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“It Moves,” or the Philosophy of Reform: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on November 20, 1883



Speech File, reel 18, frames 5-22, FD Papers, DLC. Other texts in Speech File, reel 18,
frames 70-88, frames 23-34, 35-69, 89-105, FD Papers, DLC.

Members of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association of Washington,
D.C., met at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church’s Bethel Hall on the evening of
20 November 1883 to hear and discuss Douglass’s lecture on the philosophy
of reform. Douglass’s first address before the association in February 1882
had been his famous “Self-Made Men” lecture and he thereafter appeared
frequently at its meetings both on the stage and in the audience. Newspaper
accounts of his philosophy of reform lecture praised his performance but
reported a sharp debate at its end between Douglass and the Reverend Walter
Henderson Brooks. Brooks, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church,
charged as heretical Douglass’s statements that geological evidence told a
different story about the creation of the world than Genesis and that it is men,
not God and not the prayers of men, that brought about change in the world. In
his response to the assembly, Douglass denied that he had attacked either
religion or Christianity; rather he disagreed with specific theological systems,
which he regarded not as “religion, but human misrepresentations of it.” One
reporter speculated that Brooks had been offended by Douglass’s criticism of
the American church’s relations with slavery. Most of the audience and the
press came to Douglass’s defense in this dispute; the Washington lecturing
Brooks that “Loud talking and bragadocia declarations are not logic.” John
W. Cromwell, (Washington, D.C., 1896), 3-6, 8, 11, 15; Constance McLaughlin
(Princeton, 1967), 123, 150-51; Washington , 24 November 1883; Wash-
ington , 11 February 1882, 17, 24 November 1883.

Such was the half suppressed and therefore cowardly and yet confi-
dent, affirmation of Galileo, the great Italian mathematician.1Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was born in Pisa, the son of a musician. In 1589 he became a mathematics teacher at the University of Pisa, and in 1592 moved to Padua. His demonstration at the Tower of Pisa of the equal effects of gravity upon unequal weights, if it actually took place, was not unprecedented, and to historians of science is flawed by the inaccuracy of the observation of equal rates of descent. He became interested in astronomy upon learning of an early Dutch telescope and constructed an improved one. In 1610 he published his observations of sunspots, acquiring fame and the enmity of orthodox Aristotelians who believed the heavens were not subject to change and decay. After having hesitated some sixteen years, he also publicly advocated the Copernican theory of the movement ofthe earth around the sun. In 1616 Cardinal Bellarmine, on behalf of a commission appointed by Pope Paul V, condemned the heliocentric view and admonished Galileo to abandon it. In 1624 he sought permission to publish a book on the physical system of the universe. Believing Pope Urban VIII had authorized publication of his views on the system as a hypothesis, Galileo completed and published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1630. Lay enemies of Galileo persuaded the papacy that the decision of 1616 held even a hypothetical presentation illicit. In 1653 Galileo was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Church required him also to adjure and condemn as a false and heretical opinion the heliocentric view, which he did. Although no documentation for the story exists, early biographies of Galileo maintained that, when he rose from his knees, he said softly “yet it moves." In light of his old age and poor health, his sentence was transmuted to exile. Stillman Drake, “Galileo: A Biographical Sketch," in , ed. Eman McMullin (New York, 1967), 52-66; Ludovico Geymonat, , trans. Stillman Drake (New York, 1965).

He had solved a vast problem and had done more than any man of his


day and generation to dispel the intellectual darkness of ages, and reform
the astronomical thought of the world; yet here he was virtually upon his
knees before the power of ignorance and superstition; selling his soul to
save his life.

The circumstances under which the above words were spoken or whis-
pered, for they were not spoken aloud, were critical, as, indeed, circum-
stances always are, when a new truth is born into the world. For there is
ever at such times some Herod ready to seek the young child’s life,2This incident is described in Matt. 2: 13-23. and a
multitude to cry out, “Crucify him!”3Described variously in Matt. 27: 23, Mark 15: 13, Luke 23: 21, and John 16: 6.

The courage and integrity of this apostle of a new truth was put to the
severest test. He had been solemnly arraigned, fiercely accused, and
sternly condemned to death for teaching a new doctrine at war with the
prevailing theology of the period.

Theology in those days endured no contradiction. The voice of the
Church was all powerful. It was able not only to punish the soul, and shut
the gates of heaven against whom it would, but to kill the body as well. The
case of Galileo was therefore one of life and death. He must either affirm
the truth and die, or deny the truth and live. Skin for skin, as was said of
Job, all that a man hath will he give for his life.4A close paraphrase of Job 2: 4. Under this terrible pressure
the courage of the great man quailed. Hence he, in open court denied and
repudiated the grand and luminous truth which he had demonstrated, and
with which his name was to be forever associated. His denial was probably
not less hearty and vehement than was that of Peter when he denied his


Lord.5Matt. 26: 69-75, Mark 14: 66-72, Luke 22: 55-62, and John 18: 15-18, 25-27. There was not only likeness in their denial, but likeness in their

The words I have quoted were the tremulous reaffirmation to himself of
the truth that he had denied in the hall of his rigorous judges. They were no
doubt forced from his quivering lips to silence the upbraiding of an accus-
ing conscience. There is generally a great tumult in the human soul when
guilty of any meanness, especially to such a soul as has not become
hardened by persistent violation of its moral nature. Peter and Galileo were
great-hearted men. The one sought relief in bitter tears, the other in re-
affirming to himself the truth he had denied to the world.

