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Yet the sacred volume abundantly declares, what is manifest I even from the light of nature, that we are bound to obey God rather than man; the will of the infinitely wise and benevolent Ruler of the universe, rather than the will of a dependent and erring creature ; that if divine law conflicts with human law, the latter is to be treated as having no binding authority. This is evident from the very principle on which the apostles place our obligations to obedience, " for so is the will of God." That surely cannot be according to His will, which He himself has declared to be contrary to His will. The same apostle enjoins it upon children to "obey their parents in all things; for this,” says hie, “ is well pleasing to the Lord." Yet does any one sup- : pose that it is well pleasing to the Lord, that children should violate His own express commands, by lying or stealing, in obedience to the will of their parents ? But the exception to the universality of our obligation to obey human laws, is not applicable to the prohibition of forcible resistance to government: unless it can be shown, that God has required us to resist. It may be the duty of a man to disobey a particular law himself, when he cannot be justified in offering violence to prevent its execution by others.
We have a signal instance of the divine approbation of disobedience to human authority, in the case of the three Jews in the court of Babylon, who refused to worship the golden image which Nebuchadnessar had set up. The decree, with its tremendous penalty, was delivered to them in person, from the throne itself. Their declaration of their purpose to disobey wası equally distinct and resolute. “Be it known unto thee, o King, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." of this intrepid resolve, the God of heaven manifested His approbation, in ihe astonishing miracle which He wrought for their deliverance. But this example of righteous disobedience, rising even to moral sublimity, furnishes no authority for active resistance to government. A parallel case is that of Daniel, exposed to the devouring fury of a den of lions, and rescued by divine interposition. Here also wa disobedience without resistance. Daniel did not fight for his liberty. The God in whom he trusted delivered him.
When the apostles Peter and John, soon after the day of Pentecost, were arraigned before the rulers of the Jews, and commanded “not to speak at all, nor teach, in the name of Jesus,” they answered, "Whether it be right, in the sight of God, to hearken unto you, more than unto God, judge ye.' This was their justification for refusing to obey injunctions contrary to the declared will of God. But did they offer any vio
lence to the constituted authorities of their nation ? Not many days after, " the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, and were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison door, and brought them forth and said, Go stand and speak, in the temple to the people, all the words of this life.”. Here the angel of the Lord enjoins on the apostles direct disobedience to the injunctions of
the high priest and his associates. But does he give them a com, mission to offer resistance to their rulers? The long and glori
ous train of martyrs, in early and later ages, forfeited their lives for obeying God rather than man. But did they claim a right
to resist the power of those by whom they were ordered to y execution ? Physical force ought never to be employed by
individuals, against the measures of a regularly constituied and righteous government.
The higher law, the law of heaven, is most commonly appealed to, in support of the right of disobedience to unrighteous authority. But it has a much broader extent, in its application to the positive duty of obedience. In such a government as ours, at least, the laws which are not opposed to the known will of God are far more numerous, than those which are. The cases in which the divine law requires obedience to human laws are many more, than those in which it enjoins or permits disobedience.
But how does it appear, that the Ruler of the universe adds the sanction of His infinite authority, to the government and laws of men ? Why are human enactments called “ordinances of God ?” Why are we required to obey them, “not only for wrath, but for conscience sake;"_" for the Lord's sake ?" The argument on this point is simple and brief. A God of boundless goodness seeks the welfare of His creatures. The best good of a community of men cannot be promoted, civil society cannot even exist, without some kind of government. The worst possible condition of a people is that of perfect anarchy ;-a ofreedom from all restraint, except the merciless dictation of a mob, the most insufferable of all tyrannies. Natural reason and divine revelation concur, in showing the absolute necessity of human government, wherever any number of men have a residence. It is therefore the will of the Creator, that in every nation under Heaven, there should be laws, and power to execute them. But as He has not, except in the case of the Jewish dispensation, prescribed any particular form of government; He has left it to the people to determine this for themselves ; either by remaining under their present constitution, or altering it at
their pleasure, provided they do not admit into it any article or feature contrary to His known will. On this condition, they can choose between absolute and limited monarchy, hereditary and elective nobility, simple and confederated republicanism. The existing government, till it is overturned or changed, by the people of the state or nation, is that to which the sanction of divine authority is given ;-as the apostle expresses it," the powers that be are ordained of God.” The constitution and laws of a country are called in scripture "ordinances of man," and also “ordinances of God;"-ordinances of man, as they are formed by the people, or their representatives ; ordinances of God, so far as they are in accordance with His will. If in a political constitution, an article is introduced which is known to be contrary to the divine law, we are bound not to obey it, as it is not an ordinance of God. But this does not invalidate the other parts of the instrument. One or more unjust laws enacted by the legislature of a state, does not nullify the whole code of its statutes. No human government is perfect. No one, probably, is altogether free from injustice, in its structure and ordinances. If a single instance of wrong dissolves our obligations to obedience, all the governments of the world must lose their hold on the consciences of men. The duty of submission to the constitution and laws of the land does not cease, till they become so corrupt, in their whole structure and administration, as not to answer the purposes of a righteous government, and to ! justify a resort to revolution ; a revolution to be effected, under very peculiar circumstances, not by any minor portion of the community, but by the great body of the people.
