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


  The essential criminality of that division from which such results flow, and of the feelings of contempt, prejudice, or hostility which it has produced, may still more clearly be evinced by its power in blinding the mind to the great principles of truth as involved in the right of free inquiry, and the duty of maintaining the laws at all hazards. Who in a truly Christian and benevolent state of mind could ever have promulgated such miserable subterfuges to evade the claims of their fellow citizens to the rights of speech and of protection by law as have lately been put forth—to the amazement of all reflecting men? That the right to speak or print is not to be exercised in any case where it would outrage the feelings of the community. As if the will of a majority were the criterion of right and wrong: or, as if in no case duty to God could require any man to go against the will or feelings of a sinful world.

  So, too, we are told that the men who give occasion to mobs are as much to be dreaded as those who make them: as if it were an assumed principle that no one in doing the will of God could ever give occasion to a mob.

  Is it not amazing that the promulgators of such sentiments do not remember that they only embolden the wicked to make mobs? All know that when the wicked outrage the moral feelings of the good ever so grossly, it makes no mobs. Atheism, infidelity, and lewdness may go out with unblushing front to corrupt the community; and no mob is raised against them: for good men have too much conscience to raise mobs. But the moment a good man attempts an unpopular reformation of gross abuses he is mobbed; and a large circle of Christians say, the mob is wrong to be sure, but he deserves no sympathy, he was so rash and imprudent.

  And is it the prevailing error of good men to oppose evil too boldly, and continually to outrage the sinful feelings of an evil world? And is it true that if Christians were united, the imprudences of the few who are overzealous could do so much to excite mobs and prostrate law that they could not easily control its influence? And can anything render mobs so sure as for a large portion of professed Christians to censure a zealous minority of reformers as the guilty causes of mobs, in the presence of those who are wishing some pretext for wreaking their vengeance on them? The truth is, if good men were united no imprudences of a small portion of their number could raise a mob. It is only when they throw their influence against the protection of that small number, and by the exhibition of their own feelings give intensity to those of the mob, that all the barriers of the law give way. What can be expected but ruin when one portion of good men are so deeply prejudiced against another as to feel that however great a calamity it is to have law give way, it is a deeper calamity to maintain it, if it involves the protection of their rights? Yet this is the solution of many a mob. It is the solution of the mob at Alton.

  And what but a wicked state of feeling can give rise to blindness so amazing? Did a sense of the presence of God and holy communion with him ever give rise to such miserable and sophistical delusions? No. God is the God of law, of justice, and of order. And in his sight no crime is so heinous as to attempt or connive at the radical prostration of law and right. He who stands by the body of a murdered father will never alleviate the guilt of the assassin who shed his blood by a lisp of a few unguarded words which provoked the deed. But in the eye of God when the law is prostrated, a nation is slain, and he who aims an impious hand at the sacred rights of a fellow man strikes a blow not merely at him, but at his country's heart. And were not the mind deadened by unholy alienation of feeling, and the vision dimmed by the films of sinful prejudice, the atrocity of the deed would leave no room for any feelings but those of indignation, nor for any words but those of rebuke.

  I repeat it, therefore, that the prostration of law is owing wholly to divisions among good men. And if its power is finally and forever lost, and if a deluge of anarchy and blood shall desolate our land, it will be a part of the mournful record of the historic page that, not the abandoned or profane, not the vile and polluted, but the wise and the good, deluded and deceived by Satan, threw open the floodgates and let the dreadful deluge in.

  And shall a consummation so terrific ingloriously close our brief career? Shall we as a nation subserve no higher end than to stand forth as a beacon and a warning to the nations of the earth, as the smoke of our torment and the voice of our wailings go up together?

  If not, the voice of God must be heard. In tones of thunder He speaks from the silence of the grave! And if this event cannot rouse us to thought, nothing can. We are gone.

  What then shall be done? Good men must unite, not on policy or on compromise, but on the truth. All prejudice, all passion must be laid aside; and under the sacred guidance of the spirit of God we must dig down to the deep and immutable foundations of eternal truth. Nothing else accords with the age of the world in which we live, or with the revealed purposes of Almighty God.

