Sacrifice and the Death of Christ

by John Goldingay | When Christians think about sacrifice, they commonly make two assumptions. One is that sacrifice is essentially a way of dealing with the problem of sin. The other is that it deals with sin by causing God to stop being angry with us. Neither Old Testament nor New Testament supports these two assumptions. Sacrifice does sometimes have something to do with sin, but dealing with sin is not its main object. God does get angry, but sacrifice does not relate to God’s anger (image, Falco – Church Painted Glass – Pixabay).

The Meaning of Sacrifice

The New Testament speaks of sacrifice in a number of connections apart from seeing Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that deals with sin. For instance, when we give ourselves to God in response to God’s giving himself to us, it is an act of sacrifice (Romans 12). Paul talks about being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of the Philippians’ faith and of the Philippians’ gifts to him as an offering to God (Phil 2:17; 4:18). When we testify to what God has done, it is a sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15).

The New Testament’s way of thinking coheres with the Old Testament’s way of thinking in this respect. In the Old Testament there are a number of reasons for offering a sacrifice; the most systematic account of them comes in Leviticus 1–7. First, there is the whole burnt offering, when people sacrifice a whole animal to God. They give up the entire animal. It really is a sacrifice. Second, there is the grain offering, which accompanies other sacrifices. Third, there is a sacrifice that the New International Version (NIV) calls a “fellowship offering,” the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) calls a “sacrifice of well-being” and the Common English Bible (CEB) calls a “communal sacrifice of well-being.” While it is hard to find the right title in English, in general terms the sacrifice’s significance is clear. Its distinctive feature is that God and the offerers share the sacrifice. Some is burnt and given directly to God; some is eaten by the family that makes the offering. There are three slightly different reasons why people might offer this sacrifice. One is that God has done something for them and they want to express their gratitude—maybe (for instance) they have a new baby in the family. Another is that they had promised to bring an offering in connection with asking God to do something, and God has done it—again, maybe they had prayed for a baby and they now have one. Another is simply that they want to be able to give something to God—a freewill offering (that expression comes from the name of this sacrifice).

These first three sacrifices are expressions of worship and fellowship between people and God and one another. After these, Leviticus comes to two other forms of sacrifice that do have to do with solving problems (as one might put it). The CEB uses the terms “purification offering” and “compensation offering,” which bring out their significance. The purification offering deals with situations when people have become “unclean” or “taboo.” They may have had to bury a family member and thus have been in contact with death, or they may have made a promise that they accidentally failed to keep. The purification offering puts one aspect of that problem right. The compensation offering puts the other aspect right, in making some restitution for what they did wrong. In addition, once a year on the Day of Atonement there were special purification offerings to deal with the various ways in which the people might have been affected by uncleanness of which they might be unaware. These special purification offerings made it possible for the community to clean its slate for the new year.

So none of these sacrifices dealt with real sin. Sacrifice was not designed to deal with real sin. If you had worshiped another God or set fire to someone’s grain, you could not solve the problem by offering a sacrifice. You simply had to repent and cast yourself on God’s mercy. You knew that God was a God of love and compassion and you just had to plead for God’s forgiveness. You would offer the appropriate purification offering and compensation offering as well, but the more basic resolution of the problem lay in repentance and forgiveness. As the Old Testament sometimes puts it, you would ask God to make expiation for your wrongdoing. That idea is paradoxical—expiation is, by nature, something an offender is responsible for. But the only person who can put the situation right when you have done wrong is God. It is God who pays the price for keeping the relationship going by being willing to forgive. And this is what God does in Jesus.

The New Testament uses the practice of sacrifice as a metaphor to help people understand what Christ was doing in being willing to sacrifice himself for us, but that is what it is doing—using a metaphor, using the imagery of sacrifice in a way that does not correspond to its original meaning. As is often the case with the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament, it is adapting as well as adopting its way of speaking.

Anger and Sacrifice

Christians often assume there is a link between sacrifice and the assuaging of God’s anger. It is certainly the case that the Old Testament and New Testament talk a lot about God’s anger as well as about sacrifice. But they never bring these two together. Leviticus, the book that tells us most about sacrifice, never mentions God’s anger in this connection. Insofar as sacrifice deals with problems, the problems are the need to be made clean and the need to make compensation for wrongdoing. No doubt God might be annoyed if people fail to make these sacrifices (though Leviticus does not say so), but the mere fact of needing to find purification or to make up for wrongdoing does not mean there is any anger around.