Is there no apology for these examples of human weakness? If there is
much that is humiliating in the attitude of these two great men, for great
men they were, spite of their weakness, there is also something to com-
mend. He should step lightly who sits in judgment upon the weakness of
those who pioneer an unpopular cause. Heroic courage is a noble quality;
but it is not always the possession of great minds. “Stand by your prin-
ciples!” shouts the crowd, but, if put to such a test as that of our two
worthies, how many of all the crowd could be found to practice what they

If only the truly brave were allowed to throw stones at the cowards, few
stones would be thrown, and few wounds would be inflicted. Any man can
be brave where there is no danger. If those only are true believers who can
face peril, torture and death for their faith, the true church is small, and true
believers are few. Men are easily heroes to heaven while they are cowards
to earth. They can brave the unknown terrors of eternity, while they quail
before the known terrors of time. Erasmus6Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466-1536), philologist, itinerant scholar, and exponent of religious concord and political peace, became renowned for his Latin translation and critical edition of the Scriptures and his editions of Greek and Latin church fathers and of classical authors. Living variously in England, Italy, the Netherlands, and German-speaking Switzerland, Erasmus, from the start of the Reformation, strove to avoid commitment to Luther's or the Catholic Church's side. In 1525 he finally chose to defend not the church but the Catholic doctrine of freedom of the will, not the ability or inability of man to attain his own salvation but his ability to cooperate with the implements of grace. Twenty-three years after his death, the Catholic Church placed his writing on its index of prohibited books. Roland H. Bainton, (New York, 1969); Johan Huizinga, , trans. F. Hopman ( 1924; New York, 1957); Jackson, , 6: 163-66. expressed much of genuine
human nature, when he declared that he would rather trust God with his


soul than the inquisition7To combat heretical doctrine and unorthodox religious movements, popes in the twelfth century first established episcopal courts with powers of coercion and then centralized their operations under papal legates chosen from monastic orders. The Spanish Inquisition, which Ferdinand and Isabella established in 1483, was a new form of the institution entirely under state control and used as much for political as religious ends: the purging of Moorish and Jewish heresies became the foundation for the unity of the Spanish kingdom. In 1542, the year in which Pope Paul III summoned the Council of Trent, the primary organ of the Catholic or Counter Reformation, the pope also founded the Roman Inquisition and appointed the austere future Pope Pius V as its first head. In Douglass’s century a revived Inquisition was part of the Catholic Restoration in post-Napoleonic Europe. A[rthur] G[eoffrey] Dickens, (London, 1968), 104, 108, 118-19; J[ohn] H[uxtable] Elliott, (New York, 1964,), 96-97; Steven E. Ozment, (New Haven, 1980), 95. with his body. Even the mercy of the law allows
something for the deviation from the straight line of truth, when a man
swears under duress.

It should never be forgotten that the instruments of reform are not
necessarily perfect at all points of possible human character. Men may be
very good and useful and yet far from being the stuff out of which martyrs
are made.

Though Peter denied his Lord, and Galileo science, though both
quailed before the terrors of martyrdom, and though neither was as strong
as the truth they had denied, the world is vastly better off for their lives,
their words and their works. It required a larger measure of courage for
Galileo to whisper truth in his day than for us to proclaim the same truth
now upon the house-top.

The greatest coward can now shout that he has been with Jesus, but
only the grandly heroic could do so when menaced by the spears and
swords of Roman soldiers, in the Judgment Hall of Pilate, with death upon
the cross the probable penalty for being in such company.

I am to speak to you of the Philosophy of Reform. According to the
dictionary, and we are bound to adhere to the truth of words, the word
reform is defined, “to put in a new and improved condition; to bring from
bad to good; to change from worse to better.” This is true, apply it as we
may; whether it be self reform, social reform, national reform, or reform in
any direction whatever.

We are nevertheless met at the outset of this discussion with the ques-
tion as to whether there is any such thing as reform in the sense defined in
the dictionary. It is contended by some very respectable writers and
thinkers, that Reform is a delusion, a deceitful appearance; that there is no


such thing as making the world better; that the phenomenon of change
every where observable, brings no substantial improvement; that mankind
are like the sea, whose waves rise and fall, advance and retreat, while the
general level remains forever the same.8The repudiation of liberalism and return to an orthodox Christian, originally Augustinian, view of secular history gained popularity in Europe during the conservative reaction, both political and intellectual, that followed the French Revolution. Geoffrey Bruun, (New York, 1938), 210-15, 217-19, 227-32.

It is contended that the balance between good and evil remains, like the
sea, fixed, unchangeable, and eternally the same. In support of this dis-
heartening theory, these turn our eyes towards the East and lead us about
among its decayed and wasted civilizations, its ancient cities, its broken
monuments, its mouldering temples, its ruined altars, its buried treasures,
its shattered walls and fallen pillars, and picture to us in brilliant colors
their former greatness and glory, and with the gloomy Byron, they inquire,
“Where are their greatness and glory now?”9Douglass paraphrases the sentiments of Lord Byron's , Canto II, particularly Stanza xxv.

I shall not stop to combat this scepticism till I have mentioned another
and a worse form of unbelief, not the denial that the world is growing
better, but the assertion that it is growing worse. Improvement is not only
denied, but deterioration is affirmed. According to the advocates of this
theory, mankind are on the descending grade; physically, morally and
intellectually, the men and women of our age are in no respect equal to the
ancients, and art, science and philosophy have gained nothing. This mis-
anthropic view of the world may, I think, be easily answered. It has about it
a show of truth and learning, but they are only seeming, not real.

One cause of the error may be for want of a proper knowledge of the
remote past. Here, as elsewhere, ’tis distance lends enchantment10A slightly inaccurate quotation of Thomas Campbell's poem , Part 1, line 7. Hill, , 1. to the
view. We fail to make due allowance for the refractive nature of the medium
through which we are compelled to view the past. We naturally magnify the
greatness of that which is remote. By this the imagination is addressed
rather than the understanding. The dim and shadowing figures of the past
are clothed in glorious light, and pigmies appear as giants.

Grand and sublime, however, as is the glorious faculty of imagination
as a reflector and creator, and while it is the explanation of all religion, and,
perhaps, the source of all progress, it is nevertheless the least safe of all our
faculties for the discernment of what is truth. There are two sufficient


modes of answering theories in denial of progress and reform. One is an
appeal to the essential nature of man; the other is to historical facts and
experience. A denial of progress and the assumption of retrogression is a
point-blank contradiction to the ascertained and essential nature of man. It
opposes the known natural desire for change, and denies the instinctive
hope and aspiration of humanity for something better.

