At Adult Forum on Sunday, we invited the booming voice of Frederick Douglass, former slave turned abolitionist, into Old First’s social hall.
In 1852, Douglass was invited to speak at a 4th of July celebration in Rochester, NY. The result? A speech that has gone down in history as an unforgiving, chilling, and unforgettable rebuke of the institution of slavery, race-based discrimination, and white Americans’ cheeriness about their nation’s history.
“Fellow citizens,” Douglass said, “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” In response to being asked to “argue” the case against slavery, Douglass responds saying that “nothing remains to be argued.” “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” he says. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
It’s a similar heat that the biblical prophets bring on Israel. And hearing what Douglass’s voice may have sounded like to that crowd in 1852, it was a powerful heat we felt while listening.
My intention originally was to bring Henry David Thoreau into our discussion of American prophets next. But reminded that Monday is MLK Day, I hope you don’t mind that we take a slightly different course instead.
Dr. King is probably the most widely-cited “modern-day prophet” of the 20th century. Today, he tends to be revered by all – even those who may, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate the problems of racism, militarism, and consumerism that he most despised. So what’s the difference between a prophet and an icon? How does King still push, challenge, and subvert us?
This Sunday we will listen to parts of Dr. King’s 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” In this sermon, which he gave a year to the day before his assassination, he explains his anti-war stance that was considered by many of his peers to be threatening to the civil rights movement’s gains for African Americans.
Luckily, we don’t need an actor to help us imagine Dr. King’s voice. There is a full recording of “Beyond Vietnam” available online.
Join us on Sunday morning to listen to King at a critical moment in his ministry, one that was dangerous not just among his enemies but also among his friends.