Posts Tagged church

Lost History: Frederick Douglass, “I belong to the Human Catholic church.” Says Saint Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. “is the colored people’s pride.”

Before and after his self-liberation from enslavement, Frederick (Bailey) Douglass was closely connected with the Black Church, Black American clergy and community outreach traditions from petitioning local governments to the organizing of evening Bible study classes and Sabbath schools to multi-day camp meetings.

Although affiliated with the Methodists, the white Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion denominations, through his early life from bondsman to freedman Douglass was an ecumenical reformist. As an abolitionist and Civil Rights advocate Douglass worked with radical white and Black Adventists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Unitarians, among others within the umbrella of Christianity.

In a limited analysis of Douglass within the context of the Black church, or rather Douglass within the tradition of 19th century American religion, is his awareness and connections with the Catholic Church across generations and geography.

Escaping enslavement from Baltimore in 1838, Douglass spent a significant part of his early life in the genesis city of Black Catholicism in America. It was in Douglass’ Fell’s Point neighborhood that Sister Mother Mary Lange first started her school in the late 1820s. It was in the Colombian Orator in which Douglass reportedly met “one of Sheridan‘s mighty speeches on the subject of Catholic Emancipation.” While in Ireland in the mid-1840s, Douglass met and shared the stage with Daniel O’Connell, the noted champion of Catholic emancipation in Great Britain.

Working as an activist and reformist across the prevailing faiths and denominations of Western religions for decades, the discussion of Douglass and Catholicism has long evaded scholastic investigation and interpretation.

In the spring of 1894 John Hanson Beadle visited Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass, in a larger effort to chronicle the complexities and idiosyncrasies of Washington, D.C.’s unique Black communal life.

During Beadle’s interview Douglass shared insights into his relationships with local churches and clergy in Washington. Specifically, Douglass spoke to Beadle about Saint Augustine Catholic Church in D.C., the tradition of Black Catholicism within his native state of Maryland and its impact within Black communities throughout the country.

This interview and quotes from Frederick Douglass on Black Catholicism have not appeared since their original publication more than 100 years ago. All previous known biographical and monographic works of scholarship on Douglass, especially efforts to discuss Douglass with the faith traditions of the Black Church

Negro church - St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.
St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washington, D.C. (1899?), reportedly displayed as part of the American Negro exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Library of Congress

I found Hon. Frederick Douglass at his beautiful home on the hills east of Anacostia, a site overlooking all the city, nearly all the District and many miles of both branches of the Potomac. It is a typical east Maryland home, with broad halls, well surrounded by trees and showing in every detail of the surroundings a natural love for country life. As we walked about the grounds in front, the little strip called Anacostia was scarcely visible at the foot of the hill. Beyond it the sluggish waters of the eastern branch of the Potomac seemed scarcely moving in the May sunshine. Beyond that the beautiful city stretched northward and westward till it faded away in the timbered heights about Georgetown and on the upper Potomac. Of course Coxey’s army and its related movements formed the first topic of conversation, but in that curious way by which one thing bring on another in conversation till the subject is entirely changed we were soon deep in a discussion of the various religions of mankind.

“I belong,” said Mr. Douglass, “to the Human Catholic church. I usually attend the Methodist church, but for many a year I have not been able to bind down my mind to any of those creeds which as it seems to me, make statements that the ordinary common sense contradicts.

“I have traveled about some and have everywhere seen men doing all sorts of things to get on the good side of God, if happily they might induce him to change his laws for their benefit. So far as my reading goes, I find that men have been doing that through all time, but I am satisfied that the law is invariable. All we can do is to find what it is and obey it.”

Colored Roman Catholics

“But is there not a great feeling of loss and some anxiety when a man concludes that he is simply the subject of an unchanging law?”

An 1892 newspaper print of Saint Augustine Catholic Church on 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. In an 1894 interview Frederick Douglass called St. Augustine “the colored people’s pride.”