A theory involving such results may well enough be rejected, even
without further reason. It is just as natural for man to seek and discover
improved conditions of existence, as it is for birds to fly in the air or to fill
the morning with melody or to build their nests in the spring. The very
conditions of helplessness in which men are born suggest reform and
progress as the necessity of their nature. He literally brings nothing into the
world to meet his multitudinous necessities. He is, upon first blush, less
fortunate than all other animals.

Nature has prepared nothing for him. He must find his own needed
food, raiment and shelter, or the iron hand of nature will smite him with
death. But he has a dignity which belongs to himself alone. He is an object,
not only to himself, but to his species, and his species an object to him.
Every well formed man finds no rest to his soul while any portion of his
species suffers from a recognized evil. The deepest wish of a true man’s
heart is that good may be augmented and evil, moral and physical, be
diminished, and that each generation shall be an improvement on its prede-

I do not know that I am an evolutionist, but to this extent I am one. I
certainly have more patience with those who trace mankind upward from a
low condition, even from the lower animals, then with those that start him
at a high point of perfection and conduct him to a level with the brutes. I
have no sympathy with a theory that starts man in heaven and stops him in
hell.11Evolutionists accepted the Darwinist view of the origin of the species: the concept of the struggle for existence and the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Darwin, and to a much greater extent his popularizers, presupposed that evolution was progressive, but Darwin did not argue that assumption as part of the scientific theory. The separate set of ideas that constitute the philosophy of social darwinism might account for Douglass's ambiguity in regard to evolution. Maurice Mandelbaum, (Baltimore, 1974), 80-85; Gertrude Himmelfarb, (New York, 1959), 312-17.

To this complexion it must come at last, if no progress is made, and the
only movement of mankind is a downward or retrograde movement. Hap-
pily for us the world does move, and better still, its movement is an upward
movement. Kingdoms, empires, powers, principalities and dominions,


may appear and disappear; may flourish and decay; but mankind as a whole
must ever move onward, and increase in the perfection of character and in
the grandeur of achievement.

That the world moves, as affirmed and demonstrated by the Italian
mathematician, was long since admitted; but movement is not less true of
the moral, intellectual and social universe than of the physical. Here, as
elsewhere, there are centripetal and centrifugal forces forever at work.
Those of the physical world are not more active, certain and effective, than
those of the moral world.

An irrepressible conflict, grander than that described by the late
William H. Seward,12Douglass alludes to the title of a speech delivered by William H. Seward in Rochester, New York, on 25 October 1858. William H. Seward, (New York, [1860]). is perpetually going on. Two hostile and irreconcila-
ble tendencies, broad as the world of man, are in the open field; good and
evil, truth and error, enlightenment and superstition. Progress and reac-
tion, the ideal and the actual, the spiritual and material, the old and the new,
are in perpetual conflict, and the battle must go on till the ideal, the spiritual
side of humanity shall gain perfect victory over all that is low and vile in the
world. This must be so unless we concede that what is divine is less potent
than what is animal; that truth is less powerful than error; that ignorance is
mightier than enlightenment, and that progress is less to be desired than
reaction, darkness and stagnation. It is worthy of remark that, in the battle
of reform, all the powers on both sides are not usually engaged. The
grosser forms of wrong are, as they appear, first confronted. One truth is
discovered in the moral sky, and lo! another illumines the horizon. One
error is vanquished, and lo! another, clad in complete steel, invites demoli-
tion, and thus the conflict goes on and will go on forever.

But we are still met with the question: “Is there any substantial gain to
the right?” “Is only one evil suppressed to give rise to another?” “Does
one error disappear only to make room for another?” It is impossible to
keep questions like these out of the minds of thoughtful men. The facts in
answer to them are abundant, familiar, and, as I think, conclusive. First, let
us look at the science of astronomy. How grand and magnificent have been
the discoveries in that field of knowledge. What victories over error have
been achieved by the telescope. That instrument did not bring down what
the great poet calls “the brave over-hanging sky,”13Douglass errs slightly in quoting , act 2, sc. 2, lines 119-20. nor the shining stars in
it; but it did bring down and dispel vast clouds of error, both in respect of
the sky and of our planet. It must be confessed, too, that it took something


from the importance of our planet. The idea that all the hosts of heaven are
mere appendages to this earth is no longer entertained by average men, and
no man, except our good brother Hampton of England14Though Douglass is partly mistaken in his characterization of him, the English champion of Scriptural literalism seems to be Renn Dickson Hampden (1793-1868), bishop of Hereford, who, with the majority of the Anglican episcopate, attacked as heretical the anthology of 1860. The volume attempted to reinterpret Scripture in a primarily symbolic mode in light of contemporary advances in philology, history, and the natural sciences. In his posthumously published "Charge" of 1862, Hampden vehemently defended the historical reality of miracles and characterized the offensive as an offspring of the German “neologian method." Nonetheless, he distinguished between records of specific events in the Bible, which include miracles or divine suspensions of the natural order, and statements about the natural order itself. Hampden defended the inerrance of the former but conceded that incorrect statements about the latter, such as the concept of a heliocentric universe, might exist in Scriptures. Renn Dickson Hampden, “Extract from Unpublished Charge: ‘Mythical Interpretation of the Facts of the Gospel,' " in Some Memorials of Renn Dickson Hampden, , ed. Henrietta Hampden (London, 1871), 212-16; Hamish F. G. Swanston, (Assen, The Netherlands, 1974), 181-87; , 8: 1148-49. and brother Jasper
of Richmond,15Douglass alludes to black Baptist John Jasper (1812-1901) and his famous sermon, “The Sun Do Move," which claimed the Bible proved that the sun traveled around the earth. Born on a plantation in Fluvanna County, Virginia, Jasper had been sold a number of times before coming into the possession of Samuel Hargrove, a Richmond tobacco factory owner. In 1839 Jasper had a religious conversion experience and Hargrove permitted him to travel and preach throughout southern Virginia. After the Civil War, Jasper became the minister over several large black Baptist churches in Richmond. His vivid, although ungrammatical, imagery drew thousands every Sunday to listen to his sermons. (New York, 1882); William E[ldridge] Hatcher, (New York, 1908); Howard H. Harlan, ([Charlottesville, Va.], 1936); , 343-44. now stand by the old theory for which the church proposed
to murder Galileo. Men are compelled to admit that the Genesis by Moses
is less trustworthy as to the time of creating the heavens and the earth than
are the rocks and the stars.