In the Old Testament God does get really angry from time to time, and that anger relates to actions such as the ones we have noted—worshiping other gods or stealing someone’s land. But what you have to do when you are guilty of such actions is stop what you are doing, put right what needs putting right, and plead with God for mercy. The story of the making of the gold bullock at Sinai is a classic illustration of these dynamics. When the people make this image and make offerings before it, God gets very angry and threatens to annihilate the people. Moses’ reaction is not to offer a sacrifice but to urge God to have a change of mind, and God does so. It fits with this reaction that God later describes himself to Moses as one who is characterized by compassion and forgiveness even while also being one who will punish people.

It fits with the Old Testament data that while the New Testament describes Jesus’ death as a sacrifice dealing with sin, passages such as Romans 3:25; Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 2:17; 9:26; 10:12; and 1 John 2:2; 4:10 do not see this sacrifice as operating by assuaging God’s anger, but rather a means of cleansing that makes it possible for us to be in the presence of the holy God. Conversely, while the New Testament emphatically declares that God is angry at human sin and that Jesus’ death saves us from God’s wrath, in passages such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5–6; 5:9; and Revelation 6:16–17, it does not link this with the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice.

Jesus and His Compensation Offering

There is one other Old Testament passage about sacrifice that has been especially influential on Christian thinking about Christ’s death. Isaiah 53 speaks of God’s servant offering his life as a compensation offering to God, and also of his bearing our punishment. Oddly enough, neither of these two lines is quoted in the New Testament, unlike much of the rest of Isaiah 53. Karl Barth comments that the New Testament does not speak of Christ’s death as his taking on the punishment for our sin, but that Isaiah 53 does do so (Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 253). Actually Isaiah 53 does not do so, in the sense usually understood. In Isaiah 53 the word for punishment is one that usually means “discipline” or “instruction”; most of the occurrences come in Proverbs to describe teaching or correction by a parent or teacher. Thus in Isaiah 53 the King James Version (KJV) translates it “chastisement.” When Christians think of Christ bearing the punishment for our sin, they are thinking of the punishment meted out by a law court for wrongdoing, but this is not the regular connotation of this word, nor the connotation suggested by the context in Isaiah 53. The servant of God in Isaiah 53 is going through chastisement all right, going through ill-treatment at the hands of his own people and/or at the hands of the imperial authorities, but he is not going through a judicial punishment that other people thereby escape.

If you go through persecution at the hands of your own people and at the hands of others, what do you do with that experience? The possibility raised by Isaiah 53 is that you can turn it into a compensation offering. The people among whom this servant ministers have failed in their relationship with God; they have deliberately gone their own way. At the moment they have no inclination to throw themselves on God’s mercy in the way I have described above. The servant himself is someone who has not gone their way. He is someone committed to walking God’s way. So the vision raises a daring theological possibility. Supposing he asks God to take his life and commitment and ministry, which look likely to end in death, as a kind of sacrifice, one that could compensate for the rebelliousness of his people? (Of course by normal reckoning there is no way in which one person’s obedience to death could balance the rebellion of thousands, but sacrifice never works by that kind of weighing and mathematics.)

It is that possibility that is picked up in applying this vision to Jesus. He offers his life and death as a kind of counterweight to the sin of the world; obviously the person he was opens up bigger possibilities than might apply in the case of anyone else. So Jesus’ death is a sacrifice, but not in a sense that has anything to do with God’s anger or with his being punished in our place.

The Chasm

According to a common understanding, human beings are on one side of a chasm and God is on the other side. The chasm is caused by human sin. Alongside that understanding is the implication that God relates to humanity chiefly as a judge, with judges and justice understood in a Western sense: the key point about justice is treating everyone the same, and a judge’s key role is to safeguard standards of justice. God therefore cannot relate to us because of our legal guilt, which makes it necessary for us to be punished. In terms of the picture, human beings cannot cross the chasm except by means of Christ as bridge. This works within the legal image because he bears the legal punishment for sin, thereby making it possible for God the judge to relate to us.

From an Old Testament perspective this looks unscriptural, as well as being unlikely to aid the proper preaching of the gospel. It emphasizes the image of God as lawgiver and judge, and God is both of those, but the Old Testament does not draw the same inferences. As lawgiver, God is entirely free to pardon people if they repent. As judge, God is committed to taking the side of people in the context of relationship, even when they are in the wrong. This understanding emphasizes a more relational understanding of God than the Christian one. Thus Jewish theologians contrast faith within Judaism, which is a matter of a relationship of trust, and faith within Christianity, which is a matter of believing correct doctrine.

