He was meek and lowly, but here was little else than pride and pomp

Frederick Douglass’ diary, 20 Jan 1887. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress.

Born on a Maryland plantation in 1818, Frederick Douglass was 20 years of age when he finally managed to escape slavery. Three years later, he gave his first speech, and before long was touring the U.S. as a noted orator and leading abolitionist, his impact so great that he is now considered by many to be one of the most influential African Americans of the 19th Century. In 1886/7, as he approached 70, Douglass visited Europe and Egypt with his wife, Helen, and as they toured he kept a diary, all 72 handwritten pages of which have survived. This entry was written after visiting the largest church in the world: Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

The Diary Entry

January 20. This day has been rich in accomplishment. It was our first morning in the Eternal City and had for us an interest which no words at my command can fitly describe. I stood where until recently I never expected to stand. Under the Dome of St. Peters, the largest Cathedral in the world, and around which clusters a larger interest perhaps than any other so called Christian edifice. In looking at its splendor, one could not help being deeply impressed by its gorgeousness and perfection despite of its utter contradiction to the life and lessons of Jesus. He was meek and lowly, but here was little else than pride and pomp. It is well for the world that the age that could rear this wonderful building so perfect in architectural grace has past. Yet in view of what it speaks of architectural skill of man and of his possibilities we may rejoice that this marvellous building was erected and that it will long stand to please the eye of man.

Further Reading

Frederick Douglass’ diary is held at the Library of Congress, and thanks to its archivists’ heroic efforts every page can be viewed online. If you get tired of squinting, the diary has been transcribed and reprinted in a book titled, The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Four: Journalism and Other Writings, Volume 1, edited by John R. McKivigan of The Frederick Douglass Papers project.

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