October 31, 1895
BEFORE another number of this paper reaches the reader, at least two more Seventh-day Adventists will have been placed upon trial for their faith; one in Maryland, and other in Tennessee.
It is denied that the prosecution of these men is persecution, for “it is only enforcing the civil law.” “They are not fined, imprisoned, or worked in the chain-gang for their religion, but only for violation of civil law.” “They are left perfectly free to observe Saturday if they wish to do so, and they must respect our rights.” Such are some of the excuses offered for pursuing with the “law,” conscientious, upright men, whose lives are admitted to be above reproach.
It is not for the purpose of soliciting sympathy for Seventh-day Adventists that we state these facts, but to secure consideration of the principles involved. The contention that it is not religious persecution fails, in view of the facts as we have repeatedly given them to the public; for while Seventh-day Adventists are singled out and punished, frequently for the most trifling acts of unobtrusive private work, men who observe no day, or who at least frequently work on Sunday and do not observe the seventh day, are not molested. True, it would not make the “law” any better or justify its existence if all who violated it were prosecuted, but the purpose of its enforcement against Seventh-day Adventists would not be so apparent.
But, as before remarked, it is not for the purpose of exciting sympathy that we present these facts. It is that by seeing the evil of the practical workings of such “laws,” men may be led to examine the principles, to recognize the moral obligation resting upon every man to obey God regardless of consequences; and also to recognize the fact that there is an infallible standard of right and justice in all things. This perfect law of moral action is revealed in the Word of God, while in our civil relations this undeviating and perfect rule of action is written in the very law of our being.
This latter truth is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
This law of justice which, when obeyed, secures to every many civil liberty, is seen and recognized in proportion as the individual members of civil society recognize moral obligation; hence the largest measure of civil liberty is enjoyed in those countries that have most gospel light. Civil liberty is however incidental to, rather than the object of, the gospel. The purpose of the gospel is to bring men into harmony with God by writing the divine law in their hearts; 404 and this law being the “law of liberty” 405 not only gives true liberty to every one who is conformed to it; but it leads such an one to award to his fellowmen everything which he claims for himself.
The underlying principle of Christianity is supreme loyalty to God and perfect recognition of the equality and rights of our fellow-creatures. The Scriptures sum up all human duty in two precepts: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind;” and, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” 406 And again: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” 407 This is the perfect law, in obedience to which there is perfect liberty.
According to the pagan conception of the rights of man and of civil society, divinity inheres in the State; hence the maxim: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” This is a denial alike of a positive moral standard and of inalienable right. Under such a system toleration may exist, but liberty is impossible.
The Son of God came into the world to set men free, and to teach the divine truth that there is an absolute standard of right established by God himself; and that nothing which is contrary to that standard is of any binding force whatever, or imposes upon the most humble man any obligation at all.
In the familiar words of the Saviour, “Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the Lord declared the absolute independence of every man from every other man in everything pertaining to God; and it was to teach this doctrine that the followers of Christ were sent into all the world.
The doctrine was not new, for it was divine; and the same truth which our Lord taught, and which his disciples were commissioned to teach, was truth as soon as there was a moral creature in existence. The three Hebrews asserted their independence of human government in their relations to God when they refused to worship the golden image. 408 Daniel asserted the same principle when he disobeyed the king’s commandment and prayed to God three times a day as he had done aforetime. 409 But it was not until the gospel commission was given to the apostles that this doctrine was preached to the world in its fullness. And the preaching of this gospel of liberty was accounted treason against the State.
Paganism was so interwoven with the manners, customs and government of the people, that to introduce another religion was indirectly to attack the civil polity of Rome.
Even in the every-day-affairs of life, the Christian was compelled to run counter to the religious prejudices of his heathen neighbors. Gibbon says:—
The Christian, who with pious horror avoided the abomination of the circus or the theater, found himself encompassed with infernal snares in every convivial entertainment, as often as his friends, invoking the hospitable deities, poured out libations to each others’ happiness…. Every art and every trade that was in the least concerned in the framing or adorning of idols, was polluted by the stain of idolatry.
