Rev. James R. Wilson on Religious persecution, the U.S. Constitution, and the Sabbath

James R. Willson (1780-1853)

“All the religious persecutions of modern times, are charged upon the doctrine, that civil rulers should obey the law of God. To stop the mails, on the ground that the law of God forbids their running, would establish, they assert, a principle leading to persecution. Here we have a very grave and deliberate disclaimance of all allegiance to God, and obedience to his precepts, on the part of the senate. The constitution, too, it is said, withholds from the government, the right to define the laws of God. The petitioners say to them: “Your transaction of secular business in the post-office department, on the Sabbath, violates the law of God; you are under law to God, and so should refrain from these Immoral practices.” They do not pretend that the charge of violating the divine law is groundless; but they put in the plea of irrelevancy. It may be true that we act contrary to the law of God; but we hold, according to the constitution; say they, that that law does not bind us as legislators;—That law may be proper for the private citizens, but we as a government are above all its claims, and without its jurisdiction. We cannot define it for the regulation of our proceedings, nor can we admit that it has any claims on us. Had they thought it possible to vindicate the practice against which the petitioners remonstrated, on the ground of its being a work of necessity or mercy, we may fairly presume they would not have resorted to an argument of this character. Perhaps there is not an instance in all the annals of legislation, in which rulers so solemnly and directly disclaim all subjection to the law of God. For the refutation of doctrines so monstrous, we refer to the argument on this topic, contained in a preceding part of this discussion. Yet it is a subject of so awful magnitude, of so deep import to the prosperity of this republic, and of so vital interest to the cause of morality and religion, that we shall in this connection prosecute it a little farther.

We hope it will be conceded that private citizens are under obligation to render obedience to laws enacted by God as the Supreme Legislator. Can any man assign the shadow of a reason why legislators should be exempted? That God himself has ever issued such an exemption has never been pretended, and it never can. The very thought that he has done so, is almost too preposterous to be entertained by any intelligent being. The whole tenor of the Bible is full and express to the contrary. If he has not, by what right is it claimed? Is their conduct less important to the glory of the Law-giver, or to their own good conscience, or to the good order of society, than that of the private citizen? Has God given the lights of his law to guide his creatures in the humble walks of private life, and withheld them from the legislator, whose duties are so much more arduous and important! If a human legislator can do what is either displeasing or pleasing to Him who rules the nations, is it reasonable that he has given him no information as to what he delights in, or what is offensive to him? On the principle of this reasoning of the committee, the only sin which the most cruel, tyrannical, and persecuting despots, have ever committed against God, was their falsely imagining that the law was obligatory on them; and even that, on this impious principle, could not be a sin against Heaven, as they were not under his law as rulers.

But the people, by their constitution, they tell us, have withheld from them the power of knowing or being governed by the divine law. This we deny. It is indeed to be greatly deplored, and good men do deeply deplore, that there is no formal recognition of the authority of him who is Prince of the kings of earth, in the Federal Constitution; but the constitution has no where said that the government either shall or may disobey God. Every member of Congress, and nearly all the officers of the government are bound by oath to administer their office faithfully. We do not like the form of the oath usually taken by the book. But even in that corrupt form, borrowed from Pagan usage, what is meant by the concluding phrase, “So help me God.” What do they mean by the “help?”—They do not take the oath as private citizens, but as public functionaries. In the very lowest sense it must involve a prayer, that God Almighty may aid them as legislators, as executive and as judicial officers in the discharge of their public duties, while they endeavour to be faithful to their trust. And on the other hand, it must imply, that should they prove treacherous in the trust committed to them, he will abandon them to themselves, give them no aid, and leave them to their own folly and iniquity. It involves more than all this. They lay their hand on that Bible which reveals a future state of rewards and punishments, which if it mean any thing, must be intended as equivalent to the last clause of the oath by the uplifted hand, “As you shall answer to God at the great day.” “So help me God,” then is an invocation of the divine wrath upon their persons is case of perjury. But if they are not, as the committee affirm, to know the law of God as obligatory on them, nor to acknowledge him as their Lawgiver, or judge, in their official capacity, how come they to invoke him thus solemnly, at their induction into office? How is he to aid them if they renounce his law? By what law is he to judge them, if they violate their oath? Perjury is a sin against the third commandment, as well as against the ninth. On the principle of the committee, should any one remonstrate with a member of the Senate who might be of breaking his oath, that he was violating the law of what kind of reasoning would it be for him to plead, there is no harm in perjury? I cannot as a legislator define the law of God.”

The Sabbath.  A Discourse on the Duty of Civil Government, in Relation to the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day.

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