The Oberlin Evangelist
May 11, 1859
The Sin of Sending Back Fugitives from Slavery.
In estimating the sinfulness of any act, it is of the first consequence to take God’s testimony. No other witness is so competent; none other testifies with so much authority; none other so justly.
It so happens that, to the point of the sinfulness of sending back fugitives to the bondage from which they have escaped, God’s testimony is perfectly explicit. We cannot even imagine how any testimony could be more so.
Let us see.
There was a certain form of slavery among the ancient Hebrews. Whether it were very like American slavery does not affect our present question; manifestly it might become so oppressive upon a servant that he would run to escape it. So does American slavery; hence in this only point essential to our argument, the two systems are alike.
Furthermore, southern men justify their slavery by appeal to that of the Hebrews; hence we may reasonably hold them to God’s provisions against oppression under that ancient system, and to any testimony he may have given as to the sinfulness of acts growing out of it.
These points being premised, we are ready to hear God’s testimony; - “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant that 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.” Deut. 23:15, 16.
To do the thing God says “thou shalt not do” – is sin – is a violation of God’s command. How can this be doubted?
The reason why this act is sin, is plainly implied – “Thou shalt not oppress him.” To send the escaped fugitive back, must be oppression. If he had been well treated, he would have formed social attachments enough to hold him there; he would not have faced the peril and the want incident to the life of a fugitive. Hence God assumes that whoever flees from slavery has been oppressed in his slave condition, and therefore must not be sent back.
Note again, to send back a fugitive is in God’s sight a greater sin than the mere holding him in servitude. We say this because, first, God suffered the Hebrews to hold men in servitude; second, he forbade them to send back a fugitive. The former could be tolerated; that latter could not be. The former might be so done by the Hebrews, under their circumstances and with the modifications God had imposed, that God could accept it; but the latter could have no palliating circumstances – could be nothing less than oppression; and oppression, the God of heaven never could endure.
Yet further, it would be easy to show that, comparing Jewish servitude with American slavery, the latter is indefinitely the more oppressive. In the former God protected the servant against personal abuse and violence – shielded his rights as a husband and father, and made provision for his coming into the Jewish church, attaining all the rights of a citizen, and being emancipated at a fixed period. In the latter, God’s example in these and other kindred points is utterly disregarded. Hence the oppressions done under American slavery are, beyond measure, greater than they could be under Hebrew servitude.
All the more therefore is the certainty that he who flees from it flees from under the iron hand of an oppression he cannot endure. By so much the greater, consequently, is the sin of sending him back to his master. “Thou shalt not oppress him.” His oppressions are more than flesh and heart can bear; add not another fresh cruelty to his bitter lot!
In fidelity to truth we must heighten this argument yet further.
The oppressions which a slave will endure before he will flee to escape them will be as the dangers and perils to be encountered by flight. To the Hebrew servant, these were few; to the American slave, they are many. The Hebrew Fugitive Slave Law, reads – “thou shalt not deliver up;” the American Law reads – “Thou shalt!” No pains and penalties – no armed police – no flashing telegraph to head off his flight – were arrayed in terror before the Hebrew slave. Hence, he might be induced to flee under the pressure of but slight abuse. How far different the case of the Southern slave! And consequently, how very much greater the sin of sending him back to bondages!
But perhaps some one will reply – You misinterpret God’s testimony. The servant contemplated is not a Hebrew, but a gentile. He escapes, not from Hebrew servitude but from real chattel slavery.
Perhaps so. But if so, all the more close is the analogy between that case, and the cases of to-day.
It is granted that chattel slavery existed among the nations adjacent to Palestine. They sold and bought men, and trampled human rights in the dust.
Now, assuming the passage quoted to refer to them, what testimony does God bear against their slavery?
He warns his people to have no sympathy or fellowship with it whatever. He bids them open every city, every village, every mountain and every glen in all their borders, as a refuge for the slave who escaped from slavery in those nations.
But how does this comport with the international comity due between contiguous nations? No matter, replies the divine mandate; that fleeing slave is one of my offspring;
His flight is evidence enough of the oppressions he has endured; thou shalt not oppress him by delivering him up to his master.
But will not such acts of bad neighborhood – such encroachments upon the property – rights of sister nations – involve the Hebrews in foreign wars?
What if they do? Answers this mandate from the Lord. Ye are m people, set up as a great light for freedom and righteousness among the nations. Commit yourselves to full obedience to me, your King, and your place of defence shall be the munition of rocks.
But we want to form treaties and compacts with our neighbor tribes, and enjoy the fruits of commerce, trade and fellowship; - and how can we hope for this without an article on the rendition of fugitives?
The one reply must be – “Thou shalt not deliver up the servant that is escaped from his (foreign) master unto thee.” No constitution – no compact can make that right which is inherently and eternally wrong. Let Commerce and Trade perish, rather than my people become instruments of oppression to my suffering poor!
Thus, universally, when the circumstances of any act stamp it as oppression, fixing upon it this character beyond exception or mistake, God holds the doing of that act a sin, and no qualifying circumstances can whitewash it into a virtue.
This subject is becoming intensely practical to the citizens of our village, county, state and nation. Oberlin, Lorain County, Ohio, the United States, all are becoming deeply involved in this great question – Is it right or is it wrong to deliver up to his master the servant that is escaped from his master unto me? The question presses upon us all, and no one can escape it. Even those who have long time sought to get past the robbed and bleeding traveler, by passing on the other side, are likely to be forced up to the issue to show their hand and their heart too on this question.
We know but too well that on the side of the oppressors there is power; but it has been so before – in every martyr age. Precisely this fact it is which creates the exigency for the martyr spirit and for a martyr’s sufferings.
There will be those who will glorify the martyrs of past ages, but traduce and ostracize the martyrs of this. There have been such things in every age. Men build and garnish the tombs of the ancient prophets; they build prisons and pile faggots for the modern. The former they call heroic; the latter obstinate. To the former they impute noble motives; to the latter only motives that are selfish and mean. May God give his martyrs grace to bear this trial also! It has always been one of the bitter ingredients of their cup. It was never God’s purpose that the real martyrs of any age should be sustained by human glory. Be it enough for them that they do right unflinchingly, with only the approval of God and their own conscience. H.C.