“The Duty to Obey Civil Rulers” American Sentinel 10, 17, pp. 129-131.

April 25, 1895

THAT it is a Christian duty to obey civil government no believer in the inspiration of the Scriptures can deny. In the thirteenth chapter of Romans it is expressly commanded: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” And again we are admonished to “be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake;” so that the Christian is to obey civil rulers not from fear of punishment, but as doing service unto the Lord.

But we find it recorded in the Scriptures that in some cases the servants of God refused obedience to civil rulers, and that God vindicated them in so doing. In the third chapter of Daniel we have the record of the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-neg to bow down to the golden image which the king had set up. We have also the record that they were miraculously delivered from the furnace without even so much as the smell of fire upon them. In the sixth chapter of Daniel it is recorded that Daniel himself refused obedience to a decree of the king, properly signed and promulgated; for which disobedience he was cast into the den of lions, from which he was miraculously delivered by the direct interposition of God.

Coming to the New Testament scriptures, we find an account of the arrest of Peter and John for preaching the gospel. They were commanded by the rulers “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Then the rulers further threatened them, and let them go; but they continued preaching, and were shortly arrested again; and the magistrates said unto them: “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, WE OUGHT TO OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN.”

Here is a seeming contradiction in the Scriptures. First, we have the positive injunction to obey the powers that be. The Word declares that they are ordained of God. Then we have the record of several instances where inspired men refused obedience to the powers that be and were miraculously protected in so doing. What is the solution of the apparent difficulty?

Here Is the Answer

The answer to this question is found in the words of the Saviour, recorded in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Cesar the things which are Cesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Civil government is indeed ordained of God: but for what purpose? This we may learn by referring again to the thirteenth chapter of Romans, where we read these words concerning the civil magistrate:—

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

It will be observed that in this scripture the same distinction is made between duties which we owe to God, and duties which we owe to men, that is made by our Saviour in the words: “Render therefore unto Cesar the things which are Cesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The subject under discussion is civil duties. No reference whatever is made to our duty to God, and the commandments referred to, viz.” “Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shall not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet,” all have to do with our relations to our fellow-men. The same thing is shown in the seventh and eigth verses: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” And again in the tenth verse we are told that “love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” So the subject under discussion is our civil relations to our fellow-men.

The Lord Has Not Abdicated

God has, for wise reasons, given civil power into the hands of men, but he has not committed moral government to any human authority. This he could not do without abdicating the throne of the universe: because if men were permitted to govern one another in matters of conscience, if God had ordained civil government for this purpose, there could be no certain moral standard: because it would be man’s duty to obey the civil law, whatever that might be. Thus, in a Roman Catholic country it would be sin not to adore pictures and images, while in a Protestant country it would be a sin to do so.

On the other hand, if God had not committed civil authority to men, and given them power to enforce their own natural rights as between one another, one of two things would have been inevitable: either punishment of evil doing would have been so long deferred as to afford no protection to those in need of it, or else it would have been so swift and certain as to have terrorized man, and destroyed in a measure his free moral agency.

That the line is drawn in the Scriptures just where we have indicated, viz., between our duty to God and our duty to man, is evident from the language of Daniel to the king, as recorded in Daniel 6:22. After his deliverance from the lion’s den, Daniel said to the kind: “My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.”

Daniel did not say that he had not disobeyed the king, but he did say he had done no hurt—that is, he had done no wrong to the king [130] nor to any other man. His disobedience was in a matter which was solely between himself and God. It was no concern of the king’s, therefore the king had no right to require obedience at his hand in that matter. This was precisely the position of the apostles when commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus. They said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The Saviour had commissioned them to preach, and the civil authorities had no right to forbid them to preach, and when they did so forbid them, the apostles had the God-given right to refuse obedience; yea, more, it was their bounden duty to refuse obedience. To have done otherwise would have been to prove disloyal to the God of heaven.

The Principle Is Universally Admitted

This principle has been admitted by men in all ages, and thousands have laid down their lives rather than prove untrue to it. Blackstone states a similar principle thus: “This law of nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this.” This is said not of moral law, but of natural law; but if true of natural law, how much more is it true of moral law? But we have already seen that one man cannot decide for another what are his duties toward God, nor can one man properly require another to discharge his duty toward God. Our Saviour himself, as we have seen, laid down the principle that we are to “Render therefore unto Cesar the things which are Cesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” We are not to render to Cesar the things that are God’s, nor are we to render them to God through Cesar; but we are to render them to God, and to God alone are we responsible.

