SUPREMACY OF THE DIVINE LAW
By the Rev. Owen Lovejoy
Hampshire Colony Congreational Church
Edited From Western Citizen, September 12,1843
We ought to obey God rather than men" Acts 5:29
It is the duty of a minister I suppose to regard the wants rather than the wishes of his people. The wickedness of the carnal mind and its odiousness in the sight of God are things on which the unrenewed are little inclined to dwell; yet it is, no doubt, the minister's duty, to preach on these subjects. He must have regard to what they need, not to what they desire. So also with all classes of hearers. Thus thought Thomas Scott. His church was continually saying to him, "Preach us the doctrines of the Bible. We don't expect to be saved by our good works, and we don't like to hear so much about practical subjects: give us the doctrine!" But this excellent man still adhered to his plan of preaching what his people needed rather than what they desired. In doing this he calmly expected and meekly endured the reproaches of many, and injured his reputation: but for all this he found more than a recompense in the approval of his conscience and the smiles of his God, and the final approbation of many who first opposed him ...
The sentiment which I deduce from these words, and which I mean to establish is this, THE RIGHT AND DUTY OF VIOLATING HUMAN LAWS WHEN THEY CONFLICT WITH THE DIVINE.
... If we compare the legislators in this case, we shall unavoidably come to the same conclusions.
Here is God and man: the eternal, omnipotent, independent, self existent, I AM on one side and on the other--who? Look! little, frail, dependent, created, short-lived man-- a worm like mys elf: and when the commands of these two beings come in competition, can I hesitate which to obey? When the parent tells the child to do one thing and his little school mate tells him to do another, which mandate ought he to obey? Supposing the whole school should concert together and pass a resolution that they would not obey their parents, would that release them from final obligation? When Henry returns from school the father says, "Go drive up the cows, my son." "No I shan't, Father." "What, sir, you shan't? And why not, pray?" "Because we all passed a resolution at school today that we would not mind our parents anymore." "Yes, but my son you ought not to have helped pass such a resolution, you are under obligation to obey me rather than your school mates, so go along and do as I bid you, my son." "Yes, but father, I took an oath over the first class desk that I would keep the resolution, and now if I do not, all the boys will point at me and cry shame." Now parents, what would you do with such a boy? Would you hold him guiltless because there was a law prohibiting his obedience to you? Would the oath save him from the rod? No, you would punish him and the more severely for having deliberately entered into an agreement to disobey you. He ought not to have helped pass the resolution. He ought not to have taken the oath, and after all, he ought not to have disregarded parental authority. What strange confusion the devil works in the hearts of the children of men! Just as though a promise to do wrong justifies the wrong doing ...
And indeed it is asserted, and sometimes by religious teachers, that a law contradicting Divine precept, nullifies that precept and releases us from its claims. Now against such sentiments--and they are abroad--I protest in the name of those Egyptian mothers who braved the cruel edict of the hardened tyrant their King--in the name of the people of Israel who rescued Jonathan from the hands of his unnatural father and in the name of the Levites who would not worship the idols of Jeroboaim--in the name of the three heroes who defied the proud monarch of Babylon to his face--in the name of Daniel who prayed with the open windows--in the name of Peter, John and all the Apostles--in the name of the glorious company of Martyrs who went to heaven from the dungeon and the cross, the stake and the gibbet--in the name of the Puritans and the Huguenots--in the name of the older Patriots of Britain and the heroes of the American Revolution--and finally and most of all in the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Supreme Ruler and Legislator of the Universe--in the name of each and all, do I protest against the sentiment that I cannot, must not, obey the commands of God, because the Constitution of the United States, and the Laws of Illinois forbid--with the voice of all those united--with the voice of ten thousand thunders do I proclaim, WE OUGHT TO OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN. Is not Jehovah God of Illinois as well as of Palestine, or Assyria? Is not this authority the same here as there!
I have not arrayed all these samples for nothing. This subject has a practical bearing. There are laws on the Statute Book of Illinois which conflict with the laws of God. Witness the following specimens:
R. L. page 206 Criminal Code. Approved February 6, 1833. Section 1D enacts that if any person shall harbor or secrete any negro or person of color the same being a slave or servant, giving service to any person residing in this state or any other state or territory of the United States, or shall in any way hinder or prevent the lawful owner from retaking such slave or servant in a lawful manner, he shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisoned not exceeding six months.
R.L. page 163 "AN ACT RESPECTING FREE NEGROES AND MULATTOES, SERVANTS AND SLAVES." Approved January 17, 1821 Prohibits any black or mulatto person, not being a citizen of one of the United States, from coming and residing in this State until such person shall produce to the county commissioner's court of the county where he or she intends to settle, a certificate of freedom duly authenticated; and also give bond to the sum of one thousand dollars, with sufficient sureties conditioned that such person will never become a charge to any county in this State as a poor person, and at all times to demean him or herself in strict conformity with the Laws that now are or hereafter shall be enacted. It also imposes a fine of five hundred dollars (one half of which shall go to the county and one half to the person prosecuting) upon all persons who shall harbor, hire or in any way give sustenance to any negro or mulatto who has not such certificate, and given such bond; provided this shall not affect any person residing in this state at the passage of this act.