“There is not to me. I am completely at rest on that point. I am within the trade winds of the Almighty. I know that the moral and social and intellectual laws are just as invariable as the physical, and the violation of them will bring what people call punishment – that is the suffering from violated law. I have seen the country thoroughly scourged, and I know it will be scourged again until it does justice, for the law is imperative. But if you want to know about our people’s religious condition I refer you to Dr. Jennifer of Metropolitan, which I usually attend, or Dr. John H. Brooks of the Nineteenth Street Baptist church, for here, as in most places through the South, I believe, the Baptists are most numerous among us.

We have a great many fine people in the Catholic church, and there are probably 10,000 colored Catholics in the District. In fact, Baltimore, Washington and New Orleans contain more colored Catholics than all the other cities in the country.”

“The colored man, you know, is just like any other man when he starts in religion” – this with a short laugh – “he takes the first that is offered him, and all this region, all Maryland, in fact, was Catholic at the start. It is perfectly delightful to go to that St. Augustine Catholic church and see the perfect freedom which prevails between white and colored. It is so in all the Catholic churches of the District, but St. Augustine is the colored people’s pride. The Catholics set a very fine example to the Protestant brethren in that respect.”

The discovery of this archival text, indicating that the Honorable Frederick (Bailey) Douglass was a frequent attendant at my familial place of worship brought about a deluge of memories. 

I grew up taking in sermon and the rites of the Eucharist at St Augustine Parish.

Admittedly, however, I have not seen the inside of this legacy temple for a long while now. It was in reading Douglass’ depictions of the community of Black Catholics in D.C. that I’m taken back to Sunday mass with memories of ascending the steps into the church’s foyer where a fountain flows into a stone basin. I’m unable to pull together the image in the design of the statue that takes shapes as the fountain, but I can recall the ritual that my grandmother or mother, or which ever aunt in closest proximity at the time, would anoint my brow with its sacrament; holy water in the sign of the cross. 

There’s something about the Black Church that brings about equilibrium, a normalizing of oneself against the opposing forces that await you in America.      

St Augustine Parish provided that and more. Entering the doors into the main hall, under the vaulted ceiling, you are flanked by stained glass depictions of a highly melanated Saint Augustine of Hippo and inlaid relief sculptures of apostolic characters adorning afro hairstyles. We worshipped in our likeness.

I don’t know what Frederick Douglass witnessed while taking in sermon in that 19th century church. I doubt that the ornamentation would’ve been that observably Black, but I am of mind to presume that my experience was undoubtedly the product of a uniquely Black attitude of self-reliance and conspicuous religiosity.

John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (2012), is co-founder of Lost History Associates, with Justin McNeil. McNeil attended Saint Augustine Catholic School in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse College in Atlanta. In February 2021 Muller & McNeil contributed an editorial, “The Lost History of Frederick Douglass and the Black Church,” to the Washington Informer.

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Evening Walking Tour of the Churches of Frederick Douglass -> (Friday, August 30, 2019 – 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM)

BCC Howard Road SEJoin local reporter and historian John Muller on a special evening walk tour through Old Anacostia and Barry Farm, examining the history of the neighborhood churches Frederick Douglass regularly attended.

While Douglass’ contributions to Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington City are well known, from laying cornerstones that remain today to teaching Sunday school Dr. Frederick Douglass was an active supporter of Bethlehem Baptist Church on Howard Road SE and Campbell AME Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in his local community.

Following a special sunset program at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM walk the same path Frederick Douglass planned to walk to Campbell AME the evening he took his last earthly breathe.

TICKETS:  * * FREE ** [suggested donation of $10]

Starting point and end point are NOT the same.

DEPARTURE : Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at 1411 W Street SE

CONCLUSION : Campbell AME Church at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Sumner Road SE in Barry Farm.*

* The tour concludes up the street from the Anacostia Metro Station.

Wear walking shoes, total travel is 1.5 miles.
Parts of the tour are not accessible for people with mobility issues. Tour is not ADA accessible.

Parking at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site will not be accessible.

Metro: Anacostia (Green Line)

BUS: 92, V2, B2

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Colored Press Convention meets at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church w/ Frederick Douglass, William Calvin Chase, Ferdinand Barnett, T. Thomas Fortune, Richard T. Greener and others attend

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church at 1705 15th Street NW in Washington, D.C., circa 1899. The church was razed in the mid-20th Century. Library of Congress.

