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The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws. A Sermon on the Fugitive Slave Law.


An 1851 sermon by Charles Beecher, delivered in Newark, New Jersey, opposing the Fugitive Slave Law. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


Charles Beecher (1815-1900) was a minister and the younger brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1834 and  in 1851 received a ministry at the First Free Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey. The church was known as a stronghold of abolitionism, was expelled from the Presbyterian Synod in 1853, and re-organized as a Congregationalist church. Beecher left in 1857 for a pastorate in Georgetown, Massachusetts. He eventually became Florida’s state superintendant of public instruction from 1871-1873.

Beecher’s major publications include The Incarnation, or, Pictures of the Virgin and her Son (1849); David and his Throne (1855); Pen Pictures of the Bible (1855); The Life of David King of Israel (1861); Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher (1864); Redeemer and Redeemed (1864); Spiritual Manifestations (1879); The Eden Tableau, or, Object Bible-Teaching (1880); Patmos; or, the Unveiling (1896); and two music texts. He published several antislavery tracts, including A Sermon on the Nebraska Bill (1854) and The God of the Bible Against Slavery (1855). His travel journal was re-published in 1986 by the Stowe-Day Foundation under the title Harriet Beecher Stowe in Europe.

Beecher’s argument in this sermon begins by basing itself on natural law, the assertion of civil rule through interpretation of divine will employing the Bible as guide. The fugitive slave clause of the US Constitution, according to Beecher, violated divine law and was thus invalid. The 1789 constitution represented a temporary compromise over the issue of slavery, one that needed termination by the free states in order to realize the document’s true purpose in providing freedom. Claims for the constitutionality of slavery were only claims for iniquity.  Beecher held that because US law “is wrong in the sight of God and man—it is an unexampled climax of sin.” Thus the Fugitive Slave Law, which would return slaves to unjust and unholy ownership, must be disobeyed. Beecher presents the argument of a radical Protestant and he displays anti-Catholicism in claiming that obedience to the law constituted ‘Popery’. To obey the law, he contends, is to engage in idolatry: the proslavery forces are in truth representatives of despotism and the anti-Christ. He concludes by urging his audience to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law and, if arrested for aiding fugitives, “tell the court that you obey Christ, not Belial.”


- Joe Lockard