Espy unfolded the science of storms,16The early work in meteorology of James Pollard Espy (1785-1860) was in the established tradition of observation, which he tried to expand into a national system. He soon began the much less conventional work of experimentation to uncover basic physical concepts that could be applied to weather observation. His principal interest was in heat efiects and his major discovery lay in the role and the dynamics of latent heat in cloud formation and precipitation. Espy was an enthusiastic exponent of his discoveries and aroused a great deal of interest in meteorology. Espy's exuberance and his contentiousness in defense of tenuous theories, however, alienated his scientific peers. Charles Coulston Gillispie, ed., , 16 vols. (New York, 1970-80), 4: 410-11; , 6: 205-06; , 3: 185-86. and forthwith thunder and
lightning parted with their ancient predicates of wrath and were no longer
visitations of divine vengeance.

Experience and observation in the science of government gave us
clearer views of justice, and the means of ascertaining it, and jury trial
speedily took the trial by ordeal, poison and combat.


Vaccination was discovered, and, like all new discoveries, had at the
first to maintain a vigorous battle for existence. It was condemned by the
church as a cunning device of the devil to defeat the judgments of God.17Thinkers in eighteenth-century England and France independently conceived of the concept of innoculation, the introduction into the human body of a controlled quantity of a disease-causing substance to prevent occurrence of the disease. The English physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823) discovered the effectiveness of the variola vaccine against smallpox in 1796. Although by 1801 one hundred thousand people in England had received vaccination, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe resisted it as an interference with the will of God and strenuously fought against it through the course of the century. In 1721 American divines attacked Dr. Zabdiel Boylston for experimenting with innoculation although Cotton Mather countered their arguments that it was God's prerogative to wound and to heal and to visit his judgments upon people for their sins. Ralph H. Major, , 2 vols. (Springfield, Ill., 1954), 2: 606-09; George Rosen, (New York, 1958), 188-89; Andrew Dickson White, , 2 vols. (New York, 1896), 2: 55-59.
Nevertheless, it has triumphed, and is now adopted by the best instructed of
all nations.

The history of the world shows that mankind have been gradually
getting the victory over famine, plagues and pestilence, and that diseases
of all kinds are parting with their repulsive grossness.

When we look in the direction of religion, we see Luther,18Martin Luther (1484-1546) entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505 and was ordained two years later. He began to lecture in theology at the University of Wittenberg in 1513. His famous ninety-five theses, which he posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints' Day in 1517, focused on abuses in the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1520, Pope Leo, in the Bull , excommunicated him and anathematized his writings. In the same year, Luther wrote three major treatises, stating his fully developed doctrine of justification through faith, rejecting the sacramental apparatus and power of the church, and calling upon the princes of Germany to initiate a true reform of life. In 1525 his break with Rome was sealed by his marriage to the ex-nun Katherine von Bora and his debate with Erasmus on freedom of the will. In the last two decades of his life, Luther labored prodigiously at the creation of new forms of church worship, the explication of scripture, and the education of a new ministry. Roland H. Bainton, (New York, 1950); H[arry] H[erald] Haile, (Garden City, N.Y., 1980); Ozment, , 256, 259, 273-85, 292-301, 381. Melanc-
thon,19Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) committed himself to the Protestant Reformation shortly after he arrived in Wittenberg in 1518 to teach Greek and Hebrew at its university. There he met and became the close friend of Martin Luther. Melanchthon actively participated in the formal colloquies and debates and the interchurch and political negotiations that shaped early Protestantism. He attempted always to reconcile conflicting theological positions, and, towards this end, evolved a conception of adiaphora or non-essentials. At the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530, he drafted the document known as the Augsburg Confession, co-signed by Catholic and Protestant representatives but excluding the more radical positions of Zwingli and the Anabaptists. Clyde Leonard Manschreck, (New York, 1958); James William Richard, (New York, 1898). Erasmus and Zwingle,20Ulrich or Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) was born in German-speaking Switzerland in the village of Wildhaus. In 1506 he became pastor of Glarus and preached against the widespread use of Swiss recruits as mercenary forces by the European powers. His political position was unwelcome in Glarus, and in 1516 he removed to Einsiedeln, where substantial questioning of Catholic tenets and practice was already underway. Upon reading Erasmus in 1514 and reading his purified Greek edition of St. Paul's letters, Zwingli committed himself to the authority of Scriptures alone; here, as in many other theological positions, he agreed with his contemporary Martin Luther. In 1518 he became a pastor in Zurich but his marriage there in 1524 created a scandal which placed him more emphatically on the side of church reform. Zwingli regularly preached against externals and his followers stripped the churches of images, whitewashed the church walls, and excluded music from religious rituals. In politics, Zwingli worked unsuccessfully toward unity among Protestant and non-Protestant states against the papacy and Hapsburg rulers. Oskar Farner, , trans. D. G. Sear (New York, 1952); G[eorge] R. Potter, (London, 1976); Jackson, , 12: 538-46. and other stalwart reformers, confronting


