“The Enforcement of ‘Law’” American Sentinel 10, 32, pp. 249-252.

August 15, 1895

“WE have a law, and by our law he ought to die,” 306 has been the justification of injustice and persecution in all ages.

It was civil “law” that cast the three Hebrews into the fiery furnace; 307 that consigned Daniel to the lions’ den; 308 that put to death the apostles; that gave to the wild beasts the early Christians; that clothed with authority the Inquisition; that burned Huss and Jerome and tortured and put to death millions of martyrs in the Dark Ages that whipped, banished, and hanged Quakers and Baptists in New England and Virginia, and that is to-day imprisoning honest men in Maryland and driving Christians in the chain-gang in Tennessee.

Except in isolated cases of mob violence, no martyr ever suffered except under the color and forms of civil “law;” and yet men are slow to learn the lesson that mercy is above statute, that justice is above “law;” that any act which contravenes the laws of nature, that attempts to alienate inalienable, God-given rights, is not law and ought to be treated as void in practice as it is in fact.

“By the light of burning heretics Christ’s bleeding feet I track,

Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.” 309

The measure of religious liberty which we enjoy in this favored land to-day, is due, under God, to the fact that God-fearing men violated so-called civil laws, and continued to violate them, and to suffer the penalty, until by their sufferings they brought their fellowmen to the recognition of the fact that there [250] is a limit to civil authority; that human law is not supreme; that God has not abdicated the throne of moral dominion; that what other nations call religious toleration is in reality religious rights, of which “government cannot deprive any portion of citizens, however small;” that though “despotic power may invade those rights, Justice still confirms them.” 310

“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”
Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,“
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, just through Oblivion’s sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low forebodeing cry.
Of those Crises, God’s stern winnowers, from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.”

The press of the country has spoken out nobly in denunciation of the persecution of Seventh-day Adventists in Tennessee and elsewhere. But there are a few ignoble exceptions. The Commercial-Appeal, of Memphis, ridicules and slanders the persecuted men, and then says:—

The laws against the violation of our day of rest are unrepealed, and no matter whether just or unjust, wise or unwise…. they should be enforced. 311

This sentiment is worthy of an Inquisitor of the “Holy Office,” and had the editor of that paper lived in the days of the Inquisition, he would, if consistent, have said: “The laws against the violation of our religion are unrepealed, and whether just or unjust, wise or unwise, they should be enforced.” Yea, he would have stood by and seen the cruel, red-hot pinchers sear and tear the flesh of the tortured victim; or, perchance, he would have himself heated the instruments of torture or brutally bared the breast of the shrinking maiden or of the devoted mother to the gaze of the rabble and to the bloody work of the scarcely more cruel iron.

The Evening Sentinel, of Knoxville, Tenn., also says, “Enforce the law,” though it does not manifest the bitterness shown by the Commercial-Appeal. In its issue of July 22, the Sentinel publishes a number of interviews with ministers at Knoxville, from which we make the following extracts:—

The [Evening] Sentinel man interviewed Rev. Dr. Moore, pastor of the Church Street Church, on the question, putting three questions to him, which he answered, as follows:

“Are you in favor of the strict enforcement of the laws in Tennessee against sabbath desecration?”

“As every other good citizen ought to be, I am in favor of the strict enforcement of all laws till they are repealed. If they are good laws let them be enforced, if they are bad, let them be repealed.”

“What do you think of the recent imprisonment of the Seventh-day Adventists in Rhea County for working on Sunday?”

“I think Seventh-day Adventists, as well as any other people, should be punished according to law, for violations of law.”

And so Dr. Moore, had he lived in the days of the Inquisition, would have gazed unmoved upon the auto-da-fé, and as the flames encircled their victims he would have said, if consistent: “As every other good citizen ought to be, I am in favor of the strict enforcement of the laws till they are repealed. I think these Protestants, as well as any other people, should be punished according to law, for violations of law.”

To the Evening Sentinels question Rev. Thomas C. Warner, D.D., replied:—

Laws are enacted with reference to the punishment of the evil-doer, and for the protection of society in all its rights and interests. The question of righteousness should never decide whether an existing law is to be enforced or not. Is it the law of the land? That question settled in the affirmative, then let the law be enforced. If the law is unjust, if it works hardship to innocent persons, still let it be executed so long as it remains upon the statute books. The surest way to secure the modification or repeal of an unjust law is to illustrate its prejudice by enforcing it. Whatever may be my private opinion touching the Sunday laws of Tennessee, I am in favor of their impartial execution. Whether they interfere with a man’s religious views or his business practices, so long as they are of record for the regulation of public conduct and private practice, let them be rigidly applied.

It almost passes belief that these words could fall from the lips of a professed representative of the Man of Calvary, the Prince of Peace. Had this minister lived in the days of the Inquisition, when in every country in Europe and in every civilized country in the world it was against the “law” to disbelieve the dogmas of Rome; he must, if in France or Spain, or the Netherlands, have stood by the burning pile, or by the gallows tree, and said:—

The question of righteousness should never decide whether an existing law is to be enforced or not. Is it the law of the land? That question settled in the affirmative, then let the law be enforced. If the law is unjust, if it works hardship to innocent persons, still let it be executed so long as it remains upon the statute books.”