In his report communicated to the United States House of Representatives, March 4, 1830, on the petitions requesting a discontinuance of Sunday mails, Hon. Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, set forth the principle that man is absolutely independent of any human authority in matters of conscience, in the following language: “The framers of the Constitution recognized the eternal principle that man’s relation with his God is above human legislation and his rights of conscience inalienable. Reasoning was not necessary to establish this truth; we are conscious of it in our own bosoms. It is this consciousness, which, in defiance of human laws, has sustained so many martyrs in tortures and flames. They felt that their duty to God was superior to human enactments, and that man could exercise no authority over their consciences. It is an inborn principle which nothing can eradicate.”

The same principle is laid down by President Fairchild in his work on Moral Philosophy. In fact, it has been recognized by Christian men in every country and in all times. The martyrs whom we honor to-day, whose memories we revere, laid down their lives rather that prove disloyal to conscience and to God. In the language of Hon. Richard M. Johnson, “Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history in stained, no victim ever suffered but for the violation of what government denominated the law of God.” This fact alone should be conclusive upon the question under discussion. Human law is imperfect, the administrators of human law are necessarily imperfect, and both human law and its enforcement constantly vary. If conscience were to be guided by human law, there could be, as before stated, no certain standard of right and wrong. That which would be morally wrong in one State might be morally right in an adjoining State, and that which was sin to-day might be virtue to-morrow. But every man knows that he is directly responsible alone to God in things pertaining to God; and that while he is also responsible to God for wrongs done to his neighbor, he is properly amendable in a sense to his fellow-men for such acts. Every man regards any interference with his conscience as tyranny; then why should any man wish to control or interfere with the equal rights of another in matters of conscience?

The Plea of Conscience and Natural Rights.

But it may be objected that every man cannot be permitted to do that which his conscience tells him may properly be done. This is very true. For instance, Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, claimed that in shooting the president, he was doing God’s service. His plea, as to his belief, may or may not have been true. There was no possible way of demonstrating its truth or falsity; neither was there any necessity for inquiring into that question. It is a fundamental principle that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that amonmg these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” President Garfield had the same right to life that Guiteau had, and Guiteau had no right to deprive President Garfield of life. Neither has any man the right, under the plea of conscience, to deprive his fellow-man of any natural right; or to trample upon, or interfere in any way with, any equal right of his fellowman; nor does he do so in exercising his own inalienable, God-given right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. For instance, the Catholic does not trench upon any natural right of his Protestant neighbor by going to mass or confession, by making the sign of the cross, or by abstaining from meat on Friday. His Protestant neighbor may regard him as foolish and superstitious, and may feel a certain sense of annoyance due to his knowledge that the Catholic believes and practices as he does, but this does not prevent the Protestant from freely holding and practicing tenets of his religion.

It is equally true, in the matter of Sabbath observance, that one man’s failure to observe a Sabbath does not prevent another man from either resting or working upon that day. If one person chooses to work, and he does that work in a civil and orderly manner, it can in no way interfere with the right of another man to rest, neither can it interfere with his right to worship. We very properly have laws protecting peaceable assemblies upon all days, and we have special laws protecting religious assemblies from disturbance. These laws are available upon any day of the week, and may be enforced at any time by those who feel that their rights are interfered with. Why, then, should we have laws requiring all men to rest upon Sunday, because some men wish to worship upon that day? There can be but one reason, and that is the “reason” of religious bigotry and intolerance.

One Man’s Worship Not Dependent on Another’s Rest.

There can be no reason why one man should rest simply because another wishes to worship. If this were a natural right, it would be the natural right of every man. Therefore it would also be the duty of the government to prohibit labor on the sixth and seventh days, as well as upon the first, because rights belong to the minority as much as to the majority. Indeed, government is for the purpose of preserving the rights of the minority as against the majority; but there is no such natural right. And that there ought to be no such artificial or statutory right must be evident to every candid, thinking man. The framers of the National Constitution provided that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and several of the State Constitutions are even more explicit in their guarantees of religious liberty. The Declaration of Rights of the State of Tennessee declares “that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

The Declaration of Rights of the State of California provides that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be guaranteed in this State.”

