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Chapter 12

_Religious Nature Awakened_


Whilst in the painful state of mind described in the foregoing
chapter, almost regretting my very existence, because doomed to a
life of bondage, so goaded and so wretched, at times, that I was
even tempted to destroy my own life, I was keenly sensitive and
eager to know any, and every thing that transpired, having any
relation to the subject of slavery. I was all ears, all eyes,
whenever the words _slave, slavery_, dropped from the lips of any
white person, and the occasions were not unfrequent when these
words became leading ones, in high, social debate, at our house.
Every little while, I could hear Master Hugh, or some of his
company, speaking with much warmth and excitement about
_"abolitionists."_ Of _who_ or _what_ these were, I was totally
ignorant. I found, however, that whatever they might be, they
were most cordially hated and soundly abused by slaveholders, of
every grade. I very soon discovered, too, that slavery was, in
some <128>sort, under consideration, whenever the abolitionists
were alluded to. This made the term a very interesting one to
me. If a slave, for instance, had made good his escape from
slavery, it was generally alleged, that he had been persuaded and
assisted by the abolitionists. If, also, a slave killed his
master--as was sometimes the case--or struck down his overseer,
or set fire to his master's dwelling, or committed any violence
or crime, out of the common way, it was certain to be said, that
such a crime was the legitimate fruits of the abolition movement.
Hearing such charges often repeated, I, naturally enough,
received the impression that abolition--whatever else it might
be--could not be unfriendly to the slave, nor very friendly to
the slaveholder. I therefore set about finding out, if possible,
_who_ and _what_ the abolitionists were, and _why_ they were so
obnoxious to the slaveholders. The dictionary afforded me very
little help. It taught me that abolition was the "act of
abolishing;" but it left me in ignorance at the very point where
I most wanted information--and that was, as to the _thing_ to be
abolished. A city newspaper, the _Baltimore American_, gave me
the incendiary information denied me by the dictionary. In its
columns I found, that, on a certain day, a vast number of
petitions and memorials had been presented to congress, praying
for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and for
the abolition of the slave trade between the states of the Union.
This was enough. The vindictive bitterness, the marked caution,
the studied reverse, and the cumbrous ambiguity, practiced by our
white folks, when alluding to this subject, was now fully
explained. Ever, after that, when I heard the words "abolition,"
or "abolition movement," mentioned, I felt the matter one of a
personal concern; and I drew near to listen, when I could do so,
without seeming too solicitous and prying. There was HOPE in
those words. Ever and anon, too, I could see some terrible
denunciation of slavery, in our papers--copied from abolition
papers at the north--and the injustice of such denunciation
commented on. These I read with avidity. <129 ABOLITIONISM--THE
ENIGMA SOLVED>I had a deep satisfaction in the thought, that the
rascality of slaveholders was not concealed from the eyes of the
world, and that I was not alone in abhorring the cruelty and
brutality of slavery. A still deeper train of thought was
stirred. I saw that there was _fear_, as well as _rage_, in the
manner of speaking of the abolitionists. The latter, therefore,
I was compelled to regard as having some power in the country;
and I felt that they might, possibly, succeed in their designs.
When I met with a slave to whom I deemed it safe to talk on the
subject, I would impart to him so much of the mystery as I had
been able to penetrate. Thus, the light of this grand movement
broke in upon my mind, by degrees; and I must say, that, ignorant
as I then was of the philosophy of that movement, I believe in it
from the first--and I believed in it, partly, because I saw that
it alarmed the consciences of slaveholders. The insurrection of
Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had
not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was
present, that God was angry with the white people because of
their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were
abroad in the land. It was impossible for me not to hope much
from the abolition movement, when I saw it supported by the
Almighty, and armed with DEATH!