The dangerous temptations which on every side lurked in ambush to surprise the unguarded believer, assailed him with redoubled violence on the day of solemn festivals. So artfully were they framed and disposed through the year, that superstition always wore the appearance of pleasure, and often of virtue…. On the days of general festivity, it was the custom of the ancients to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel, and to crown their heads with garlands of flowers. This innocent and elegant practice might have been tolerated as a mere civil institution.  But it most unluckily happened that the doors were under the protection of the household gods, that the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne, and that garlands of flowers, though frequently worn as a symbol either of joy or mourning, had been dedicated in their first origin to the service of superstition. The trembling Christians who were persuaded in this instance to comply with the fashions of their country and the commands of the magistrates, labored under the most gloomy apprehensions from the reproaches of their own conscience, the censures of the church, and the denunciations of divine vengeance. 410
To transgress these time-honored social customs was more than simply to offend the religious sensibilities of the people. Any disrespect to the gods of Rome was disrespect to the Roman State, because the two were so closely connected. These pagan rights which were so interwoven with the lives of the people, were not merely religious, but they were civil institutions as well; hence, to become a Christian was to be arrayed not only against the religion of Rome, but against the Roman Empire. It was for this reason that pagan Rome persecuted the early Christians.
Such was the logic of paganism in the palmy days of the Roman Empire, and such the “justification” of intolerance in the American Republic in the closing decade of the enlightened 19th century. In his dictum in the King case in Tennessee, August 1891, United States Judge Hammond said of Sunday enforcement:—
The courts cannot change that which has been done, however done, by the civil law in favor of the Sunday observers. The religion of Jesus Christ is so interwoven with the texture of our civilization and every one of its institutions, that it is impossible for any man or set of men to live among us and find exemption from its influences and restraints. Sunday observance is so essentially a part of that religion that it is impossible to rid our laws of it, quite as impossible as to abolish the custom we have of using the English language, or clothing ourselves with the garments appropriate to our sex. The logic of personal liberty would allow, perhaps demand, a choice of garments, but the choice is denied. So civil or religious freedom may stop short of its logic in this matter of Sunday observance. It is idle to expect in government perfect action or harmony or essential principles, and whoever administers, whoever makes, and whoever executes the laws, must take into account the imperfections, the passions, the prejudices, religious or other, and the errings of men because of these.
There is in this much of mere sentiment. But it was not for a theory merely that Rome pursued the Christians. Rome claimed to be supreme, to hold in her hands absolutely the destiny of every citizen. To become a Christian was to challenge the supremacy of Rome; it was to deny the authority that was claimed by the Roman State.
Thus what we call persecution in Rome was to the Romans, simply enforcing the law. From their standard they could pursue no other course. The emperors were under solemn obligation to their subjects to maintain unimpaired the authority of the Empire, and the better the emperors, the more regard they had for the government, the more conscientious in the discharge of their duties, the more intolerant they were toward those who challenged their authority.
The Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was a man of spotless character. “This man,” says John Stuart Mill, “a better Christian in all but the dogmatic sense of the word, than almost any of the ostensibly Christian sovereigns who have since reigned, persecuted Christianity.” And why? Because as Mill says: “No Christian more firmly believes that atheism is false, and tends to the dissolution of society, than Marcus Aurelius believed the same things of Christianity.” 411
As a ruler Marcus Aurelius “deemed it his duty not to suffer society to fall to pieces; and saw not how, if its existing ties were removed, any others could be formed which could again knit it together. The new religion openly aimed at dissolving these ties; unless, therefore, it was his duty to adopt that religion, it seemed to be his duty to put it down. Inasmuch, then, as the theology of Christianity did not appear to him to be true or of divine origin,” “the gentlest and most amiable of philosophers and rulers, under a solemn sense of duty, authorized the persecution of Christianity.”
But Christianity finally prevailed in the Roman Empire to the extent that Rome acknowledged the right of every man to freedom of conscience, and proclaimed such freedom to all. It was then that the papacy, though in its infancy, took from the world the liberty which had been won for it through the sufferings of the early Christians, and another system was established more intolerant, more despotic, even than paganism.
Through the Dark Ages this power held sway over the consciences of men. In the Reformation of the 16th century the true principle was again asserted; and to this the liberty of conscience which we enjoy to-day is due. But the high-water-mark of human liberty has been reached and already the ebb has commenced. Men are turning again to pagan maxims and methods. Again, to the State is assigned the place which belongs alone to God. “‘Law’ must be enforced whether right or wrong,” and “nothing isperseuciton which is authorized by ‘law.’”
Thus reasoned the pagans when endeavoring to stamp out Christianity because it opposed itself to the laws of the Roman Empire prior to the rise of Constantine; thus reasoned the papacy in the Dark Ages, and thus reasons the popular Christianity and so-called Christian civilization of to-day. And if the principles advocated in the 19th century in the United States are true, then all the persecution of the past stands justified, for is has only been the enforcement of civil law.