On this day in 1852, Frederick Douglass gave one of the most powerful antislavery speeches of the 19th century, an effort that historian David Blight refers to as “the rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism.” Douglass’s speech in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall is rightfully viewed as an important enunciation of black abolitionist thought and black political theory. Indeed, when I have taught the early U.S. history survey or advanced courses on American intellectual history to the Civil War, that is how I have presented the work. I’d like to suggest another reading for the speech, however, namely as one of the first articulations of African American secularism.
Douglass begins his speech by praising the Founding Fathers and the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence. He quickly moves to a critique of America’s civil religion, however, noting that “this Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” After blasting America’s civil religion, Douglass goes on to offer one of the strongest critiques of American Christianity among 19th century black abolitionists.
Douglass notes first that because American churches support the Fugitive Slave Act, “that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards men.” If ministers throughout the North were to treat the Fugitive Slave Act as a violation of Christian liberty, he argues, there is no way the law would stand. At the same time that the church is indifferent to the sufferings of the slave, he posits, it also “takes sides with the oppressors. It had made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slavehunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.” For his part, Douglass thundered that he would “welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! In preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines.”
Douglass’s strident anticlericalism articulated in this speech would be a key feature of African American secularism from the mid-19th century to the present. African American secularism can be defined as a commitment to promoting liberty, equality, and economic justice through a focus on reason and human rights rather than the authority of God. This commitment has most often been present among atheists and agnostics, however one’s specific theological orientation is not as important as one’s commitment to fostering the public good by relying on reason and not faith. While Douglass’s religious views, in his words, “pass[ed] over the whole scale and circle of belief and unbelief, from faith in the overruling Providence of God, to the blackest atheism,” for most of his career after the speech on the Fourth of July, he articulated humanistic and secularistic viewpoints when it came to freedom for slaves and equality for blacks. As he notes in his speech before the final meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1870, while many people have thanked God for freeing the slaves, “I like to thank men…I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and such women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere.”
 David W. Blight, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, with Related Documents 2nd edition (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 146.
 Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” ibid, 156.
 Ibid, 163, 164.
 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, Volume 2, ed. John W. Blassingame, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 130.
 Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter” in Anthony B. Pinn, ed. By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 79.