The Oberlin Evangelist
June 8, 1859
Our Responsibility For Oppression.
BY PROF. JOHN MORGAN.
OUTLINE OF A SERMON PREACHED AT OBERLIN, MAY 8, 1859.
“When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers.” Ps. 50:18.
This Psalm sets forth the purpose of God to enter not judgment with all wicked me, especially those who stand in intimate relations to himself. It sketches the charges, which he will lay against them, and it denounces the run in which impends over their heads.
I have selected the text at this time, as expressive of the responsibility, which the people of this land and particularly of the Free States, so called, have for the crime of slavery and the abominations involved in it. In many northern communities the people are in a state of astonishing supineness on the subject and appear to think that it is a matter entirely beyond the limits of their responsibility. In my view this is one of the gravest of errors – on e pregnant with incalculable mischiefs, and if not speedily abandoned, with utter ruin.
I invite your attention to-day to the following topics of inquiry:
I. The responsibility of communities and nations for the abominations done within their boundaries.
II. Our responsibility for slavery and its horrors in this country.
III. The retribution we are to expect if we do not repent.
IV. The repentance required of us.
V. Responsibility of communities and nations.
1. Here I concede that a people’s responsibility cannot exceed their powers. There
may be a great deal of secret iniquity and secret oppression, which no human authority can reach. If a people do what they can, the righteous Supreme Judge will not hold them responsible for what they cannot do.
2. I concede also that even when by a scrutinizing surveillance, it might be possible
to bring to the light for punishment much more iniquity than is know, the necessary means of inquiry may be so odious that a wise government would never resort to them, such prying censorship being of more disastrous tendency than the toleration of the iniquity it might disclose. Such things are fitly left to the judgment of God alone.
3. It may also be conceded that an impious practice may prevail, known to the
enlightened to be injurious, and yet honestly, for want of information, not generally known to be so. This may for a time be wisely tolerated by a righteous government till the means of instruction have been diligently employed. This may be illustrated by reference to the temperance question.
But on the other hand,
1. A nation is not irresponsible because the government is a monarchy or even a
despotism. The government cannot exist, unless sustained by overwhelming armies, without the consent of the mass of the people; and God has always held them responsible for what they have suffered their kings to do. Allowance is doubtless made for ignorance; but God does not so often call a people too ignorant to be responsible, as we are apt to do. Indeed apparent ignorance is often nothing more than an obstinate adherence to darling iniquity. The moment the soul gives up the iniquity the seeming ignorance vanishes.
2. Republics are especially responsible because here the people have the government
more immediately in their own hands and can displace the rulers who refuse to rule in righteousness.
3. A people are not released from responsibility by any compact into which they
have entered, to do or suffer an iniquitous thing, which, without the compact, they could not righteously tolerate. It is held by writers on international law, that a nation cannot be supposed to have bound itself to a palpably ruinous course of action or endurance. A nation has not the same right over its interest that an individual has, much less over the interests of subject communities or classes.
4. A nation has no right to tolerate an evil calculated to demoralize the national
character, to corrupt the sentiments of the people, and to fit them to be the tools of tyranny. Such things strike at the organic moral life of a people.
5. Nations are especially obligated to take care of the rights and interest of the poor
and weak, and not to suffer the powerful to oppress them. This stands out in bold relief on the pages of the prophets. A people sinks into an abyss of debasement that consents to relinquish this sacred duty.
6. The most sacred obligation of a people, next to that of honoring the Most High
God, is to signalize and honor perpetually the eternal and infinite distinction between man and mere things. The people that consents even to wink at the violation of this sacred distinction in the lowliest human being, degrades itself into a foul traitor to its loftiest duties.
II. I proposed to consider our responsibility for slavery and its horrors in this
1. We are as really a slaveholding nation as South Carolina is a slaveholding State.
Slavery in the District of Columbia exists under the national authority. It exists there as slavery. There human beings, no matter whether few or many, are chattels personal to all intents and purposes whatever. There the husband has no right to his wife. Married in the sight of God, by our laws our slaves are not husbands and wives at all. The wretch that violates the person of the woman whom we make a slave, is guilty of no crime. Committed on our slaves, adultery is no adultery, rape no rape. Such is slave law, and such I hear in the Sickles’ Case was the decision at Washington.