If we are to celebrate Frederick Douglass’ Bicentennial I advance that we recognize the full measure of his life. Yes, he is known as a runaway slave who rose to advise more than a half-dozen United States Presidents but let us not be so limited in our understanding of Douglass. Lest us not forgot the lesser-known Douglass, such as editor Douglass.

Ranger Nate Johnson at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site knows and has presented on Douglass as a journalist and an editor.

In our ongoing research on Douglass, we are continuously interested in his unsung and largely unknown role as Editor Emeritus of the Colored Press (today known as the Black Press).

One small item we found in a June 1882 edition of the National Republican lists Douglass in attendance of the second day of proceedings for the Colored Press Convention at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, near 15th and R Streets NW. This was Rev. Grimke’s home church.

Other journalists attending were T. Thomas Fortune, Benjamin T. Tanner (founder of the Christian Recorder), Ferdinand L. Barnett, William C. Chase of the Washington Bee, W. A. Pledger of Atlanta and Richard T. Greener, a past editor and contributor to the New National Era.

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Frederick Douglass letter to British preacher Charles Spurgeon, 1887

800px-Charles_Haddon_Spurgeon_by_Alexander_Melville“The Cross, “St. Neots, ” Hunts.,

“July 6, 1887. ”

Dear Mr. Spurgeon,

“While crossing the Atlantic, last September, and looking out upon its proud dashing billows and their varied forms, and thinking of the diversity in the human family, I remarked that ‘we are many as the waves, but we are one as the sea.’ I had never heard this simile before, and thought it was original with me; but, while reading your sermon, published on the 30th June, I noticed that you said, speaking of the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm, ‘Its expressions are many as the waves, but its testimony is one as the sea.’ I am led to ask,—Is this a coincidence ; or have I, unconsciously, borrowed from you, or have you borrowed this formula from me ?

“Through the kindness of a friend, I had the privilege of listening to you a few Sundays ago. It was the realization of an ardent desire born of reading some of your sermons in America, and of what was said to me of you by my friend, Dr. H. L. Wayland, a gentleman to whom I have been much indebted for friendly sympathy and advice while battling with slavery and prejudice in America. ”

Very truly yours,



(1897), pp. 169-195 – PDF

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Frederick Douglass in Paris and “in a Peevish Mood” [Washington Post, Dec. 1, 1886] & 2010 poster for gospel choir performance in Paris

Fred Douglass in a Peevish Mood.

Boston, Nov. 30. – Fred Douglass has written to friends from Paris saying that he has everywhere been received with civility, courtesy and kindness and as a man among men. “America has her missionaries abroad,” he says, “in the shape of Ethiopian singers who disfigure and distort the features of the negro and burlesque his language and manners in a way to make him appear to thousands as more akin to apes than men. This mode of warfare is purely American and it is carried on here in Paris as it is in the great cities of England and of the States, so that to many minds, as no good was thought to come out of Nazareth, so no good is expected of the negro. In addition to these Ethiopian buffoons and serenaders who presume to represent us abroad, there are malicious American writers who take pleasure in assailing us as an inferior and good-for-nothing race of which it is impossible to make anything.”



Europeans’ interest in black American culture continues in Paris today; black American gospel choirs perform regularly to packed cathedrals. Hip-hop music and culture, largely the creation of Jamaican and American peoples of African descent, can be seen in today’s Paris; graffiti is seemingly everywhere, and music is heard (in French and English) blaring from the shops of Montmartre and hundreds of headphones on the Métro.

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“Nearer, my God, to the Thee” sung at Frederick Douglass’ funeral at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church [Feb. 24, 1895]

“Though like a wanderer, daylight all gone / Darkness be over me, my rest a stone / Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God to thee / Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to thee!” Choir at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1518 M Street NW, funeral of Frederick Douglass, February 24, 1895.