and defying the Vatican and repudiating pontifical authority. What is the
result? Why, this: men are no longer, as formerly, tortured, burned, stran-
gled and starved to death, on account of their religious opinions. Learning
has unlocked to us the mysteries of Egypt. It has deciphered the hiero-
glyphics,21The deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics or picture writing eluded scholars until the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone, a black basalt slab bearing three parallel texts, one of which was in Greek and could therefore serve as a key to the others, one in hieroglyphics and one in demotic, a cursive Egyptian script. The discovery was made by Napoleonic troops in the western delta of the Nile River near Rashid or Rosetta. Britain became the possessor of the stone in 1801 as part of the French treaty of surrender in Egypt; it was placed in the British Museum in 1802 and has remained there. Its translation was a piecemeal and collective effort, not completed until 1868. The Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion systematically unlocked the hieroglyphics in 1824 after concluding that they consisted of ideograms and phonograms rather than the former alone. Heinrich Brugsch was later able to transliterate demotic words into hieroglyphics. Leonard Cottrell, ed., , 2d ed. (New York, 1970), 323-24; E[rnest] A. T. Budge, (London, 1913), 2-4. and shown us that the slaughter of animals and the slaughter of
men as sacrifices was a rude device of the religious sentiment to propitiate
the favor of imaginary gods.

The Christian religion dawned upon Western Europe and a thousand
men were no longer slain to make a Roman holiday. A little common sense
took the place of unreasoning faith in the Puritan, and old women in New
England were no longer hanged as witches.22In the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, authorities had fourteen women and five men hanged and one man pressed to death; in other cases in Massachusetts and Connecticut, fourteen women and two men were executed. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds., (Belmont, Calif., 1972), x, 376-78; John Putnam Demos, (New York, 1982), 11, 401-09.

Science tells us what storms are in the sky and when and where they
will descend upon our continent, and nobody now thinks of praying for rain
or fair weather.


Only a few centuries ago women were not allowed to learn the letters of
the alphabet, now she takes her place among the intellectual forces of the
day and ranks with our finest scholars, best teachers and most successful
authors. Lundy, Walker and Garrison,23Benjamin Lundy, Jonathan Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison. shocked by the enormities of
slavery, branded the system as a crime against human nature; and, after
thirty years of fierce and fiery conflict against press and pulpit, church and
state, men have ceased to quote the Scriptures to prove slavery a divine

The fathers of the American Revolution took a vast step in the direction
of political knowledge when they discovered and announced humanity as
the source and authority for human government. To them we are indebted
today for a government of the people. Even Europe itself is gradually
parting with its notion of the divine right of kings.

The conception of Deity in the younger days of the world was, as all
know, wild, fantastic and grotesque. It fashioned its idea into huge, re-
pulsive and monstrous images, with a worship of corresponding grossness,
abounding in bloody sacrifices of animals and men. Who will tell us to-day
that there has been no real progress in this phase of human thought and
practice, or that the change in the religious conceptions of the world is no
improvement? “Even more marked and emphatic” are the evidences of
progress when we turn from the religious to the material interests of man.
Art, science, discovery and invention, startle and bewilder us at every turn,
by their rapid, vast and wonderful achievements.

These forces have made men lords where they were vassals; masters
where they were slaves, and kings where they were subjects. They have
abolished the limitations of time and space and have brought the ends of the
earth together.

It is nothing in favor of misanthropy to which the foregoing is in some
sense a reply, that evils, hardships and sufferings still remain, and that the
fact of life is still far in the rear of our best conceptions of what life should
be; for, so long as the most desponding of the present cannot point us to any
period in the history of the world for which we would exchange the present,
our argument for progress will remain conclusive.

It should be remembered that the so-called splendid civilizations of the
East were all coupled with conditions wholly impossible at the present day;
and which the masses of mankind must now contemplate with a shudder.
We have travelled far beyond Egyptian, Grecian and Roman civilizations,
and have largely transcended their religious conceptions.


In view of the fact that reform always contemplates the destruction of
evil, it is strange that nearly all efforts of reform meet with more deter-
mined and bitter resistance from the recognized good, than from those that
make no pretensions to unusual sanctity. It would, upon first blush seem,
that, since all reform is an effort to bring man more and more into harmony
with the laws of his own being and with those of the universe, the church
should be the first to hail it with approval at its inception; but this is a
superficial view of the subject.

Of course the message of reform is, in itself an impeachment of the
existing order of things. It is a call to those who think themselves already
high, to come up higher, and, naturally enough, they resent the implied
censure. It is also worthy of remark that, in every struggle between the
worse and the better, the old and the new, the advantage at the commence-
ment is, in all cases, with the former. It is the few against the mass. The old
and long established has the advantage of organization and respectability.
It has possession. It occupies the ground, which is said to be nine points of
the law.24Sometimes cited as eleven rather than nine points, this proverb was popular in England by the seventeenth century. H[enry] L[ouis] Mencken, ed., , 2 vols. (New York, 1942), 2: 946.

Besides, every thing which is of long standing in this world has power
to beget a character and condition in the men and things around it, favorable
to its own continuance. Even a thing so shocking and hateful as slavery had
power to intrench and fortify itself behind the ramparts of church and state.
and to make the pulpit defend it as a divine institution.

Another reason why ancient wrong is able to defend itself, is that the
wrong of the present, though enormous and flagrant, has taken the place of
some greater wrong which has been overthrown. Slavery, for instance, was
better than killing captives in war. Duelling is better than private assassina-
tion. Gambling better than highway robbery. War, as waged by civilized
nations, is better than the indiscriminate massacre practised in the olden

The advocates of slavery could argue with some plausibility that the
slaves were better off here than in Africa; that here they could hear the
gospel preached, and learn the way to heaven. But deeper down than this
plausible view of existing wrong, ancient evil finds advantage in the contest
with reform.