In view of such utterances, is it any wonder that the prophet of God, in describing the very times in which we live, said: “Judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter? 312

It is true that thus far the administration of the Sunday laws of the various States has been very mild compared with the acts of the Inquisition to which reference has been made. But this does not alter the fact that these men have been taken from their homes for no offense against their fellowmen; they have been unjustly deprived of their liberty and been branded as criminals and worked as convicts for a purely religious offense, for acts done in accordance with the dictates of conscience and not trenching upon the rights of others. Thus the authorities have undertaken, by persecution, to coerce men in matters of religion; and “it is incumbent on the authors of persecution,” says Gibbon, “previously to reflect, whether they are determined to support it in the last extreme…. The fine which he [the persecuted] is unwilling to discharge, exposes his person to the severity of the law, and his contempt suggests the use and propriety of capital punishment.” 313

This is well illustrated in the cases of the Tennessee Adventists. Men can never fall into the hands of more merciful officers than those into whose hands the Rhea County Adventists have fallen. Four months ago Judge Parks imposed a fine of only $2.50 in each case, and remitted even that. He also recommended the pardon of the convicted men. At the recent term of court he fined those previously convicted three times as much as he had previously done; and in one instance where the defendant had been twice convicted previously, once before a justice of the peace, and once in the Circuit Court, Judge Parks imposed a fine of $12.50, five times the amount of the fine imposed four months before. Thus the State of Tennessee, as represented in this thing by its courts, has entered upon a course that must end in the infliction of the death penalty; for it is not a supposable case that these men will violate their consciences even to save their lives; and certainly the temper [251] of Tennessee’s law-makers must change very materially before the State will recede from the positon it has taken.

Expressions of sympathy and kindly regard are no new thing in cases of persecution for conscience’ sake. The ecclesiastical courts of the Dark Ages frequently expressed abundant sympathy for their victims and bespoke mercy for them at the hands of the civil authorities to whom they committed them to be dealt with “ACCORING TO LAW;” mercy which they well knew their victims would not receive; for the condemned men were then, as the tennessee Adventists are now, self-confessed “law” breakers, and it was a maxim then as it is now: “The law must be enforced.” The result then was imprisonment, confiscation, torture and death by the rope, the ax, the fagot.

The ultimate end cannot be different now. True, the extreme penalty may not be so speedily reached as in the Middle Ages, but it is none the less inevitable. The death penalty is not only in the first attempt to coerce men in matters of conscience, but it is in the assumption of the right to coerce them; and the easy stages by which it is to be reached in Tennessee only make it the more certain. Had heavy penalties been imposed upon the Rhea County Adventists for the first offense, public sympathy would have been aroused in their behalf, and the so-called law might have been swept from the statute books; but the sympathy of the judge, the kindness of the sheriff and his deputies, the pardon by the governor, all serve to create a feeling that having been treated with such marked consideration, the Adventists ought to be willing to compromise, to surrender their consciences; and the fact that they will not compromise in the least, that they remain loyal to God and to conscience, is taken by many as an evidence on contumacy, and their further punishment is regarded as well-merited.

We have little hopes of influencing the State of Tennessee in this matter, or of even lightening the persecution of the Adventists there. Forewarned by the Word of God, we have long looked for such things in this country, and we expect them to increase rather than diminish. The return to the maxims and methods of the Dark Ages has begun, and the goal is certain. We expect to save from the ruinous course upon which they have entered neither the State of Tennessee nor yet the United States, which has, in many ways approved the wicked principle which Tennessee has adopted; but we do expect to save honest-hearted individuals from participation in the wrong.

“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.”

“Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,

Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land? 314

God has ordained civil government, but he has not thereby abdicated the throne of moral dominion. Every man must give account of himself to God. As Lowell has oddly but forcibly expressed it:—

If you take a sword and dror it, and go stick a feller thru,

Gov’ment aint to answer for it; God’ll send the bill to you.

It is no less a moral wrong to rob a man of his natural rights than to rob him of his money or other property; and it is no less a moral wrong to do it under the forms of law than it would be to do it without law.

Government cannot make right wrong nor wrong right, and the man who does a moral wrong in obedience to what he may understand to be law, or in obedience to that which is in fact human “law,” will in the end find that he is not thereby freed from responsibility to God. Judge Parks, Attorney-General Fletcher, the grand and petit jurors, and the sheriff and his deputies, must each answer to God for the wrongs done the Adventists, and that at a bar where the plea of supreme court decisions and official oaths will not avail. The law of God will be the rule of that Judgment. As Elder Colcord so impressively said last March: “There is a time coming when there will be a change, and God, and not man, will be the Judge—and in that court questions will be decided not by the statute books of Tennessee, but by the law of God.” And in that Judgment the authorities of Tennessee will be on trial, not as belonging to a system in which their identity is lost, merged into that moral nonentity, the [252] State, but as individuals, each responsible for himself to God, and each to give account for himself of the deeds done in the body.

“Careless seems the great Avenger, history’s pages but record
One death grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown.
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch Above his own.” 315 [252]

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