* This song was reportedly one of Douglass’ favorites. It is still sung as part of Sunday services at Metropolitan AME. *

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“Fred Douglass Helps A Church” in Baltimore [New York Times, March 1892]


Baltimore, March 5. – Some weeks ago Frederick Douglass visited Baltimore in company with his son for the purpose of paying off the mortgage on the Centennial Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The church is the one in which Mr. Douglass first received his religious education, and, finding that it was in financial straits, he came to the rescue and lifted the mortgage.

In the presence of 1,300 persons the Rev. J.L. Thomas, the pastor, burned the mortgage papers. Sunday has been set aside as a day of special service. Fred Douglass will deliver an address.

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Frederick Douglass remembers gathering “scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters” in Baltimore, MD [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass]

Bible pages

Frederick Douglass’ intellect and drive didn’t just come up from slavery;  it came up from the streets.

“My desire to learn increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.” – Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1892.

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Frederick Douglass’ days as a preacher “among the happiest days of my life”

Metropolitan AME Church, 1518 M Street NW


My connection with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church began in 1838. This was soon after my escape from slavery and my arrival in New Bedford. Before leaving Maryland I was a member of the Methodist Church in Dallas Street, Baltimore, and should have joined a branch of that Church in New Bedford, Mass., had I not discovered the spirit of prejudice and the unholy connection of that Church with slavery. Hence I joined a little branch of Zion, of which Rev. William Serrington was the minister. I found him a man of deep piety, and of high intelligence. His character attracted me, and I received from him much excellent advice and brotherly sympathy. When he was removed to another station Bishop Rush sent us a very different man, in the person of Rev. Peter Ross, a man of high character, but of very little education. After him came Rev. Thomas James. I was deeply interested not only in these ministers, but also in Revs. Jehill Beman, Dempsy Kennedy, John P. Thompson, and Leven Smith, all of whom visited and preached in the little schoolhouse on Second Street, New Bedford, while I resided there. My acquaintance with Bishop Rush was also formed while I was in New Bedford.

It is impossible for me to tell how far my connection with these devoted men influenced my career. As early as 1839 I obtained a license from the Quarterly Conference as a local preacher, and often occupied the pulpit by request of the preacher in charge. No doubt that the exercise of my gifts in this vocation, and my association with the excellent men to whom I have referred, helped to prepare me for the wider sphere of usefulness which I have since occupied. It was from this Zion church that I went forth to the work of delivering my brethren from bondage, and this new vocation, which separated me from New Bedford and finally so enlarged my views of duty, separated me also from the calling of a local preacher. My connection with the little church continued long after I was in the antislavery field. I look back to the days I spent in little Zion, New Bedford, in the several capacities of sexton, steward, class leader, clerk, and local preacher, as among the happiest days of my life.


One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism, by James Walker Hood, 1895 (Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill)

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The last public appearance Frederick Douglass never made [Evening Star, Feb. 20, 1895 “Suburban News”]

The night Frederick Douglass passed away he was scheduled to speak at a nearby church. An item in The Evening Star’s “Suburban News for Anacostia made note of the last public appearance Douglass never made.

“The members and friends of Campbell A.M.E. Church, Hillsdale, are celebrating the twenty-seventh anniversary of the organization of the church with appropriate services. The church is handsomely decorated. A special program has been arranged for this week. Tonight Rev. Dr. Collett, presiding elder of the Potomac district, will read a paper, and a short address will be made by Fred. Douglass. A reception will be tendered to ministers.” 

According to Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail, Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2562 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, was established in 1867 as Mount Zion A.M.E. Its founding was due to the overcrowding of Allen Chapel A.M.E., which today is on Alabama Avenue, formerly Hamilton Road. Campbell A.M.E moved to “a location near its present one” in 1890, according to the trail marker. From my own  inspection, to the right rear of the current church there is a cornerstone which is dated from well past Douglass’ time.

In October of 1890 a ceremony of installation was held for William H. Liverpool and Miss Fannie Johnson who were inaugurated as superintendent and assistant superintendent, respectively, at the Campbell A.M.E. Sunday-school. Notable locals in attendance were folk from nearby churches, Solomon G. Brown, and Frederick Douglass, home for the moment from his duties in Haiti.

Campbell A.M.E. church today

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