Narrative of the Riots at Alton
Edward Beecher
Alton: G. Holton, 1838


  What, then, are the true principles in this case? As this is a practical question, involving great and all-pervading consequences, it is of great moment that our principles of judgment be sound; as an error here must vitiate all our results. Happily for us, we have an unerring standard near at hand; and with this let us begin. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to depart from evil that is understanding." From this we infer:

  1. That we are first of all to use all possible means to ascertain the purposes of God, as regards the age and nation in which we live; and so lay our plans that they may coincide with his designs: "For there is no counsel or knowledge or device against the Lord. His counsel will stand and he will do all his pleasure." And if we "regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands, he will destroy us and not build us up."

  2. Never hope finally to avert a discussion of the great fundamental principles of human society, which is called for by the course of God's providence and the movements of the age.

  3. Let the movements of God's providence decide as to the time of the discussion. That is, Do not seek prematurely to accelerate it; and do not try to avert it when great events urge it upon us.

  4. Employ the time allowed by Providence in studying the subject, and the structure of human society; thus preparing wisely to meet the discussion when it comes.

  5. Let no errors or imprudencies, real or supposed, of the advocates of truth, indispose the mind to receive it on its own evidence: and let no amount of popular prejudice, and no fear of personal sacrifice deter us from following out our own convictions of duty, in the fear of God.

  The soundness of the principles thus stated none can deny. Nor can it be denied that, in a world opposed to God these ought at all times, and popular opinion never, to be our standard of wisdom in the formation of our plans. As it regards their execution we are bound to regard the laws of holiness and of the human mind. Hence:

  6. Let all discussions of truth be conducted under a vivid sense of the presence of God: and so conducted as to time, manner and proportion, that they may tend to diffuse a spirit of holiness throughout the community, and decidedly and boldly to rebuke every form of sin.

  7. Avoid giving needless occasions of irritation, excitement, and lawless violence.

  8. Aim to diffuse kind feelings throughout the community; and especially to strengthen the bonds of union among good men.

  9. If, however, after all your efforts to promote holiness and union, any portion of community will cleave to error and sin, you are bound not to renounce truth, duty, and God, to prevent division however painful, or evil feelings however great, or deeds of violence however atrocious. On them rests the responsibility who forsake God and the truth, and not on you. For this reason were Jesus and his disciples guiltless, though divisions and death followed in their train. Indeed, in a corrupt state of society, eminent holiness and nearness to God are so far from rendering divisions and excitements improbable, that unless the community itself will reform, they render them certain.

  In deciding, therefore, on the wisdom of any course of conduct, we are to view it in all its relations; and not test it by a few hackneyed topics of popular prudence. A community deeply involved in the commission of evil loves neither disturbance, repentance, nor rebuke. Their language is, Let us alone. And any exhibition of the truth, however well meant, which reaches the conscience will cause bitterness and reaction. The truth on this point has been so admirably and pointedly expressed by the departed Evarts, that I cannot forbear to quote his words. In the Panoplist (Vol. 16 page 245), after a candid examination of the laws of Virginia, prohibiting the instruction of the blacks, he thus concludes:

It is impossible for an enlightened conscience to doubt that the slaveholders of Virginia, taken as a body, are "fighting against God." There are, we trust, numerous exceptions to this daring hostility. It cannot be doubted, however, what will be the issue of the contest. The many millions of the blacks hereafter to live on our continent will not be always debarred from reading the Bible, nor will Africans be always forbidden to preach the gospel.

  Noble rebuke! and yet uttered in the spirit of love and godly fear. And what was the result? On page 488, we find that it had caused a great ferment at the South, and brought on him severe censure. Hear him now in reply:

With respect to the ferment which the article in our June number produced, we can only say, that to excite passion or provoke opposition was far from our object. But our southern friends must be aware that the simple fact of the existence of irritation is by no means conclusive evidence that there is just occasion for it. We could easily illustrate this position by a reference to scriptural history. It is indeed an indisputable truth, that no great abuse can be removed without producing a great deal of irritation. Look at the monstrous abuses practiced by the Romish church; and at the exposure of them in England, Germany, and Scotland. These abuses were acknowledged by the advocates of that church, and it was only contended that they should be attacked mildly and gently, that they might be gradually and silently corrected. But if the reformers had yielded to these representations; if Luther had written against popery in such a manner as not to offend the most bigoted and interested of the popish clergy, what would have become of the reformation?

  The southern people are now unanimous in condemning the slave trade; but when this trade was first attacked, the intrepid assailants were vilified as a set of miserable drivelers, who under the cant of religion and humanity, were willing to put daggers into the hands of all the Negroes in the West Indies: who, instead of benefiting the blacks either in Africa or the islands, would injure them all: who would in fact produce by their measures, if Parliament should adopt them, nothing but revolt, insurrection, burning and massacre in all the colonies. Never was there more irritation on any subject, than prevailed in respect to the abolition of the slave trade among all slaveholders in the British empire.

  That there has been a great ferment and much irritation in consequence of the discussion of slavery in this state, and that it has resulted in outrages of unparalleled atrocity, no one needs to be informed. But it by no means follows that it was through the negligence or indiscretion of the friends of the truth; or that all possible efforts were not made which a sense of duty would allow, to conciliate opponents and prevent such results. Let the facts of the case then be calmly considered, and tested by the principles already laid down.

  And that the scope and reasons of my remarks may be the more clearly appreciated, I would observe that I shall construct my narration with reference to a great variety of charges against the members of the convention at Alton as a body, and myself and Mr. Lovejoy in particular. The fact that I have been publicly, severely, and pointedly attacked; accused of Jesuitism, fanatical zeal, dereliction of official duty, and treasonable designs, must be my apology for any reference to myself which a vindication of my course shall render it necessary to make. I shall make no reference to individual assailants; and still entertain the kindest feelings for all by whom I have been thus charged; and hope that they will at length see and candidly acknowledge their error.