  The principles of individual rights, such as grow out of the nature of the human mind, are as immutable and eternal as the throne of God; and to be united, all Christians must adopt them. He who sees these principles knows their truth; and he cannot divide from God and the truth to unite with those who see them not. No. The only basis of lasting union is the truth; and if any refuse to admit the truth and to coincide with God, the guilt of the division must rest on them.

  It is vain here to say that this age of the world needs nothing but the preaching of the gospel. Most fully do I admit that nothing is needed but fully to unfold the principles of the gospel, and to apply them to every department of life. But the great question of the age is: What do the principles of Christianity say on this subject? Do they tolerate slavery; or cut it up root and branch? Indeed, until this question is decided no man can tell what the gospel is. If, indeed, the gospel authorizes, or does not condemn, and call for the immediate abandonment of a system which fundamentally subverts every principle of right, the infidel wishes to know it; for he need ask no better reason to scorn its pretensions to be a message from God. But if it rebukes this with divine authority, as it does all other sins, and requires its immediate abandonment, then it is time for the church to know it, and fully to declare all the counsel of God.

  I do not ask for unholy excitement or misguided zeal. I ask for that fear of God which shall suspend all other fear; and that holy courage and coolness and clearness of thought which nothing but his spirit can give. I ask for no needlessly irritating language or unkind denunciations; but for that holy, kind, and free inquiry, and candid comparison of views, which would take place if we were to stand together before the throne of God and under the influence of mutual love.

  It is the horror of this age that on a subject so vast, there are those who will not inquire at all; and threaten with odium or death all who will. It is happy for the world that they cannot intimidate or silence the Almighty. Vain men! What do they hope for; at what do they aim? Can they arrest the current of the universe? Can they contend with the eternal God?

  It is time for those who desire not to be crushed by the movements of God to arouse themselves to prayer and thought. The individual right of free inquiry and speech is his great instrument for renovating the world. Governments are designed mainly to defend individual rights, and the power of the magistrate is given him by God; and as God's minister it is his duty to act in maintaining law. And the horrid doctrine which gives to a mere numerical majority the power against law to trample on individual right is highhanded rebellion against God.

  It is high time that all delusion on this subject should cease and that the right of free discussion should be seen in a higher and holier light than as a mere personal privilege. It is the demand of God that man shall be left free to hear his voice and obey his will; and he who attempts to stand between the soul of any man and his Maker must expect to incur the wrath of God. God insists upon it that no individual or community or law shall obstruct the passage of his messages from man to man.

  It is the deep feeling of this truth which is the source of all the true freedom which this world ever saw or enjoyed. All true freedom came through holy men, and by such it must be preserved. In our land through the love of fame or power or money, the native energy of the principle is dying away, and a corrupt and tyrannical public sentiment is making us slaves. The people of God need a fresh baptism from on high. They need to kindle again the holy flame of freedom at the altar of God.

  The exigency calls for no unholy spirit of defiance, no resentment for injuries and wrongs, and no spirit of revenge over the grave of the dead. The spirit of Lovejoy was that of forgiving love, and let no other be kindled at his grave. Let no resentment embitter the nation: let all be kind and tender and gentle, and ready to forgive. But let the strength of holy purpose become daily more intense for God and for the right to know, to proclaim, and to do his will—for this to live, and for this, if need be, to die.

  I am sure that if good men would thus come near to God, they could not long remain divided from each other. Prejudices would be renounced, concessions and confessions be made; and that not merely on one side but by all. Nor would the question be who should concede most, for each would be willing to concede all that is wrong in himself, and to acknowledge all that is right in others. If thus united our liberties are sure, our nation is safe. We can ask nothing better than our own institutions if they can be maintained in their true spirit, and used for their true ends, in the fear of God.

  And that we shall be able to do it I do not despair. There are intelligence and conscience, and religion enough to save our nation, if they can be brought into action with united power. And I confide in God that it will at last be done: that one warning so dreadful will be enough, and that by timely repentance we shall escape the impending judgments of God.