The Declaration of Rights of the State of Maine provides that “all men have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no one shall be hurt, molested, or restrained in his person, liberty, or estate, in worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, nor for his religious professions or sentiments, provided he does not disturb the public peace, nor obstruct others in their religious worship.”

A Failure to Apply the Principle.

The Declaration last quoted is a distinct recognition of the line of demarcation between civil and religious duties. The line is properly drawn; and absolute right of conscience is guaranteed in everything not trenching upon the equal rights of others. It is true that this principle has not been adhered to strictly in any State; no more has the constitutional guarantee that there should be no distinction made and no preference given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship. It was evidently the purpose of the framers of the constitutions of the various States to absolutely prohibit a preference by law for any religion. The American idea is not that of toleration merely, but of absolute natural right and equality in religious matters. But in almost every State we find laws requiring cessation of secular affairs on Sunday; thus giving a decided preference and advantage to those sects which regard Sunday as the Sabbath. That such laws do discriminate between sects, and that they do give preference to one sect over another, is thus clearly shown by Chief Justice Terry, of California, in an opinion delivered in 1858. His honor said:—

In a community composed of persons of various religious denominations, having different days of worship, each considering his own as sacred from secular employment, all being equally considered and protected under the Constitution, a law is passed which in effect recognizes the sacred character of one of these days, by compelling all others to abstain from secular employment, which is precisely one of the modes in which its observance is manifested, and required by the creed of that sect to which it belongs as a Sabbath. Is not this a discrimination in favor of the one? Does it require more than an appeal to one’s common sense to decide that this is a preference? And when the Jew or seventh-day Christian complains of this, is it any answer to say, Your conscience is not constrained, you are not compelled to worship or to perform religious rites on that day, nor forbidden to keep holy the day which you esteem as a Sabbath? We think not, however high the authority which decides otherwise.

It is true that this view has not usually prevailed in courts of last resort; but courts are not infallible, and it is certain that in sustaining Sunday laws they have violated the fundamental principle of liberty of conscience. [131]

The Civil Plea Examined.

It is claimed by some, however, that Sunday is merely a civil regulation. But how can that be civil which rests upon a religious reason? How can that be a civil regulation which would not exist were not the institution which it enforces religious? Even granting that nature demands that man shall rest one day in seven (which is not admitted, however), what is there in nature to teach that all men must rest at one and the same time? Why must a particular day be singled out and all men be required to rest upon it? Why do we not find in some States or in some communities a law requiring all men to rest habitually upon one day each week instead of laws requiring all men to rest upon Sunday? and why is it that where we do find permission granted for those to work upon Sunday who rest upon another day, they are required to rest “conscientiously and religiously”? The evidence is overwhelming that Sunday laws are religious in their origin, in their purpose, and in their enforcement.

The tendency among men is not to work too much. It is true that some people are overworked, but it is from force of circumstances rather than from inclination; and it is safe to say that more physical injury accrues to men from night work and from irregular hours than from failure to rest one day in seven. As a matter of fact, comparatively few men do labor continuously and arduously seven days in each week; so that the civil argument is not sustained either by reason or by facts; and no man will deny that were it not for the religious regard for the day, were it not for the fact that a large majority of the people believed that some sacredness attached to the day, nobody would be required by law to observe it; though it might possibly be held as a legal holiday in order that those who desire leisure upon that day might have it. This is true at the present time in California, but in no other State does the Sunday law rest upon that basis.

We have no compulsory holidays. The Fourth of July, Christmas and Thanksgiving Day are legal holidays, but nobody is required to observe them; nobody is punished for working upon them; nobody is forbidden to do upon those days any secular work, or to follow any secular employment. The fact is that compulsory Sunday observance is a relic of the union of Church and State. It is an inheritance from colonial days when religion was enforced by law, and when men were compelled to attend and support houses of worship. Such statutes have properly no place in our system of government. They are contrary to the spirit of our free institutions, and show that we have not yet reached the plan of absolute religious right, but that we simply tolerate dissenters. “The Constitution,” says Hon. Richard M. Johnson, “regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian.” But in practice neither the United States nor any State except California has shown itself equal to a practical application of this principle. [131]

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