On July 1, 1889, Frederick Douglass was appointed to serve as the United State’s resident minister and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. Before his departure, the congregation of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. presented him with a leather-bound copy of the King James Bible at a farewell reception.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies and in the second, My Bondage and My Freedom, he describes secretly practicing his writing by copying passages from the Bible and other books. He remained keenly aware, however, of slave-owning whites using Biblical passages to support the institution of slavery. For Douglass and other abolitionists, Christianity and slavery were incompatible, and his forceful argument in favor of religion based on equality carries reminiscences of the tone of the King James Bible:
“I love that religion that comes from above, in the ‘wisdom of God,’ which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy…I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by.”
As resident minister and consul-general, Douglass represented the United States and its interests to the Republic of Haiti, which had become the first black-led republic in the world following its break from France in 1804. Douglass served in this capacity from 1889-1891. His wife Helen (whom he married in 1884 after the death of his first wife, Anna) records their arrival at Port-au-Prince in October 1889 and other events from their time in Haiti in her diary. After Douglass’ return to the United States, he traveled to Chicago as the Haitian government’s commissioner at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, perhaps better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. He also built housing units for black families in Baltimore, MD, and continued his work as a writer and orator supporting equal rights for blacks and women. He died in 1895.
Frederick Douglass’ King James Bible will be featured in the Manifold Greatness exhibition when it opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library on September 23. Its permanent home is the Frederick Douglass Historic Site, one of the many places Douglass lived in Washington, DC.
Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and developed the online children’s content and Family Guide for Manifold Greatness.