As private citizens are bound to obey those laws of the land which are not contrary to the will of God, so the ministers of justice are under a moral obligation to execute these laws; unless they are entrusted with discretionary powers to dispense with their execution in particular cases. But they are bound 10 refuse to execute laws which are contrary to the higher law of God; even though the refusal should involve the loss of their office. A man's holding an appointment under human government does not release him from his obligations to the Ruler of the universe. But are we required to yield obedience to human authority in all cases not contrary to ihe known will of God ? Not surely to authority which is merely assumed ; to that which has not been conferred according to the constitution of the country. A pretender to a crown to which he has no authorized title, has no valid claim to the allegiance of those whom he presumes to call his subjects. His assumption of power is not an ordinance of God, as it is not even an ordinance
of man. And if a man is a regularly constituted officer of the government, our obligation of obedience to him extends no farther than the power legally conferred on him. The decisions of a justice of the peace are binding, within the limits of his appropriate jurisdiction ; but beyond this, they have no more authority, than the opinions of a private citizen.
If human laws are to be sometimes obeyed, and sometimes disobeyed, it becomes an important question, who is to be the judge of the obligation to obedience in particular cases ? Is each individual to determine this for himself, or is the govern. ment to decide for him? The inquiry may relate either to the accordance of a law with the will of God, to its meaning and constitutionality, or to its expediency. In the first case, each man is himself accountable to his Maker. The divine commands are laid upon individuals. The responsibility of judging what is right in the sight of God, in a case in which any one is called to act, cannot be thrown off upon others. “Every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” To enable us to decide right, respecting the morality of a required action, it may be very proper for us to seek for light, from those who are well informed on the subject; but the final decision must be our own. No one, whatever countenance he may have from legal authority, can be justified in doing that which he himself believes to be contrary to the will of God. In a Christian country like ours, there is indeed presumptive evidence in favor of the rectitude of the laws. But this evidence is not so infallible, as to render inquiry and decision, on the part of individuals, unnecessary.
To determine questions concerning the meaning and constitutionality of laws, is the province of the higher courts of judi. cature. On these points, their decisions ought to be received as final. What they declare to be law is law.
If the inquiry be, whether a particular law is expedient, whether it conduces to the public good, this is to be determined by the legislature only. The very purpose for which the body is constituted, is to consult, and to decide by their vote, what laws will best promote the good of the community. This is the voice of the people, expressed by their representatives. Or if the inhabitants of a country choose to be governed by an absolute monarch, then he is the legislature, as well as judge. His published will is law.
As the laws of a state or nation are made, or ought to be made, for the welfare of the whole community, or at least of a major portion of it; so the will of the majority, expressed by a majority of the legislature, is an “ordinance of man," and as
such, is an “ordinance of God," if not contrary to His known
A will. If this is not law, then there is no law in the land. If every man is to judge for himself, what will best promote the public good, and to make this the rule of his conduct; then he is his own legislature ; doing that which is right in his own eyes; making and unmaking laws at his own pleasure. All obedience to any law but his own will is out of the question. All reverence for the law of the land is at an end.
But is a man to be forbidden the right of private judgment, with respect to the laws of his country. He has undoubtedly a right to his own opinion on the subject, provided he does not make this the rule of his conduct. He has also a right to express freely his opinions, to endeavor to bring others to coincide with him; and to use his influence to obtain a repeal or alteration of the laws which he thinks inexpedient. But till this is effected, he cannot be justified in withholding his obedience. The right of public discussion is not inconsistent with obliga. tions to obey. If the interest of the community requires that there should be laws, it equally requires that they should be obeyed. A fundamental principle of every free government, is a voluntary and conscientious submission to law.
How far is an executive officer to follow his own judgment, in the discharge of his official duty ? In doubtful cases, it does not belong to him to assume the prerogative of the judiciary, to decide what the law is; what is its true meaning. Nor is it his province to determine whether a particular law is expedient or not, and to act accordingly. This belongs to the judgment and decision of the legislature. What they have enacted, he is bound to execute, whether, in his own opinion, it is or is not conducive to the public good. But whether a law which his office requires him to execute, is contrary to the known will of God, he must decide for himself. It is a question respecting his duty to his Maker. Neither the legislature nor the judiciary can assume his responsibility in this.
In treating of the distinction between mere disobedience to law, and forcible resistance, we have already had occasion to advert to the danger of dwelling exclusively upon either of these, under the influence of party views and party feelings. A similar danger results from confining an animated discussion either to obedience of law, or to disobedience. One public speaker may expend all his high-wrought eloquence, in enforcing our obligations to obedience. By omitting to notice any exception, he may make the impression, upon some at least of his hearers, that they are bound to obey all the laws in the statute book, without making the inquiry whether any of them are contrary