Human nature itself has a warm and friendly side for what is old; for
what has withstood the tide of time and become venerable by age. Men will


long travel the old road, though you show them a shorter and better one,
simply because they have always travelled that road. They will live in the
old house long after they see the need of a new one. Sweet and precious
associations bind us to the dear old home. We cling to it though the
midnight stars shine through its shingles; though the North winds from
snow-clad mountains whistle their icy songs through its ragged rents and
crumbling walls; and though, in shape and size, it may be an architectural
anachronism, old fashioned, outlandish and dilapidated. The thought that
father and mother lived here in peace, happiness and serene content, makes
the old house, with all its defects, still dear to the hearts of their children,
from generation to generation. As with the old house, so with the old
custom, the old church and the old creed, men love them, stand by them,
fight for them, refuse to see their defects, because of the comfort they have
given to innumerable souls in sickness and health, in sorrow and death.

It is this love and veneration which to-day revolts at the revision of the
Scriptures.25The Higher Criticism consisted of the textual analysis of Scripture, which uncovered disunity and discrepancies among its individual parts, and the application of entirely secular methodologies to biblical subjects and to the question of the origin of religion per se, most notoriously in the historical biographies of Jesus by David Friedrich Strauss and Joseph Ernest Renan. Franklin L. Baumer, (New York, 1960), 159-61. Better that a thousand errors should remain, it insists, than
that the faith of the multitude shall be shocked and unsettled by the discov-
ery of error in what was believed infallible and perfect.

Thus there are silent forces always at work, riveting men’s hearts to the
old, and rendering them distrustful of all innovation upon the long-
established order of things, whatever may be the errors and imperfections
of that order. Evils, multitudinous and powerful, avail themselves of rou-
tine, custom and habit, and manage to live on, long after their baleful
influence is well-known and felt.

The reformer, therefore, has, at the outset, a difficult and disagreeable
task before him. He has to part with old friends; break away from the beaten
paths of society, and advance against the vehement protests of the most
sacred sentiments of the human heart.

No wonder that prophets were stoned, apostles imprisoned, and Prot-
estants burned at the stake. No wonder that Garrison was mobbed and
haltered; Lovejoy26Elijah Lovejoy. shot down like a felon; Torrey27Charles Turner Torrey. wasted in prison; John
Brown hanged, and Lincoln murdered.


It may not be a useless speculation to inquire when[ce] comes the
disposition or suggestion of reform; whence that irresistible power that
impels men to brave all the hardships and dangers involved in pioneering an
unpopular cause? Has it a natural or a celestial origin? Is it human or is it
divine, or is it both? I have no hesitation in stating where I stand in respect
of these questions. It seems to me that the true philosophy of reform is not
found in the clouds, or in the stars, or any where else outside of humanity

So far as the laws of the universe have been discovered and understood,
they seem to teach that the mission of man’s improvement and perfection
has been wholly committed to man himself. So is he to be his own savior or
his own destroyer. He has neither angels to help him nor devils to hinder

It does not appear from the operation of these laws, or from any
trustworthy data, that divine power is ever exerted to remove any evil from
the world, how great soever it may be. Especially does it never appear to
protect the weak against the strong, the simple against the cunning, the
oppressed against the oppressor, the slave against his master, the subject
against his king, or one hostile army against another, although it is usual to
pray for such interference, and usual also for the conquerors to thank God
for the victory, though such thanksgiving assumes that the Heavenly Father
is always with the strong and against the weak, and with the victors against
the vanquished. No power in nature asserts itself to save even innocence
from the consequences of violated law.

The babe and the lunatic perish alike when they throw themselves
down or by accident fall from a sufficient altitude upon sharp and flinty
rocks beneath; for this is the fixed and unalterable penalty for the transgres-
sion of the law of gravitation.

The law in all directions is imperative and inexorable, but beneficial
withal. Though it accepts no excuses, grants no prayers, heeds no tears, but
visits all transgressors with cold and iron-hearted impartiality, its lessons,
on this very account, are all the more easily and certainly learned. If it were
not thus fixed, inflexible and immutable, it would always be a trumpet of
uncertain sound,281 Cor. 14: 8. and men could never depend upon it, or hope to attain
complete and perfect adjustment to its requirements; because what might
be in harmony with it at one time, would be discordant at another. Or, if it
could be propitiated by prayers or other religious offerings, the ever shifting


sands of piety or impiety would take the place of law, and men would be
destitute of any standard of right, any test of obedience, or any stability of
moral government.

The angry ocean engulphs its hundreds of ships and thousands of lives
annually. There is something horrible, appalling and stunning in the con-
templation of the remorseless, pitiless indifference with which it rolls on
after swallowing its weeping, shivering, shrinking, imploring victims; but
reflection vindicates the wisdom of law here, as elsewhere. It is the one
limb cut off, the better to save the whole body. What may seem cruel and
remorseless in its treatment ofthe few, is, nevertheless, mercy and compas-
sion to the many; and the wisdom of the law is manifested, not alone by its
violation, but by its due observance, as well.

Every calamity arising from human ignorances and negligence upon
the sea, tends to the perfection of naval architecture. to increase the knowl-
edge of ocean navigation, and thereby to fashion the minds of men more
and more in the likeness of the divine mind.

Men easily comprehend the wisdom of inflexible and unchangeable
law, when it is thought to apply only to the government of matter, though
for the purpose of miracle, they sometimes seem to deny even this. They
contend that these laws may be suspended or evaded by the power of faith.
They hold that fire will not burn, that water will not drown, and that poison
will not destroy life in particular cases where faith intervenes.

But such views may be dismissed as the outpourings of enthusiasm.
Some things are true to faith, which are false to fact; and miraculous things
address themselves to faith rather than to science. The more thoughtful
among orthodox believers concede that the laws appertaining to matter are
unchangeable and eternal.

They have ceased to pray for rain, or for clear weather; but to save
something from the wreck which this admission must make in their the-
ological system they except the spiritual nature of man from the operation
of fixed and unchangeable laws. Plainly enough, they gain nothing by this
distinction. If the smallest particle of matter in any part of the universe is
subject to law, it seems to me that a thing so important as the moral nature of
man cannot be less so.

It may be further objected to the orthodox view of this question, that, in
effect, it does away with moral and spiritual law altogether, and leaves man
without any rule of moral and spiritual life. For where there is no law, there
can be no transgression, and hence, no penalty. This is not the only difficulty


in the way of our acceptance of the common theology, and where it
manifestly stands in contradiction to sound reason.

