Sinners in the Hands of a Righteous God
“Do you work wonders for the dead?”
The best old book I read in the past year was The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—Frederick Douglass’s 1845 memoir and abolition treatise on his life as a slave and subsequent escape to freedom. Though Douglass’s assiduous descriptions of the dehumanizing institution of slavery are heart-rending enough, one short passage lodged deep in the very corner of my soul.
In Talbot County, Maryland around the late 1820s, Frederick Douglass’s first slave master died. Soon thereafter, the plantation ownership changed hands and leadership. One of the many pressing questions upon the change of plantation ownership was what to do with older slaves—slaves who had “phased out.”
In this particular case, the question for new ownership was what to do with Douglass’s grandmother—a lifelong slave entrusted to the personal well-being of the master’s house and even childbearing new slaves. In Douglass’s penetrating words, “She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever.” 1
So what became of this woman after the slave master’s death? How did these strangers treat this “phased out” slave? In short, they built her a tiny shack in the middle of a forest where she lived the remainder of her frail and dying days in complete and utter loneliness.
It was out of this horrific situation that Douglass penned the following words in a spirit of aching lament for his grandmother:
The grave is at the door…when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise toward a declining parent—my poor old grandmother…is left all alone in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?Douglass, Narrative, 62-63, emphasis mine.
Douglass wrote this in a tone similar to the lament psalms. As I considered his lament for a grandmother, the questions of the sons of Korah aimed at God in Psalm 88:10 seemed to haunt the scene:
“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?”
When an enslaved woman dies with no children to wipe the cold sweat from her brow, do you work wonders for the dead? When a human that bears your image, dies a lonely death in a shanty in the woods, do the departed rise up to praise you?
When a grandson cries out from the depths of despair in the absence of his grandmother’s grave, will not a righteous God visit for these things?
As I first read this story, it was as though the blood of Douglass’s grandmother was crying out for someone to pay attention, to dwell in the horror of it all for even a moment. A woman’s life so easily dehumanized and forgotten by her contemporaries deserves to be remembered by those who follow. History is remembering, after all. Though history, at its best, isn’t self-righteous jeering or reflections on the “moral superiority” of those who come before, that doesn’t mean we simply ignore stories of “the least of these.”
God is the God of remembering. The God who remembers his covenant and his people. God certainly didn’t forget this woman as she took her final breaths in a cabin out in a forest with no other human to attend to her ailments. God remembered. And we should, too. To answer Douglass’s lament-laiden question, a righteous God will visit for these things.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, “Second Sunday of Lent”)
Cole McClain (MA, Grand Canyon University) teaches History and Bible at Denver Christian High School in Colorado. His favorite figure in American History is Frederick Douglass.
1 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (New York: Chartwell Books, 2015), 61.