2. According to the Dred Scott Decision, endorsed by the President, slavery legally
exists by national authority and the national compact, in all the territories, and the territorial legislatures have no right to interfere with it except for its regulation and protection. If the party in power keep their places, this is likely to be practically, law in the territories. We are responsible so far as in us lies, to see that this abominable state of things be brought to an utter end.
3. The fugitive acts are intended to send back escaped human beings to chattelism,
to the utter prostration of all their sacred rights as human beings, - if married, to be husbands and wives no longer, but only paired cattle. This the South declares shall be their condition and that of posterity so long as the world stands. The Fugitive Act demands not only that we should submit to the foul disgrace of seeing this done without an effort to prevent if but that, of need be, we shall help in the accursed iniquity. That act, as a people we suspend over the heads of the trembling fugitives, and threaten resistance with its grim penalties, and aim to “crush out” the humanity, the love of freedom, the compassion for the helpless, the sympathy for the oppressed, which any cherish in their souls. As a people, as a nation, we are responsible for this. We are responsible too for the foul wickedness of pleading a compact to do evil, to help the wild beast of slavery to hunt his prey.
4. We are responsible for the coast-wise slave trade, which we protect and thus
foster. On the ocean our power keeps the chain on the slaves. It is our national flag, which strikes terror into any liberators who might board the slave-ship on its way with its cargo of human cattle to the Southern market. We are responsible, too, for the re-opening of the African traffic which honest decision in our government would at once suppress. An Adams or a Jackson would soon end it.
5. All this iniquity is occasioning a wide-spread corruption of our people. It is a
moral poison entering into every department of life – for never, never can one class of great and obvious duties be violated or neglected and mischievous influence not diffuse itself through the whole moral life of the community.
III. I am next to inquire into the retribution.
1. One part of the retribution will be delivering us up to a reprobate mind to work
this destructive iniquity with greediness.
The sad signs of such a retribution, I fear, are exhibiting themselves in most parts of
the South. Slavery is no longer in Southern view an evil – it is a good. Southerners no longer feel ashamed of it and deplore it. But they mourn over others who are deprived of its blessings and recommend it to the North and to all States to reduce the laboring classes to slavery. This, they maintain, is best for all classes, employers and employed, masters and servants.
It is not long since a Southern man would have deemed himself insulted if he had been suspected of favoring the revival of the African trade, but now how is it? It is actually re-opened, and Southern men advertise for negroes fresh from Africa. Southern editors unblushingly advocate the piratical abomination; Southern statesmen patronize it. And the idea of the punishment of the pirates is laughed at.
The courts, once leaning to the side of liberty, now incline generally the other way – and decision s are made which would have astonished John Marshall and his compeers, and even shamed a Louisiana court.
The North also shows sighs of this confirmed corruption.
One great party falls in with all the efforts to sustain and promote slavery – and in some States, and even in our own, the battle against it is dubiously fought.
The true love of liberty and regard for human rights are, alas, but feeble in the bosoms of many of the ostensible party of freedom.
Still, thank God, there has been at the North great progress in the right direction – and now a bolder stand is taken by the people at large than was possible years ago.
But we must see to it that our zeal for the right is stable and of the true Christian godly stamp.
2. The retribution will involve terrific judgments. The historic page, especially that
of the Sacred Scriptures, is covered with such judgments. Mighty nations were swept with the bosom of destruction because they were oppressors. God’s peculiar people were not spared. The two great apostasies, apostasy from God, and apostasy from the love of man, kindled the burning fires of divine wrath. In the terrible words of the great legislator, Moses, that wrath set on fire the foundations of the mountains and burned to the lowest hell. Famine, pestilence, civil war, devastating invasions, all-sweeping captivity, attested God’s indignation. We may despise now – but soon, unless we shall repent, we shall wonder and perish. But
IV. What is the repentance required of us?
1. A cordial, thorough repentance, a real reception into our hearts of our weakest
fellow man’s interests and rights, so that we shall be disposed to guard them as we would the apple of our eye – an embracing with our whole souls of the glorious Golden Rule of Christ, placing it along with the first and great commandment in the warm center of our inner being.
2. We must utterly cease to have any fellowship in practice with the unfruitful works
of darkness. With the meekness of wisdom, but with articulate clearness, we must rebuke such works on every fitting occasion.
3. We must add deeds of active love to our words. In every Christian and legal way
we must help our poor brother – do all we can by moral suasion and vigorous political action to achieve for him his rights as a man and a child of God. Armed resistance to the federal power I cannot advise. We have in our hands legal means much more potent. Let us do as Christians and as me our very best.