AN APPEAL TO REASON AND CONSCIENCE
The manner in which a just, and even a benevolent man, may be deeply stained with the crime of persecution, may be easily stated. Let it be granted that he is responsible for the religious or political opinions of his fellow-men, that is, that God will hold him guilty if his fellow-men believe error; and that God has authorized him to use his whole physical power to promote the success of what is true, and to arrest the progress of what is false, and persecution becomes at once an indispensable duty. Society is bound by every tie of obligation to devote its whole power to this work. Confiscation, banishment, stripes, imprisonment, torture, death, become at once the legitimate and sanctified weapons of our warfare. They are the very instruments which God has put into our hands, and commanded us to use, for the holy purpose of saving men’s souls and showing forth his glory. It is true, the natural sympathies of the heart may revolt at the misery which we
are working, but the natural feelings of the heart are in such a cause to be crucified.
The very act of overcoming them is here an acceptable sacrifice to God. “He that loveth father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me.” Benevolence itself erects the scaffold, and signs the death warrant. All our sorrows arise from moral evil. If moral evil be annihilated, the happiness of our race will be immeasurably increased. It matters not, then, what may be the present misery, if it tend to future and immeasurably greater good. We may therefore listen with complacency to the groan of the prisoner, or the shriek of the confessor; and witness, without a shudder, the dying agonies of the martyr. Our Saviour himself was grievously in error respecting the object of His mission, and His disciples were in the right when they wished to call down fire upon the city of the Samaritans.
Ignatius Loyola was a far better disciple than the apostle Paul. The Revolutionists of France have been shockingly belied, and Marat, Danton and Robespierre have been, in modern days, the sincerest friends of liberty.
But this is not all. If these principles be true, I see not why the holy work of persecution should be committed solely to society. I see not why individuals should not be equally allowed to labour in it. My neighbour is propagating error, dangerous error. Why should not this evil be arrested by arsenic, or by the stiletto? He possesses influence in consequence of his good name, and this influence gives currency to his sentiments. By a well arranged lie, I can render him an outcast and a vagabond. Why should I not by a few words render him, for the rest of his life, harmless? He possesses property, by means of which he is enabled the more widely to disseminate his opinions. Fire, skilfully applied, will, in a few hours, consume his dwelling; and an auger, well used, will easily sink his ships. And thus, grant the principles to which I have alluded, and all the bonds of moral obligation are, I will not say relaxed, they are absolutely annihilated. A man has only to persuade himself that he is clothed with such powers, and created under such responsibilities, and the most atrocious crime becomes an act of imperative duty. Man becomes the direct foe to man. The sweetest sympathies of our nature are turned into gall and wormwood, and earth becomes at once a shrieking pandemonium. Nor is this mere fancy. The prisons of the Inquisition, and the records of the Holy Office bear witness that, all this hath in very deed been enacted in many a country of Europe.
Blessed be God, it is not so!
But, blessed be God, it is not so. These principles are essentially, universally, and atrociously false. We are not responsible for the opinions of our fellow-men. We are responsible only for the setting before their understanding and conscience what we believe to be the truth. The responsibility then rests solely with themselves. Whatever be our physical power, we are forbidden to use it in such a manner as to infringe the smallest right of our neighbour, for the purpose of accomplishing either this or any other good whatsoever. God has made known His will to men, and He has commanded them as ambassadors, not as executioners, to make it known to each other. If they obey His commands, well. If they obey not. He reserves to Himself the right of trying the offender, of passing sentence upon him, and of executing judgment. This, and all of this, is solely, His prerogative. The moment we assume it, we usurp His authority, and while we profess to obey Him, are claiming for ourselves dominion over the universe.
The fact is, that the relations which subsist between man and man are as truly relations, as those which subsist between man and God. The obligations which bind man to man are as truly obligations, as those which bind man to God. By the constitution under which the Creator has placed us, the rights of man are as
truly rights, as the rights of God. The violation of the rights of man is as truly a violation of right, as the violation of the rights of God. The Judge of the whole earth will do right. He will vindicate the rights of the meanest thing that He has made, as certainly as He will vindicate His own. He never lays claim to any thing, which, even by semblance of justice, can be claimed by any other being. What can, therefore, be a greater insult to His holiness, than to offer to the just one a sacrifice wrenched by oppression from the hands of His creatures, or to presume to please Him, by violating the rights of those to whom He stands in the relation of. Protector, and Judge? What can be a greater affront to His majesty, than for the creature to assume the prerogative of the Creator, and administer His laws, and undertake to punish those crimes, the cognizance of which He has clearly reserved for His own special jurisdiction?
If this be so, and that it is so, all Protestants should readily admit, the whole reason for persecution, on account either of religious opinion or practice, provided that practice interfere not with civil right, falls to the ground. Hatred and malignity may still use obligation to God as a subterfuge, and may transform dislike to sentiment, into vindictiveness against him who holds it. But, if these truths be acknowledged, all excuse for oppression is taken away, and persecution, if it exist at all, must stand forth to the world, unveiled, in its native deformity.