These are the laws of Illinois. Now listen to the laws of God. In Isaiah xvi; 3rd and 4th verse, God thus enacts. "Give counsel, grant justice, make your shade like night at the height of noon; Hide the outcasts, betray not the fugitive! Let the outcasts of Moab sojourn with you, be a refuge to them from the destroyer" ( RSV translation). "Take counsel, execute Judgement; make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noon day, hide the outcast, bewray not him that wandereth. Let my outcasts dwell with the Moab; be thou a covert to those from the face of the spoiler."
The State of Illinois says that you shall not harbor, or secrete a runaway slave. The statue of the Most High says, "Hide the outcast, be a covert to those from the face of the spoiler: Now which will you obey? In Deut. xxiii 15, 16 it is quoted that "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee; He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him." Here is an express, direct command not to give up the slave that escapes from his master. Consequently that clause in the Constitution, if it means this, which I do not admit, which requires to give up fugitive slaves, is null and void, of no binding force at all, and it is to be looked upon as purgatory, and ought to be disregarded and disobeyed forever and aye by all those who fear God more than they fear man. If there is any part of the Constitution or any Law of Illinois that requires us to break the laws of God, then I call on you my brethren to come and help me trample them in the dust.
Take an instance. There is an aged Saint whom Christ hath redeemed with his own blood. She is weighed down with the weight of sixty years. She is claimed as a piece of property and made to work in the field absolutely without clothing. On a certain occasion her pretended master commands her to do one thing, her mistress another. She cannot obey both, and does that which her mistress requires. The master flies into a passion, ties her with a rope around the waist to a tree and beats her with a hickory pole, such as oxen are driven with, till it is broken to shivers, and then the suffering victim, faint from loss of blood and pain sinks upon the rope. The master then calls upon his wife to bring the razor and the giblet that he may pare the soles of her feet and bore into the bones to prevent her escape. But in the providence of God she is saved this last outrage and gets away. With feigned infirmities added to those that are real, hobbling along bent over the top of her staff, she makes her way from the land of whip and chains. She has slept out under the open heavens --endured the pelting of the storm and lived for weeks on the wild grape and the hawthorn. She comes toyour door emaciated, ragged, shivering and asks your mercy. Will you turn her away? Will you shut your door in her face, or will you shelter, feed, clothe, and comfort her? Say will you give the old woman up? Will you bewray the wanderer? Will you or will you not "hide the outcast"? Will you Obey God or the laws of Illinois? Remember, the violation of one law subjects you to fine and imprisonment to the County Jail -- that of the other to eternal damnation. Who will you obey? I will not believe that there is a single person in this house who would not, contrary to the accursed statues of Illinois, harbor, secrete, feed, clothe and help on their way, the poor fugitives. No, blessings on the heads of those who help God's outcasts.
Well, if it right and a duty to disregard one human law which conflicts with the Divine, why not another, another and another? And where will you stop? You cannot stop till you have tramped under foot every law which requires you to violate God's law. But someone will haply start up here with this saying -- "there is penalty, and penalty, if you violate human laws you must abide the penalty." Well, let them bring forward their penalties -- their fines and imprisonments. Let them heat their furnaces seven times hotter than is their wont; let them starve their lions -- open their amphitheaters of wild beasts -- prepare their thumb-screws and other instruments of torture to make us tell where the fugitives lie concealed; let them erect their crosses, and set up their gibbets and prepare their gallows, and whet their guillotines! What then, can they heat a furnace as hot as the lake which burns with fire and brimstone?Can they kindle the flames that never go out? Have they any undying worm to prey upon the soul forever?
Whom then ought we to fear? Him that can kill the body and after that hath no more that he can do; or Him who, after he hath killed, can destroy both soul and body in hell? Hath not Christ well forewarned us, "Yea, I say unto you, fear him!"
What if we are fined? Shall we be the first Christians that were ever spoiled of their goods? Did you never hear of any who took the "spoiling of their good joyfully?" What if we do die a violent death? Thus the Lord Jesus Christ died--thus Peter, Paul and other Apostles died--thus the glorious company of Martyrs died--thus Crammer, Latimer, and Rogers died--thus Hampden, Sidney and Emmet died-- thus Elijah Parish Lovejoy died, and thus, God's grace helping him, will Owen Lovejoy die, rather than yield obedience to human law which conflicts with the Divine.
Mother, can you spare another son?
Beside the prostrate body of my murdered brother, while the fresh blood was oozing from his perforated breast, on my knees while alone with the dead and with God, I vowed never to forsake the cause that was sprinkled with his blood. The oath was written in blood. It must stand. Am I alone in this matter? No, I thank God that I am not. I see by the tearful eye and compressed lip that there are others here, into whose welted hearts the fixed resolution is now sinking TO OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN -- WHO WILL DO OR DIE.