Although Christians link sacrifice and atonement with law and punishment, as if an animal (or a person) that is sacrificed is being punished in someone else’s place, the Old Testament does not link sacrifice with legal categories. And although a price has to be paid before someone is forgiven, this need not be understood in a legal way. A more relational understanding of God fits Scripture better.

The Old Testament has a number of relational pictures of God, as friend of Abraham, as husband of Jerusalem, as restorer of a needy relative, or as mother or father in relation to son or daughter. Those images may help us understand what Christ achieved on the cross.

  1. In 1969, Eric Clapton fell in love with the wife of his best friend, George Harrison, wrote the song “Layla” about her, and eventually stole her from Harrison. Whereas one would have expected Harrison at the very least never to want to talk to Clapton again, they actually stayed friends. That implies that Harrison absorbed within himself the pain of what Clapton did and the anger it surely aroused. Their friendship could therefore survive the wrong. (I do not know whether this is actually what Harrison did, but the story nevertheless illustrates the point.)
  2. Imagine a professor coming home after a faculty meeting. It has reinforced her feelings of being powerless, underpaid, undervalued, and put down. She thus acts “crabby” in relation to her husband, who has been cooking dinner and looking forward to enjoying a glass of wine with her. She complains that the curry is too hot and the wine isn’t properly chilled. He has two choices. He can respond in kind, “I’ve been here slaving over your dinner and all you do is complain.” Or he can lean into the wind and absorb the bitterness that he did not earn. He can wait untill it is used up, and thus look for the moment when they can relate to each other because it is gone.
  3. The year I went to university, my sister married a man who my parents thought was no good. He abandoned her just after their first baby was born. Our parents had enjoyed the opportunity to begin a new life after their children had left home, but they welcomed her and her baby back into their home. Without a murmur they reshaped their life again so my sister could go to work while my mother looked after the baby, and they helped her gradually to get back to independence as a single parent. They acted as parents and next-of-kin to her, paying the price to redeem or restore her.
  4. The ordinary meaning of the Hebrew word most commonly translated “forgive” is “carry.” It is what parents do for their children’s wrongdoing and what God was doing with Israel through Old Testament times. It was a process that came to its climax with the cross, which is the logical end to the Old Testament story. Seeing the way the relationship between God and Israel worked helps us see why the cross was necessary. Through God’s life with Israel God was paying the price for that relationship, making the sacrifices to keep it going. God’s people keep doing their worst to God, so eventually God paid the ultimate price for them. God showed that even killing God cannot put God off from relating to them. God will just come back from the dead.

That is the nature of sacrifice and the nature of what Christ did for us in making atonement.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, “No Cross, No Christianity: The Biblical Shape of Atonement Theology.”

John Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament in the School of Theology. His most recent publications include the 17-volume “Old Testament For Everyone” series (WJK/SPCK, 2010–15), which provides clear, concise comment on all the Old Testament Scriptures, and “The Theology of the Book of Isaiah” (InterVarsity Press, 2014).



The Radical Christian Faith of Frederick Douglass

by D. H. Dilbeck | The great abolitionist spoke words of rebuke—and hope—to a slaveholding society. (image: iStock)

As Frederick Douglass looked out on the boisterous crowd that had gathered to celebrate America’s independence, he thought of Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land? (v. 1–4)

The Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society had invited Douglass to deliver the keynote address for their Fourth of July celebrations in 1852. Fourteen summers earlier, Douglass had escaped from slavery. Now, at only 34, he was America’s most famous abolitionist orator.

Douglass usually felt a certain anger and sadness on the Fourth of July. That day, as he stood behind the speaker’s lectern, he felt like an Israelite in exile called upon to sing for his Babylonian captors.

The crowd wanted him to venerate the Founding Fathers and celebrate their heroic deeds. At the start of his speech, Douglass seemed happy to oblige. But those who listened closely might have shifted uneasily in their seats if they noticed how Douglass used the word your. He spoke of your independence, your freedom, your nation, your fathers. The Founders succeeded in creating a new nation, Douglass said, “and today you reap the fruits of their success.”

To the slave, Douglass told his white audience, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

He reserved his harshest judgment for the nation’s churches. Nearly every white Christian either defended slaveholding or refused to speak against it. Douglass ridiculed their pretensions to righteousness with a warning from Isaiah: “And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (1:15, KJV).

Forgotten Prophet

February marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass fled to freedom in 1838 and became a champion of liberty and equality.