Previous to my contemplation of the anti-slavery movement, and
its probable results, my mind had been seriously awakened to the
subject of religion. I was not more than thirteen years old,
when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector. My
religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white
Methodist minister, named Hanson. He thought that all men, great
and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that
they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that
they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through
Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what
was required of me; but one thing I knew very well--I was
wretched, and had no means of making myself otherwise. Moreover,
I knew that I could pray for light. I consulted a good colored
man, named <130>Charles Johnson; and, in tones of holy affection,
he told me to pray, and what to pray for. I was, for weeks, a
poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and
misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart
which comes by "casting all one's care" upon God, and by having
faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of
those who diligently seek Him.

After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in
a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new
hopes and desires. I loved all mankind--slaveholders not
excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great
concern was, now, to have the world converted. The desire for
knowledge increased, and especially did I want a thorough
acquaintance with the contents of the bible. I have gathered
scattered pages from this holy book, from the filthy street
gutters of Baltimore, and washed and dried them, that in the
moments of my leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from
them. While thus religiously seeking knowledge, I became
acquainted with a good old colored man, named Lawson. A more
devout man than he, I never saw. He drove a dray for Mr. James
Ramsey, the owner of a rope-walk on Fell's Point, Baltimore.
This man not only prayed three time a day, but he prayed as he
walked through the streets, at his work--on his dray everywhere.
His life was a life of prayer, and his words (when he spoke to
his friends,) were about a better world. Uncle Lawson lived near
Master Hugh's house; and, becoming deeply attached to the old
man, I went often with him to prayer-meeting, and spent much of
my leisure time with him on Sunday. The old man could read a
little, and I was a great help to him, in making out the hard
words, for I was a better reader than he. I could teach him
_"the letter,"_ but he could teach me _"the spirit;"_ and high,
refreshing times we had together, in singing, praying and
glorifying God. These meetings with Uncle Lawson went on for a
long time, without the knowledge of Master Hugh or my mistress.
Both knew, how<131 FATHER LAWSON--OUR ATTACHMENT>ever, that I had
become religious, and they seemed to respect my conscientious
piety. My mistress was still a professor of religion, and
belonged to class. Her leader was no less a person than the Rev.
Beverly Waugh, the presiding elder, and now one of the bishops of
the Methodist Episcopal church. Mr. Waugh was then stationed
over Wilk street church. I am careful to state these facts, that
the reader may be able to form an idea of the precise influences
which had to do with shaping and directing my mind.

In view of the cares and anxieties incident to the life she was
then leading, and, especially, in view of the separation from
religious associations to which she was subjected, my mistress
had, as I have before stated, become lukewarm, and needed to be
looked up by her leader. This brought Mr. Waugh to our house,
and gave me an opportunity to hear him exhort and pray. But my
chief instructor, in matters of religion, was Uncle Lawson. He
was my spiritual father; and I loved him intensely, and was at
his house every chance I got.

This pleasure was not long allowed me. Master Hugh became averse
to my going to Father Lawson's, and threatened to whip me if I
ever went there again. I now felt myself persecuted by a wicked
man; and I _would_ go to Father Lawson's, notwithstanding the
threat. The good old man had told me, that the "Lord had a great
work for me to do;" and I must prepare to do it; and that he had
been shown that I must preach the gospel. His words made a deep
impression on my mind, and I verily felt that some such work was
before me, though I could not see _how_ I should ever engage in
its performance. "The good Lord," he said, "would bring it to
pass in his own good time," and that I must go on reading and
studying the scriptures. The advice and the suggestions of Uncle
Lawson, were not without their influence upon my character and
destiny. He threw my thoughts into a channel from which they
have never entirely diverged. He fanned my already intense love
of knowledge into a flame, by assuring me that I was to be a
useful man in the world. When I would <132>say to him, "How can
these things be and what can _I_ do?" his simple reply was,
_"Trust in the Lord."_ When I told him that "I was a slave, and
a slave FOR LIFE," he said, "the Lord can make you free, my dear.
All things are possible with him, only _have faith in God."_
"Ask, and it shall be given." "If you want liberty," said the
good old man, "ask the Lord for it, _in faith_, AND HE WILL GIVE

Thus assured, and cheered on, under the inspiration of hope, I
worked and prayed with a light heart, believing that my life was
under the guidance of a wisdom higher than my own. With all
other blessings sought at the mercy seat, I always prayed that
God would, of His great mercy, and in His own good time, deliver
me from my bondage.