If it is admitted that there are moral laws, but affirmed that the conse-
quence of their violation may all be removed by a prayer, a sigh or a tear,
the result is about the same as if there were no law. Faith, in that case, takes
the place of law, and belief, the place of life. On this theory a man has only
to believe himself pure and right, a subject of special divine favor, and he is
so. Absurd as this position is, to some of us, it is, in some vague way, held
by the whole Christian world about us, and Christians must cling to it, or
give up the entire significance of their prayers and worship.

I discard this office of faith, for many reasons. It seems to me that it
strikes at the fundamental principles of all real progress, and ought, by
some means or other, to be removed from the minds of men.

I think it will be found that all genuine reform must rest on the assump-
tion that man is a creature of absolute, inflexible law, moral and spiritual,
and that his happiness and well-being can only be secured by perfect
obedience to such law.

All thought of evasion, by faith or penance, or by any means, must be
discarded. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,”29Gal. 6: 7. and from
this there is no appeal.

It is given to man to first discover the law and to enforce compliance by
all his power of precept and example. The great and all commanding means
to this end is not remote. It is the truth. This only is the “light of the
world.”30Matt. 5: 14.

“All the space between man’s mind and God’s mind,” says Theodore
Parker, “is crowded with truth that waits to be discovered and organized
into law, for the government and happiness of mankind.”

It would be pleasant to dwell here upon the transcendent achievements
of truth, in proof of its reforming power. No advancement or improvement
has been effected in human character or in human institutions, except
through the agency and power of truth. It is the pillar of cloud by day and
the pillar of fire by night,31Exod. 13: 21-22. to lead the human race through the wilderness
of ignorance and out of the thraldom of error.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, says an apostle, for it is the power of


God unto salvation.32An allusion to St. Paul’s words in Rom. 1: 16. In this we have only a glowing theological statement
of a grand philosophical truth.

A gospel which is simply good news, for that is the meaning of the
word, has no saving power in it whatever. The only saving power there is in
any good news depends entirely upon the truth of such news. Without that
quality, good news is an aggravation, a contradiction, and a disappoint-
ment; a Dead sea apple, fair without and foul within.33Dead Sea apples or the apples of Sodom are a yellow fruit found growing along the shores of the Dead Sea. They contain small black seeds that have an ashen-like texture and bitter taste. , 2d ed. (Detroit, 1985), 198.

To a shipwrecked mariner clinging to a spar or a plank or a life preserv-
er, amid the towering billows of a storm-tossed ocean, near the point of
despair, the news that a ship in the distance is coming to his relief would be
good news indeed, but there would be no salvation in it, unless the news
itself were true.

The soul of the apostle’s utterance therefore, is, that he is not ashamed
of the truth, because it is the power of God unto salvation. Like all grand
reformers, this great apostle, filled with a holy enthusiasm, was not
ashamed of the message in which, to him, was the power to save the world
from sin, and the consequences of sin, though all the world were against

Having said thus much of truth and its power, it may be asked, as Pilate
in his Judgment Hall, asked the Saviour, “What is Truth?”34John 18: 38. It is now, as it
was then, easier to ask than to answer questions.

For the purpose of this discourse, and the thought it aims to inculcate, it
is enough to say that any expression, communication or suggestion,
whether it be objective or subjective, intuitive or acquired, which conveys
to the human understanding a knowledge of things as they exist in all their
relations and bearings, without admixture of error, is the truth in respect of
all the particular things comprehended in the said expression, communica-
tion or suggestion.

A broad distinction, however, must always be observed between the
expression and the thing expressed, and also between the expression and
the understanding of the expression.

The expression is but the body; the thing expressed is the soul. It is not
too metaphysical to say that Truth has a distinct and independent existence,
both from any expression of it, and any individual understanding of it; and


that it is always the same however diverse the creeds of men may be
concerning it.

Contemplated as a whole, it is too great for human conception or
expression, whether in books or creeds. It is the illimitable thought of the
universe, upholding all things, governing all things, superior to all things.
Reigning in eternity, it is sublimely patient with our slow approximation to
it, and our imperfect understanding of it, even where its lessons are clearly
taught and easily understood. It has a life of its own, and will live on, as the
light of a star will shine on, whether our dull eyes shall see it or not.

But, as already intimated no definite idea of absolute truth can be
perfectly conveyed to the human understanding by any form of speech.
Prophets, apostles, philosophers and poets alike fail here.

Impressed with this impossibility of the human mind to comprehend
the divine, the sacred writers exclaim, “God is love!” “God is truth!”35Douglass alludes to 1 John 4: 8, 5: 6. It
is the best of which the case admits, and with it the world must be content.
Yet there is consolation here; for, though subject to limitations, man is not
absolutely helpless.

While truth, when contemplated as a totality, is so vast as to transcend
man’s ability to grasp it in all its fullness and glory, there are, nevertheless,
individual truths, sparks from the great All-Truth, quite within the range of
his mental vision, which, if discovered and obeyed, will light his pathway
through the world and make his life successful and happy.

He may not approach the resplendent sun in the sky and gaze into its
fathomless depths, into its tempests of fire, or withstand its thunderous
flame, storming away into space, thousands of miles beyond its own
immeasurable circumference, but he may be warmed and enlivened by the
heat, and walk in safety by its light.

All truth to be valuable must be wisely applied. Each class of facts
conducts us to its own peculiar truth or principle, obedience or disobe-
dience to which, brings its own special and appropriate results, and each
after its kind.

A man may conform himself to one important truth and reap the
advantage of his conformity and at the same time be utterly at fault in
respect to another truth and suffer the bitterest consequences. He may go
through life like a bird with one wing, right on one side, wrong on the
other, and confined to earth when he might otherwise soar to heaven. He
may be well versed in sanitary truth, and secure to himself sound bodily


health, but at the same time violate all the great principles of truth which
tend to elevate and improve the mind and purify the heart. On the other
hand he may be well versed in all the great truths of morality, but totally
ignorant of the laws of mechanics.