In his 77 years, Douglass delivered thousands of speeches. He published three autobiographies. He founded and edited newspapers. He attended the first great women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. He met with President Abraham Lincoln to lobby for emancipation. He championed the cause of African American civil and political equality after the Civil War. He lived to see the tragic onset of Jim Crow and fought the oppressive system of racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence until he died in 1895 (a year before the notorious Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine).

Yet there’s a side of Douglass that’s not often remembered or celebrated: his radical Christian faith. Douglass was a kind of prophet crying in the wilderness of Christian slaveholding America. It’s no coincidence that in the most famous speech of his life—“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”—Douglass quoted the prophet Isaiah at length. He aspired to speak to America as biblical prophets once spoke to their people: with words of warning and rebuke, grace and hope.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written that ancient Hebrew prophets “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture.” They offer “an alternative perception of reality,” one that allows people to “see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.”

Douglass tried to do the same thing in his long struggle against bondage. Slavery, as an elaborate system of racial oppression, offered a flawed “perception of reality,” a poisonous account of who we are as human beings and how we ought to live together. Douglass spent a lifetime pleading with white Christians, as members of the dominant culture, to acknowledge how thoroughly slavery had distorted their view of reality and kept them from loving as Christ loves.

He had no illusions about the possibility of eradicating all evil and fully realizing the kingdom of God on earth. But, in hopeful anticipation of a world without slavery, the prophetic Douglass implored his fellow Christians to hew to the narrow path of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

‘Not Color, but Crime’

The crucible of Douglass’s prophetic Christian faith was his childhood suffering as a slave. Before his escape at age 20, Douglass witnessed and endured great cruelty, especially at the hands of Christian masters.

Young Douglass spent most of his earliest childhood days on the sprawling plantation of the Lloyd family, one of Maryland’s wealthiest slaveholders. There, Douglass first saw the grotesque violence and depravity that accompanied slavery: brutal whippings, cold-blooded murder, the daily trials of physical and psychological abuse.

Early one morning, Douglass woke to the desperate cries of his aunt Hester. A 15-year-old girl of striking beauty, Hester had been courted by Ned Roberts, a Lloyd family slave. Aaron Anthony, the slavemaster, commanded Hester to stop visiting Ned, but she continued, which incited Anthony’s rage. When Douglass peered out of his bedroom, a closet in the Anthony kitchen, he saw Hester stripped to the waist, her wrists bound together and fastened to the ceiling above her head. Anthony cursed Hester as he methodically delivered blow after blow with his three-foot-long cowskin whip. Blood flowed down her back as she pleaded for mercy. Douglass watched in terrified silence as Anthony delivered 30 or 40 lashes, before untying Hester and letting her body fall bloody and exposed on the kitchen floor.

How is a child, no more than six or seven, supposed to make sense of such violence? Douglass was a bright boy, so he soon asked the hardest questions: Why am I a slave? Why must slaves like Hester endure such pain, even unto death? Where is God? Why is he silent in our suffering?

Douglass suspected that the answers he heard from white southern Christians could not be right. How could God, in perfect wisdom and goodness, have made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters? Perhaps, he thought, it “was not color, but crime, not God, but man” that created slavery.

In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld. Late one Sunday night, he woke to the sound of Sophia, a devout Methodist, reading from the first chapter of the Book of Job. Douglass heard about a man who feared God and eschewed evil yet still lost everything—his livestock, servants, and children. Half-awake under a table on the Auld floor, Douglass decided he had to know more about this man Job—how he could say, despite his suffering, “blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Sophia began to teach Douglass the alphabet, but Hugh forbade the lessons. So Douglass secretly taught himself, laboring over well-worn and well-hidden copies of Webster’s spelling book and Methodist hymnals. By the time he was 13 or 14, he could capably read and write. Soon after, he formally converted to Christianity, shepherded by free black Methodists. Within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Douglass first learned that there might be more to the call of Christ than the proslavery gospel he had heard his entire life.

Salvation, though, came slowly. For several weeks, tortured by the knowledge of his sin, Douglass remained “a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fear.” But once he cast all his cares upon God, Douglass wrote, he found faith in Christ as “Redeemer, Friend, and Savior.”

Not long after, in March 1833, Hugh Auld unexpectedly sent Douglass back to the Eastern Shore. For the next three years, Douglass labored for the first time as a field hand, physically and spiritually exhausting work. During this time, he saw just how completely slaveholders distorted the Christian faith to justify their violence and oppression. His most outwardly religious masters were the most depraved in their cruelty.

