Frederick Douglass on Reaching People through Imagination

Frederick Douglass on Reaching People through Imagination

“On the hillside, in the valley, under the grateful shades of solitary oaks and elms, the boy of ten, all forgetful of time or place, calls to books or to boyish sports, looks up with silence and awe to the blue overhanging firmament, and views with dreamy wonder its ever-drifting drapery; tracing in the clouds and in their ever-changing forms and colors the outlines of towns and cities, great ships and hostile armies of men, of horses, solemn temples, and the Great Spirit of all: Break in if you please upon the prayers of monks or nuns, but I pray you, do not disturb the divine meditations of that little child. He is unfolding to himself the divinest of all human faculties, for such is the picture-making faculty of man…

“This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others–subject to a wild scramble between contending interests and forces. It is a mighty power, and the side to which it goes has achieved a wondrous conquest. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, colour, space, action and utterance, is the all important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heavens or sink us to bottomless depths, for good and evil know [no] limits. . .

“All wishes, all aspirations, all hopes, all fears, all doubts, all determination grow stronger and stronger precisely in proportion as they get themselves expressed in words, forms, colours, and action. . .

“. . . Pictures, images, and other symbolical representations speak to the imagination. The mighty fortress of the human heart silently withstands the assaults by the rifled cannons of reason, but readily falls before the magic power of mystery.. . .

“Protestantism relies more upon words and actions than upon paints or chisels to express its sentiments and ideas–and yet the most successful of her teachers and preachers are but painters: and succeed because they are such.

“Dry logic and elaborate arguments, though perfect in all their appointments, and though knitted together as a coat of mail, lay down the law to empty benches.

“But he who speaks to the feelings, who enters the soul’s deepest meditations, holding the mirror up to nature, revealing the profoundest mysteries of the human heart to the eye and ear by action and by utterance, will never want for an audience.”

Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818 – 1895)

I recommend the History Channel’s biography of Frederick Douglass. He was a self-taught escaped slave. Once in Massachusetts, he began attending abolitionist meetings. This is what he is chiefly known for, his dedication to the abolition of slavery. He also advocated for women’s rights, including the right to vote.

Douglass was also an author and accomplished speaker (as you can tell from this speech I’ve quoted, “Lecture on Pictures“). 

He traveled to Ireland and England. He was ambassador to the Dominican Republic, making him the first African American to hold high office. He received a vote for President of the United States in 1888, another first as an African American.

What observations does Douglass make that would be just as true today?

How do we express God’s Good News in “words, forms, colours, and action?”


  • This 1861 quote is actually the first of several lectures on photography (“pictures” in his speech is referring to “photos“). He covers a lot of subjects in his speech, “Lecture on Pictures”. I pulled out his theme of imagination for this blog post. See pages 7 to 9 for the quote in context.
    • I’ll try to do a future post on his views on the new phenomenon of photography and how he used it. He was the most photographed person of his time, more than Abraham Lincoln.
    • (Another great quote from this speech: “The picture and the ballad are alike, if not equally social forces–the one reaching and swaying the heart by the eye, and the other by the ear.”)
    • I found a photo of Frederick Douglass at about the same age as when he delivered the speech. This one was taken in 1856. It’s available on Wikimedia Commons
    • The original handwritten speech is in the Library of Congress.
  • Photo of boy with book by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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