Commemorating the Life of Fredrick Douglass Who Was Born 200 Years Ago

By Joe Colletti | February 2, 2018 |

 What Does the Social Reformer and Ash Wednesday Have in Common? 

Social reformer Fredrick Douglass (c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was born into slavery 200 years ago. He did not know the exact date. Nevertheless, he chose February 14 as the day to celebrate his birthday.


This year, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls on February 14. The biblical words that are most associated with Ash Wednesday are in Genesis 3.19—“dust you are and to dust you will return.” As ministers ceremonially place ashes on the foreheads of Christians in the shape of a cross, words based on verse 19 are uttered, which usually reminds recipients of their mortality and the purpose of the rest of their lives.


The famed writer and orator was clear about the purpose of his life and how he was going to spend the years of his life. He spent them championing the rights of blacks and women.


If he were giving a sermon this Ash Wednesday, it may be entitled “Between the Christianity of this Land and the Christianity of Christ,” which was a point he often made during speeches and in writings. He made this point repeatedly in order to reject all biblical justifications of slavery that were rampant during the 19th century.


Today, he would likely make this point in order to reject any biblical justifications of discrimination and disenfranchisement not just towards blacks and women but also towards others as well.


            Ash Cake

 In the midst of an Ash Wednesday sermon, he could easily bring up his past stories about “ash cake” and slaves in the United States, which he often told.  

 “As a general rule, slaves do not come to the quarters for either breakfast or dinner, but take their ‘ash cake’ with them, and eat it in the field. This was so on the home plantation; probably, because the distance from the quarter to the field, was sometimes two, and even three miles. 

The dinner of the slaves consisted of a huge piece of ash cake, and a small piece of pork, or two salt herrings. Not having ovens, nor any suitable cooking utensils, the slaves mixed their meal with a little water, to such thickness that a spoon would stand erect in it; and, after the wood had burned away to coals and ashes, they would place the dough between oak leaves and lay it carefully in the ashes, completely covering it; hence, the bread is called ash cake. The surface of this peculiar bread is covered with ashes, to the depth of a sixteenth part of an inch, and the ashes, certainly, do not make it very grateful to the teeth, nor render it very palatable. The bran, or coarse part of the meal, is baked with the fine, and bright scales run through the bread.”[1] 

            Ash Socks

 Douglass could easily bring up past stories about how the children of slaves would go to sleep on the floor in the corner of the chimneys with their little feet in the ashes to keep them warm.  

“As to beds to sleep on, they were known to none of the field hands; nothing but a coarse blanket–not so good as those used in the north to cover horses–was given them, and this only to the men and women. The children stuck themselves in holes and corners, about the quarters; often in the corner of the huge chimneys, with their feet in the ashes to keep them warm.”[2] 

            Ashes and the Christianity of Christ 

Fredrick Douglass’ comparison of the “Christianity of this Land and the Christianity of Christ” can easily be related to the challenges of Lent. The most common challenge involves self-examination and reflection that may lead to periods of repentance, fasting, moderation, self-denial, and spiritual discipline.  

His past stories about how ashes were eaten by the hungry and how they were used to cover the feet of cold children can serve as a reminder concerning those who are hungry and cold today. The ashes of Ash Wednesday can serve as a reminder of how ashes have been used as a symbol of repentance in the Bible. They can also serve as a reminder of any ways that we may be contributing to the hunger and cold of others for which repentance and spiritual discipline would be an appropriate response.  

His comparison of the “Christianity of this Land and the Christianity of Christ” can also be related to another challenge of Lent, which is to take the time to prepare for public ministry as Christ did.  

Ash Wednesday is the first day that is associated with the 40 days that Christ spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. The ashes of Ash Wednesday serve as a reminder of our mortality and commonly serve as a reminder about the purpose of the rest of our lives and any involvement in pubic ministry.  

The Christianity of Christ requires public ministry that does not serve the results of discrimination and disenfranchisement but helps solve these social ills. Followers of Christ can seize the opportunity to prepare further for public ministry during the time of Lent. Such preparation can focus on solutions. 

My own efforts to prepare further for public ministry during Lent will focus on solutions regarding homelessness, which is increasing significantly within the city, county, and state in which I live, work, worship, and recreate. A rising number of persons without homes are crawling into holes and corners to sleep. Solving the issues through enough appropriate housing and services will be the focus of my Lenten challenge. Serving this problem with food alone will not.  

Your efforts to prepare further for public ministry during Lent may also focus on solutions regarding homelessness or other social issues such as disabilities, education, employment, health care, housing, immigration, mental health care, substance abuse, and trauma. You may already be involved in issues such as these by helping to create a better understanding of these matters between counties, cities, communities, coalitions, committees, commissions, constituencies, citizenries, collaborations, corporations, companies, clients, customers, children, caregivers, and congregations.  

If he were giving a sermon this Ash Wednesday, Fredrick Douglass could easily end it by focusing on the Lenten challenges in light of one of his known quotes,  

“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” 

When Lent ends, right before Easter Sunday, may we rise with Christ and pray with our legs unlike ever before and do so for the rest of our lives.

[1] From Fredrick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, Chapter VI Treatment of Slaves on Lloyd’s Plantation.

[2] Ibid.


  1. Jeff Bjorck on February 3, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you for this powerful
    Thank you for this powerful meditation. So many people look at Lent with scorn as a time when persons sacrifice banal pleasures with frowns on their faces. You point to a far better outlook, whereby our Lenten sacrifices can be for the good of others, helping to raise them from the ashes of their circumstance. After all, Jesus’ sacrifice was the ultimate sacrifice for the good of others.
    Thank you.