“Men have their choice in this world. They can be angels, or they can be demons. In the apocalyptic vision, John describes a war in heaven. You have only to strip that vision of its gorgeous Oriental drapery, divest it of its shining and celestial ornaments, clothe it in the simple and familiar language of common sense, and you will have before you the eternal conflict between right and wrong, good and evil, liberty and slavery, truth and falsehood, the glorious light of love, and the appalling darkness of human selfishness and sin. The human heart is a seat of constant war. … Just what takes place in individual hearts, often takes place between nations, and between individuals of the same nation. Such is the struggle going on in the United States. The slaveholders had rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.“
Frederick Douglass delivered that message in a speech at Zion Church in Rochester, New York on June 16, 1861. He also published it in Douglass’ Monthly in July 1861. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, be they white, black, female, Native American, or immigrants. He also believed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, American’s founding documents, provided the proper framework for the establishment of the liberty and justice of the slaves in the country at the time.
Both Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln were on the right side of history. And like Lincoln, Douglass was a member of the Republican (big “R”) party and championed the participation of all people in republican (small “r”) self-government. Douglass wanted all slaves to be free and to be treated like everyone else. He did not want free blacks to be treated differently, but rather wanted whites to just get out of the way. In What the Black Man Wants in 1865 he wrote, “What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. … Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!“
Douglass continues, “I am for the ‘immediate, unconditional, and universal’ enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union. Without this, his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition; for, in fact, if he is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right. He is at the mercy of the mob, and has not means of protecting himself.” I can’t help but to reflect on the statement, “… He is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right.”
Slave owners were tyrants. In fact, all slave masters are tyrants. Always were and always will be. This holds true for the “slave masters of society” who seek to place themselves above the law. Douglass said it best, “The tyrant wants no law above his own will, no associates but men of his own stamp of baseness. He is willing to administer the laws where he can bend them to his will, but he will break them when he can no longer bend them. … Where labor is performed under the lash, justice will be administered under the bowie knife. The south is in this respect just what slavery has made her. She has been breeding thieves, rebels and traitors, and this stupendous conflict is a result.”
Does this remind you of anything today? I can’t help but to think about our political oligarchy. Our political class acts like and feels like a modern day aristocracy, modern day tyrants. What Frederick Douglass said about black slave owners in 1861, could be said today of them. “Just what takes place in individual hearts, often takes place between nations, and between individuals of the same nation. Such is the struggle going on in the United States. The slaveholders had rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.“
What does he mean by “serve in heaven.” Let’s unpack that.
It means to humble yourself before God and allow Him to work in and through you. Then you will begin to bear the very fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within you. Fredrick Douglass allowed that to happen, as did Abraham Lincoln. Many people in American history fighting the good fight “between right and wrong, good and evil, liberty and slavery, truth and falsehood, the glorious light of love, and the appalling darkness of human selfishness and sin” allowed this to happen. It is only by co-laboring with the Holy Spirit that ordinary people accomplish good and extraordinary things on earth and learn what its like to “serve in heaven.”
In 1865, President Lincoln concluded his Second Inaugural Address with these words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God give us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.“
Amen President Lincoln. Amen Mr. Douglass. I pray we learn from your example of co-laboring with the Holy Spirit to attempt to draw America back to increased fidelity to it’s founding principles. For we must be reconciled one to another on the basis of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” That is the basis of “a new birth of freedom.”
PS: Happy Birthday to Frederick Douglass. He was born on February 14, 1818.