An immoral man, well instructed in the science of naval architecture,
may build a ship which will easily survive the ten thousand perils of the
ocean; while a perfect saint who is ignorant of the laws of navigation and
disregards them, will see his ship go to the bottom in the first storm though
her deck be crowded with missionaries to the heathen.

Among the common errors of the world, none is more conspicuous
than the error of seeking desirable ends by inappropriate and illogical
means. An uncivil word is resented by a blow, as if a blow on the body
could cure an affront to the mind or change the mind of the offender. A
reflection upon personal honor provokes a duel, as if putting your body up
to be shot at were proof that you were an honest man. A difference of
religious opinion sends you to another store to buy goods, as if a man’s
principles and not his goods were for sale.

If, as a man can go into a store and purchase a garment, he could go into
a church and select a creed to his liking, he might be properly praised or
blamed for the wisdom or folly of his choice. But this thing which we call
belief does not come by choice, but by necessity; not by taste, but by
evidence brought home to the understanding and the heart.

All reform, whether moral or physical, whether individual or social, is
the result of some new truth or of a logical inference from an old and
admitted truth.

Strictly speaking, however, it is a misnomer to prefix the word truth
with the words new and old. Such qualifying prefixes have no proper
application to any truth. Error may be old, or it may be new, for it has a
beginning and must have an end. It is a departure from truth and a contra-
diction to the truth, and must pass away with the progressive enlightenment
of the race; but truth knows no beginning and has no end, and can therefore
be neither old nor new, but is unchangeable, indestructible and eternal.

Hence all genuine and lasting reforms must involve a renunciation of
error which is transient, and a return to truth which is eternal.

The mission of the reformer is to discover truth, or the settled and
eternal order of the universe. This word discover is an important word. It
has a deeper meaning than the merely becoming cognizant of truth, or of
any other subject previously unknown. It is not simply the opening of our
eyes and seeing what was not seen before, but it seems to uncover, the


removal of whatever may obstruct, hinder or prevent the understanding
from grasping any object of which it may properly be cognizant. It involves
effort, work, either of body or mind, or both.

To the outward eye this work may seem opposed to nature, but to the
eye of thought it is found to be in accordance with the higher laws of nature.
The men you see yonder, armed with picks, shovels, spades, drills, powder
and fire, blasting rocks, tunnelling mountains, breaking through the virgin
soil, digging down the ancient hills, filling up the deep ravines and valleys,
are simply uncovering the great truth of the level, one of nature’s best helps
to man in promoting civilization, bearing our burdens, and enabling us to
keep pace with the birds in travel and commerce.

Yonder block of solid marble contains within its rough, unseemly form
the fine symmetrical proportions of a stately Corinthian pillar, one upon
which the eyes of unborn generations may look with pleasure; or there may
sleep in its cold embrace the entrancing form of woman, or the statue of a
scholar, statesman, or poet. Genius and skill only are needed to uncover
and reveal it as a thing of beauty and a joy forever.36Douglass slightly misquotes the first line of John Keats's . H[eathcote] W[illiam] Garrod, ed., (London, 1956).

It is not a war with nature, this hammer and chisel business, but only a
loving embracement of her deeper, wiser, and more glorious truths and
perfections. It is, as all reform is a kind of Jacob wrestling with the angel
for larger blessings.37Gen. 32: 24-30.

What is true of external nature is also true of that strange, mysterious,
and indescribable, which earnestly endeavors in some degree to measure
and grasp the deepest thought and to get at the soul of things; to make our
subjective consciousness, objective, in thought, form and speech.

In the necessary conflict between the old and the new, the outward and
inward essence of things, men naturally range themselves into two great
classes; the one radical, the other conservative. There are many shades of
difference between these two extremes. Positive and perfect neutrality is
only possible to the absolutely ignorant and stupid. This class of men see
only results; but know nothing as to the method or the labor of bringing
them about. The most they can say when the work of the reformer is
accomplished is, “Thank Providence!”

Antislavery men, against a storm of violence and persecution which
would have appalled most men, educated the people of the North to believe
that slavery was a crime; educated them up to the point of resistance to the


slave power, and thus brought about the abolition of slavery. Yet the igno-
rant and stupid will still ask, “What have Garrison, Gerrit Smith and others
done for the colored people?” They see the colored man free; they see him
riding on railways and steamboats, where they were never allowed to ride
before; they see him going to school and crowding his way into the high
places of the land, which twenty years ago would have been thought
impossible to him, but they do not see by whose intelligence, courage and
heroic endeavor these results have been accomplished. They are neutral
from ignorance and stupidity. They have no part or lot in the work of
reform, except to share its fruits.

Besides this stupid class, there is another, which may be called inter-
mediates. They stand between the two extremes; men who compliment
themselves for their moderation, because they are neither hot nor cold; men
who sometimes help a good cause a little in order to hinder it a good deal.
They are, however, of little account in the conflict with evil. They are mere
drift wood; what sailors call dead water. They follow in the wake of their
respective forces, being themselves destitute of motive power.

It is the extreme men on either side who constitute the real forces. All
others move as they are moved upon. By their timidity and dead weight,
they do much to retard a good cause; but when the conflict is over and the
victory won, they are usually found at the front, shouting more loudly than
any of those who shared in the conflict.

It is ever the first step in any great cause that costs, and the fate of
pioneers is to suffer reproach and persecution.

“Then to side with Truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame or profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit,
Till his Lord is crucified;
And the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
For Humanity sweeps onward;
Where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas,
With the silver in his hands;


Far in front the cross stands ready
And the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday,
With silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes
Into History’s golden urn.”38Douglass quotes the eleventh and fourteenth stanzas of James Russell Lowell's “The Present Crisis." , 7: 182, 183.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


November 20, 1883


Yale University Press 1992



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