The fact then seems to be that our duties to God, whether they be tempers of mind or actions purely indicative of these tempers, are matters subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of God Himself. If we obey Him, He claims to Himself alone the right to reward us. If we disobey Him, He claims to Himself alone the right to punish us. No other being in the universe has the right to intermeddle in the premises, either for the sake of reward or of punishment. The right of God is equally exclusive of individuals and of societies. If we persevere in disobedience to God, our fellow men may attempt to change our minds, but only in such way as He Himself has appointed; that is, by the “manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience.” If these means fail, the duty of our fellow men to us is accomplished. We must then be left to our own course. Our fellow men are not responsible for us any further. God, henceforth, reserves the case for His own exclusive jurisdiction . . .
There are, however, other evils of a kindred character, more closely allied to the spirit of the age, and which, we fear, will not be so readily eradicated. I allude to the animosities which exist between the different sects of professing Christians. These spring from the same source, as those forms of persecution to which I have alluded. The principle is in both cases the same. If I have a right to interfere with the happiness of my fellow men, on account of difference in religious opinions in one way, I have the same
right to interfere in another way. If I have no right at all, then interference with his happiness, for this cause, in any way, is a crime.
Suppose my Christian brother to be in error. Suppose that he also propagates error. For this, he is accountable to God and not to me. I have a right to endeavour to convince him, if he be willing to hear me; and he enjoys the correspondent right. When this is done, my responsibility ceases, and here, our whole relation, so far as this matter is concerned, terminates. He has the same right to propagate his error that I have to propagate my truth.
The only weapons which I am authorized to use, are considerations addressed to his understanding and conscience. To use any other is persecution. A frank and manly attachment to our opinions, combined with a willingness to look upon our own sentiments and those of others, in the light of reason, is everywhere honourable. But to rely upon anything else for the propagation of our sentiments betrays either a consciousness of the weakness of our cause, or else a selfish disposition to invade the rights of our neighbour.
Let us bear in mind the principle which I have endeavoured to illustrate, and see whether it will not tend greatly to allay these unchristian animosities. If I have no right to contend with erroneous religious opinion, except by an appeal to the reason and conscience of men; if, having done this in fairness and in love, all my responsibility for the progress of that error ceases, then, surely, every other mode of effort to oppose it must be persecution. It is giving pain for the cause of religious opinions, when I have no right to give pain. If this be so, while it is allowable, nay, while it may be commendable, to support what we believe, by as strong arguments as we please, it is wrong to say or do any thing which would give the least unnecessary pain to the feelings of an opponent.
It is equally wrong to mis-state the opinions of another, or to draw inferences from his opinions which he has not drawn, for the sake of fixing upon him the odium of the public. What excuse can be framed for him, who, not satisfied with establishing what he believes to be right, shall strive to bind together the sect to which he belongs, by cherishing jealousy against other Christian sects, and teaching his own adherents to believe that every other sect in Christendom is leagued together for their destruction?
All these petty modes of guerilla warfare, are, as it seems to me, vastly contemptible. When men differ in any matter of belief, let them meet each other manfully. Neither has any right to take offence at opinions plainly and honestly, nay, I will say strongly, expressed. Let each allow this privilege to the other; and then put the whole question to the issue of argument. No man ought to wince from this. No man has a right to complain because, while I allow him the same privilege, I frankly and decidedly express my
opinions. He has no right to ask that, out of respect to his feelings, I shall not, on proper occasions, say, what I believe to be, important truth. He has no right to cherish such feelings, much less to make them the limit to my liberty of speech. Cherishing a candid though fervent love to truth, we may thus differ without altercation, and disagree without bitterness. Entertaining these sentiments, we may espouse very different views on the less essential points of Christian doctrine and practice, and yet we shall be one in spirit, in temper, in action.
The results to which a contrary temper must lead, are easily seen. Its tendency is to set every man’s hand against his brother. It cultivates the sentiment, in every sect, that every other sect is its natural enemy, opposed to its progress, and hostile to its success. Thus, the Christian host is broken up into distinct detachments, which, instead of drawing closer and closer to each other, are tending every moment to a wider and wider separation.
Every avenue is thus opened for the indulgence of ambition on the part of sectarian leaders. Each one is clamorous in setting forth the dangers to which his sect is exposed; because, the greater the danger, the greater must be the glory of the champion. As, in the state, so it is in the church, military glory leads too frequently to the destruction of independence. The fancied danger elevates the commander to the dictatorship;Â—and thus churches, as well as states, are ruled by the voice of a demagogue.
Nor is this all. When men have been made to believe that other men are preparing to oppress them, it is natural to prevent the evil, by seizing upon the means of oppression for themselves. Hence arises the strife which is sometimes exhibited among sects, for secular influence. Of this bias the politician is ready to avail himself, and hence it is not uncommon to behold a demagogue, coquetting with several sects, and tampering with their various leaders; and, if it shall so happen, that same man is at once a political and a sectarian demagogue, his influence becomes incalculable.
But the subject is too painful to dwell upon. I gladly dismiss it. In the midst of all this strife, how can the Spirit of God dwell? While we love our own sect better than our common Master, how can we ever expect His blessing? He will assuredly turn our counsels into foolishness. We grasp the shadow but we lose the substance.
Let us eschew these base artifices of an intriguing world. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. Let us rely simply upon truth and righteousness. It is a dishonour to deceive, but it is no dishonour to be deceived. Let the faults of our brethren teach us to do better, but let us never imitate them. And finally, if our opinions cannot be supported by truth and righteousness, by kindness and meekness, by forbearance and the rendering of good for evil, let us abandon them; for, if they cannot be sustained by such means, they surely can be sustained by no other.