have been constrained to arrive at the position that the American churches and clergy are unworthy of Christian regard and the Christian support of this country, or any other country, and that they ought to be abolished. I believe that slavery finds its strongest support in the church, and the church for this charges us with infidelity.
  • Like Garrison, I care not for these charges coming from that source; because I believe in a religion based on the broad foundation of love to God and love to man. I believe in a religion which makes it the duty of its votaries to visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, and to keep yourselves unspotted from the world—(cheers). I believe in a religion which makes it our duty to regard the liberties of our neighbours—(cheers)—and because I do believe in this religion, I hate that man stealing, woman whipping religion which is professed in the United States—(cheers) .
  • I come now to what I wish the people to do. I want you to deny Christian fellowship to this slave holding church. I demand, I claim it as the duty of Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and all denominations in this country, to have no fellowship with the American churches, hence, and for ever to separate from them, until they shall have washed their hands from this guilt; unless you do that, you must become in part responsible for slavery in the United States—for while we give to the slave owner the Christian name, and throw around him the garment of Christianity, and endorse his character as a good Christian, so long will he glory in his shame, and drive his slaves to the field unrebuked and undisturbed—(cheers). You must, therefore, bear your unmitigated testimony to the American people against this inqiuity, by dissolving all partnership, and disavowing all religious connection with them.
  • Why does slavery exist in those States? Because it is respectable; that it is so considered, is evident from the fact that ministers of religion are slave owners; that the President of the United States’ is a slave owner, that the diplomatic body, who represent that country in every foreign State, are slave owners. Slave owners are found in the Congress and in the Senate, in every department of the American government, and in every place south of Mason and Dickson’s line—(hear, hear). We wish to make it disreputable; it is not so because of that character of Christian which it has invested itself—we come to this country therefore to raise the curtain on its iniquity, and to show the dreadful deeds done in the name, and under the sanction of Christian churches, and to ask you to lift your testimony against such churches—and to sever your Christian relations with them. Remember here are 3,000,000 of people without Bibles—whilst you are sending your Missionaries and your Bibles to the remotest ends of the earth, and are straining all your energies to carry Christianity to the heathen. While at this very moment, you have an Evangelical Alliance now sitting with the avowed purpose of making war against the anti-Christian character of the Church of Rome—because that church, they say, is acting in opposition to the doctrines of Christianity, by discountenancing the reading of the Scriptures among its laity—here is slavery depriving three millions of their Bibles—denying them the right to read the word of the God who made them—to teach them to do so is an offence punishable, if committed a second time, with death in Christian America—(great sensation).
  • Some slight interruption took place, in consequence of a gentleman wishing to address the meeting; he had attempted to before Mr. Douglass began, but the meeting being impatient to hear Mr. Douglass, the chairman decided against him.
  • Mr. DOUGLASS then resumed, and made some further observations on the religious character which the advocates of slavery give it in America. Not only do they. quote Scripture in palliation of it, but justify it as an institution of divine appointment—not only to be permitted, but enforced as being sanctified by the express command of God, and universally obtaining, under the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian dispensations.
  • He then remarked on the character of the sermons preached by these friends of humanity to their slave congregations; the topic generally insisted on was the necessity of obedience of their slaves to their masters. He said he would give them a specimen of the sort of sermons which it had been many times his fate to listen to. He then buttoned up his coat, twisted his countenance into a grave and canting aspect, and with a most inimitable tone of voice, and a genuine Yankee twang, gave the following sermon amidst shouts of laughter: His text was “Servants obey your Masters.” “You should obey your masters,” said the preacher, “in the first place, because the Lord has commanded you to be obedient. This reason alone will be sufficient to induce obedience on that part of my audience who believe it to be their duty to obey the Lord in all things. But it may be asked by some of you, why are we to obey the Lord? I say obey him, because he is all wisdom, and knows what is best for you to do—because he commands it, therefore, never stop to ask whether it is right or wrong, but be obedient to your masters.
  • “You should obey your masters in the second place, because your happiness is dependent on your obedience. Ah servants! this is an important consideration, one to which you will do well to attend to. Wherever you see wretchedness, want, misery, poverty, or distress, oh! remember it is in consequence of disobedience. Oh! is this the case with you. In order to elucidate my meaning, allow me to state a fact. Sambo, there, was sent by his master some time ago to perform a certain amount of labour, which, had he obeyed his master’s orders, would have taken him two hours and a half. His master was a pious man, and after waiting for the expiration of that time, he went into the field where Sambo should have been at work, and lo and behold, there lay Sambo’s hoe in one place, and Sambo fast asleep in another. Oh! servants, think of this pious master—his commands disobeyed, his work not done—his authority thrown off. Oh! I say, think of the trying position in which this kind master was placed. To the Law and to the testimony he went to know his duty in the premises—there he read. “He who knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” He therefore took Sambo up and lashed him, so that he was unabled to work for a few weeks. Now then servants I want you to bear in mind this, that Sambo’s whipping was caused solely by his disobedience. Oh! then let me exhort you, if you wish to be well fed, well cared for, to bask in the sunshine of your masters’ favour—let me exhort you to be very obedient to your masters.