On Sabbath mornings, Douglass often stood on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay and gazed upon the white sails of vessels that traveled the globe untrammeled. The sight tormented him. One Sabbath, in his misery, with no audience but God, he cried out a psalm of lament: “O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?”

In his brokenness, comfort slowly came. Douglass’s sorrow that morning transformed into hope for deliverance. He felt God’s presence and resolved on the banks to do his part to win his freedom: “I will run away. . . . God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.”

Douglass took few possessions on his long journey to freedom. He left behind his chains, but not his prophetic Christian faith that first took root in slavery. At the foundation of that faith rested certain assurances: that God suffers with the oppressed and will not tolerate injustice forever; that slaveholders perverted the Christian faith in their religious justifications of oppression; that Christ, in bidding all to come and die, offers a new way to live, radically different from the world’s hatred and violence.

‘The Christianity of Christ’

Douglass would settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts, hoping only to earn a fair wage as a caulker. But he soon gravitated toward the abolitionist movement. He avidly read William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, the nation’s leading antislavery newspaper, which “took its place with me next to the Bible,” Douglass wrote, because of its bold condemnation of “hypocrisy and wickedness in high places.”

In 1841, Douglass became a paid lecturer of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The society’s president offered Douglass the job after hearing him make an impromptu speech at an abolitionist rally. Douglass would now make a living traveling through the North, telling the story of his life and denouncing slavery and its defenders. His task was to convince Americans to see the antislavery cause as a great moral necessity. To that end, he repeated a chastening refrain: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

Douglass delivered this message to greatest effect in his first autobiography, the iconic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Published in 1845, the book was an instant hit, selling 30,000 copies within five years. Douglass’s Narrative is one of the great texts of the black prophetic Christian tradition, full of scorn for religious hypocrisy and oppression but also full of hope that Americans might still commit themselves to the path of true righteousness.

In the famous “Appendix,” Douglass condemned the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity” everywhere present in America. As Douglass knew from direct experience, the cruelest slaveholders were also often the most ardent churchgoers. “The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday,” Douglass scoffed, “and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.”

But the tragedy went deeper than the fact that individual slaveholders professed Christianity while failing to live up to Christ’s commands. Every believer shared that failure. Far worse was how, at an institutional level, slavery and the Christian church—in the North and South—remained inextricably connected. “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master,” Douglass lamented. The slaveholder fills church coffers with gold, and, in turn, the pastor “covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.”

Douglass then quoted from Matthew 23, where Jesus Christ calls the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (v. 27, KJV). Douglass insisted that Christ’s words held true for “the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America.” Slaveholders and their apologists “attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” They had utterly abandoned the true Christianity of Christ and invited the wrath of a just and avenging God.

Hope of Redemption

Douglass rejoiced in 1865 when the Union triumphed in the Civil War and the nation ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery forever. But he did not believe his prophetic work had ended. At the end of his life, equality under the law remained an aspiration, not a reality. African Americans and women were denied the right to vote. The ghost of slavery lived on in oppressive economic arrangements like sharecropping. Jim Crow carved rigid lines of racial segregation in the public square. White mobs lynched at least 200 black men each year in the 1890s.

He had good reason, then, in 1889, to mourn how the “malignant prejudice of race” still “poisoned the fountains of justice, and defiled the altars of religion” in America. Yet Douglass also rejoiced in the continued possibility of redemption. A new way of seeing the world, and living in it, still remained—one that rested, Douglass said, on a “broad foundation laid by the Bible itself, that God has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.”

In these unsettled times, it’s only natural to want to summon Douglass from the grave—to have him speak directly to the particular problems that still fester at the intersection of race and religion in American life.

That desire reminds me of a story about a great 20th-century American historian, Don Fehrenbacher. As the story goes, he once was lecturing in Boston during the mounting crisis over forced busing to integrate public schools. After his talk, a man asked, “What would Abraham Lincoln say about busing?” Fehrenbacher replied: “I think he would probably say, ‘What’s a bus?’ ”

Douglass’s America is not our America. A chasm of historical change separates us, much of it nearly unimaginable when Douglass died. And yet, we’re still heirs of the history Douglass faced and forged. The “malignant prejudice of race” lives on, a mockery of our common Creator and the likeness of the God we share.

If he could stand before us today, I doubt Douglass would presume to offer simple solutions to our racial dilemmas. But I suspect he would remind us of the promise made in Isaiah: “Cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (1:16–18, KJV).

D. H. Dilbeck is a historian living in New Haven, Connecticut. This article is adapted from his book, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet (The University of North Carolina Press).