I am quoting from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who as many readers will probably know escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, settled in Massachusetts and became an anti-slavery (and also women's rights) campaigner. In his 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' he describes being owned, hired or lent to several different masters, and observing others.

Douglass states:

'Of all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and bassest, and most cruel and cowardly, of all others.'

He gives various examples, such as the Rev. Daniel Weeden of the Reformed Methodist Church

'whose maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master's authority',

and a Rev. Rigby Hopkins of the same Church who was even worse:

'The peculiar feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it. He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning. He did this to alarm their fears, and strike terror into those who escaped [punishment]. His plan was to whip for the smallest offences, to prevent the commission of large ones.'

The book gives several other examples of clergy, lay preachers and Christians known for their piety who were particularly harsh to their slaves, including a group of them who violently suppressed a Sunday School slaves had organized for themselves.

However, Douglass simply states in his book (a very interesting read, by the way) that he found that devout religious (by which he meant Christian) slave owners are the worst, but offers no explanation as to why this should be so.

Is there any evidence as to whether (as a generalization, obviously) he was right? If so, why would that be?

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    Is this really a historical claim? Wouldn't this be better suited to some sociological or psychological forum? This isn't the kind of thing that a historian can accurately answer.
    – cmw
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 4:12
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    This may or may not be a question a historian can answer. A lot was written about slavery in the 19th Century USA, the period is well-documented and the topic has been heavily studied for decades. Yes, Douglass was generalizing from his experience, but was intelligent and perceptive. It is relevant to know if anyone else at the time commented on this. Also, I once spent weeks cataloguing the correspondence of a man who lived in the 1700s. By the end I had a real sense of what he thought and even his implied unspoken values. Someone may have studied a slave owning clergyman in the same way
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 9:42
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    I would not assume that a psychologist or similar could necessarily answer this better than a historian. Since all involved are dead, a psycholgist cannot carry out a proper diagnostic interview. A psychologist would also tend to be less aware than a historian of cultural differences over time, and especially since they cannot interview people from the 19th Century, would be at risk of shoe-horning their experiences into the latest psychological theory based on treating clients in 21st Century California. Psychology has its share of dogma, crank theories and confirmation bias anyway.
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 9:57
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    A non-religious master would insist on slaves working hard. So would a religious one. But a religious one, believing a slave had a duty to obey him in all things (not just work), might also feel he had a sacred duty to enforce complete submission in all aspects of a slave's life. A religious one might forbid s;aves amusing themselves or playing games or singing or dancing on Sundays, the slaves one day off; whereas a non-religious one wouldn't care what they did so long as the work was done. Just a theory.
    – davidlol
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 11:02
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    @PieterGeerkens I intended no generalisation. I merely suggest reasons that might apply in some cases, perhaps those Mr Douglas experienced. The investigation you propose might support or refute it. Knowing a little about the Boer Reform Church, as you do, seems hardly to qualify you to imply that the Church of Scotland (Calvinist) differed from the Church of England (Episcopalian). I myself live in Liverpool, a city embroiled in the Slave Trade which was strongly endorsed, Biblically, by its C of E clergy (city appointees). I worship weekly and am on no anti-religious bandwagon, I think.
    – davidlol
    Commented Sep 25, 2023 at 16:22

1 Answer 1


It is unlikely that he was right, and it is unlikely that there is any evidence either way, but it is natural that he said that.

People see patterns everywhere, regardless of whether they exist in reality (the "face on the moon" is the canonical example).

Frederick Douglass

held that religious ministers committed a "blasphemy" when they taught [slavery] as sanctioned by religion

IOW, he expected religious people to be anti-slavery, and thus was more sensitive to religious people being pro-slavery (i.e., has was holding them to a higher standard - possibly subconsciously).

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    I think you're right, but I think it may be more complicated - there are multiple selection biases involved. I think the most likely case is that zealots are severe in both their piety and in their slave management. But I don't know where to get data to study the hypothesis that there is a significant difference in between the slave abuses by the zealous, the pious and the agnostic.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 10, 2022 at 15:50
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    Alternatively, he may be speaking of their moral character, holding people who were religious and should have known better to be behaving worse than the irreligious.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 10, 2022 at 19:26
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    @MarkOlson: yes, this is what I meant, I now added this explicitly.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 10, 2022 at 19:28
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    Why was he 'unlikely to be right'? If there's 'no evidence' then that assessment has no factual basis
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 11:58
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    The evidence is that Douglass said so - a contemporary and eyewitness - if eyewitness is the right word for the subject of these abuses. And Douglass wasn't some Marxist either - he wrote in his book that God had personally intervened in his life to save him from slavery, so it's not like he had some anti-Christian agenda. His statement doesn't prove that it was so, but it is evidence.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 7:55

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