  • “You should obey your masters in the third place, because of the sense of gratitude with which you should be inspired, by the knowledge of the fact that the Lord in his mercy, brought you from Africa to this Christian country. Oh servants! you cannot too highly estimate the kindness of the Almighty in bringing you to this country. Africa bleeding Africa—dark benighted Africa; no gospel there—no sanctuary privileges there—but universal darkness and despair every where prevails. The Lord saw you in that condition, bowing down to stocks and stones and worshipping Images the work of men’s hands. Seeing you in this wretched state, he put it into the hearts of good men, such as the excellent and zealous Bishop Newton,’� to leave their homes and their families, and dare the fury of the waves, to snatch you as a brand from the burning and bring you to this Christian country. Think how many slaves are now in the kingdom of heaven, which never would have entered that kingdom if they had not been brought to this Christian country.”
  • Such sir, said Mr. Douglass, is the miserable twaddle—the humbug palmed off on the poor slave as the blessed gospel of Jesus Christ. Sir they go further still; they say to the negro “You should obey your masters, because of the dependent condition in which you find yourself placed. Behold your hard hands and your strong frames, your masters and mistresses have soft hands and delicate constitutions, and white skins; whence this difference; “it is the Lord’s doings and marvellous in our eyes. ” ” But, Oh servants, while you have strong hands and strong frames remember that the relations resulting from it are reciprocal-for while you have strong frames and robust constitutions, you have not the gift of intellect—you could not think for yourselves—you could not provide for yourselves—so the Lord in his infinite goodness has given you kind masters to think for you—(laughter). Oh the wisdom of God!”
  • I know, he continued, this will strike the audience as being the merest caricature, you have never heard of anything of the kind out of the slave states—but had I time I could read you sermons and resolutions of religious bodies, declaring sentiments identical with this—think then of three millions of people subjected to such teaching as this within 14 days of your own island. I demand of you then if you are friends of the Missionary enterprise, that you should demand the admission of your missionaries amongst those slaves—that your missionaries should go into the midst of them. Tell these slave-owners, that you will not be recreant to the duty of him who has told you to go forth to all the world, and to preach the Gospel to every creature—(cheers). If you sit silently by, and see Christianity robbed of its glory, the Bible denied to the people, and never make an effort to extend the Gospel—and give the Bible to the people—I tell you, you will be recreant to the cause of truth, recreant to the cause of God, and recreant to the cause of humanity— (great cheering).
  • Of my friend Mr. Garrison, and I call him my friend in no platform sense of the term: I feel him to be my friend—the friend of the friendless—the friend of the slave—the friend of the negro in the United States—-I could not but feel the strongest emotions of delight, when I saw the responsive feelings which his eloquence called forth from time to time in this great audience on behalf of my race—(cheers). I too thank you all on behalf of my brethren in bondage, for the patient hearing you have given me. I shall go back to that land, although I go back in the face of danger—for there is not one spot of ground in all that United States, in which I can stand free, whether in the North, South, East, or West; over-shadowing me is the terrible probability of being sent back to that slavery from which I have fled. But whatever dangers may await me, however dreadful may be my fate in that country; though the blood hounds may be upon my track, I shall go back with the proud satisfaction, that although I may be made a slave of—although I may be struck down—although I may be killed to satisfy the fierce vengeance aroused against me on account of my running away, and of my exposure of their iniquity in this country, I shall carry with me the proud satisfaction of having enjoyed at least one year of freedom in this glorious country—(tremendous cheering). Of that year of freedom I cannot be deprived, and it is almost enough of happiness for one who has been twenty-one years of his life in the bondage of slavery to enjoy such a year of freedom—(cheers).
  • I tell you that it is a good thing to be in England, I like it. I feel that the representation made by the great Curran is not an extravagancy when he says that British law makes all men free as soon as their foot is set on British earth—no matter what language they speak, or on what dark spot they happened to be born. I feel it to be true. I will go to the land of my birth, I will proclaim it in the ears of the American people, whether I’m in a state of slavery or freedom, while I have a voice to speak it shall be raised in exposing the guilt of the slave-owners, and in contrasting the munificent freedom of monarchical England, with the slave-holding, man-stealing, woman-whipping, degradation of democratic republican America—(loud cheers). I have this glorious scene here, it is Daguerr[e]otyped in my heart, I shall go forth in the land of my birth, and tell them of the thousands and tens of thousands who have heard with indignation of their oppression—of the brave men and the feeling women who have listened with shame to the story of their woes. Oh! Mr. President, I wish all the slaves of America could peep in, could see us just as we are, and know as I know, the sympathies of this audience for their down-trodden spirits—(vehement cheering). Mr. Douglass having reiterated his thanks, sat down amidst the loudest plaudits.