I went, one day, on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two
Irishmen unloading a large scow of stone, or ballast I went on
board, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished the work,
one of the men came to me, aside, and asked me a number of
questions, and among them, if I were a slave. I told him "I was
a slave, and a slave for life." The good Irishman gave his
shoulders a shrug, and seemed deeply affected by the statement.
He said, "it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should
be a slave for life." They both had much to say about the
matter, and expressed the deepest sympathy with me, and the most
decided hatred of slavery. They went so far as to tell me that I
ought to run away, and go to the north; that I should find
friends there, and that I would be as free as anybody. I,
however, pretended not to be interested in what they said, for I
feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to
encourage slaves to escape, and then--to get the reward--they
have kidnapped them, and returned them to their masters. And
while I mainly inclined to the notion that these men were honest
and meant me no ill, I feared it might be otherwise. I
nevertheless remembered their words and their advice, and looked
forward to an escape to the north, as a possible means of gaining
the liberty <133 HOW I LEARNED TO WRITE>for which my heart
panted. It was not my enslavement, at the then present time,
that most affected me; the being a slave _for life_, was the
saddest thought. I was too young to think of running away
immediately; besides, I wished to learn how to write, before
going, as I might have occasion to write my own pass. I now not
only had the hope of freedom, but a foreshadowing of the means by
which I might, some day, gain that inestimable boon. Meanwhile,
I resolved to add to my educational attainments the art of

After this manner I began to learn to write: I was much in the
ship yard--Master Hugh's, and that of Durgan & Bailey--and I
observed that the carpenters, after hewing and getting a piece of
timber ready for use, wrote on it the initials of the name of
that part of the ship for which it was intended. When, for
instance, a piece of timber was ready for the starboard side, it
was marked with a capital "S." A piece for the larboard side was
marked "L;" larboard forward, "L. F.;" larboard aft, was marked
"L. A.;" starboard aft, "S. A.;" and starboard forward "S. F." I
soon learned these letters, and for what they were placed on the

My work was now, to keep fire under the steam box, and to watch
the ship yard while the carpenters had gone to dinner. This
interval gave me a fine opportunity for copying the letters
named. I soon astonished myself with the ease with which I made
the letters; and the thought was soon present, "if I can make
four, I can make more." But having made these easily, when I met
boys about Bethel church, or any of our play-grounds, I entered
the lists with them in the art of writing, and would make the
letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask them
to "beat that if they could." With playmates for my teachers,
fences and pavements for my copy books, and chalk for my pen and
ink, I learned the art of writing. I, however, afterward adopted
various methods of improving my hand. The most successful, was
copying the _italics_ in Webster's spelling book, until <134>I
could make them all without looking on the book. By this time,
my little "Master Tommy" had grown to be a big boy, and had
written over a number of copy books, and brought them home. They
had been shown to the neighbors, had elicited due praise, and
were now laid carefully away. Spending my time between the ship
yard and house, I was as often the lone keeper of the latter as
of the former. When my mistress left me in charge of the house,
I had a grand time; I got Master Tommy's copy books and a pen and
ink, and, in the ample spaces between the lines, I wrote other
lines, as nearly like his as possible. The process was a tedious
one, and I ran the risk of getting a flogging for marring the
highly prized copy books of the oldest son. In addition to those
opportunities, sleeping, as I did, in the kitchen loft--a room
seldom visited by any of the family--I got a flour barrel up
there, and a chair; and upon the head of that barrel I have
written (or endeavored to write) copying from the bible and the
Methodist hymn book, and other books which had accumulated on my
hands, till late at night, and when all the family were in bed
and asleep. I was supported in my endeavors by renewed advice,
and by holy promises from the good Father Lawson, with whom I
continued to meet, and pray, and read the scriptures. Although
Master Hugh was aware of my going there, I must say, for his
credit, that he never executed his threat to whip me, for having
thus, innocently, employed-my leisure time.

Frederick Douglass

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