BreakPoint: Religious Freedom and the Fugitive Slave Act

Defying Unjust Laws

Is it ever right to force Americans to violate their deeply held beliefs? Abortion and LGBTQ advocates certainly think so. But history teaches us differently.

If you’ve listened to BreakPoint over the past several years, you’ve heard us talk about the ongoing threats to religious freedom. We’ve talked about pharmacists in Washington State being forced to dispense abortion-inducing drugs or losing their licenses. We’ve talked about Christian adoption agencies forced out of business because they will not place children with same-sex couples. And of course you’ve heard about cake artist Jack Phillips, who refused to use his artistic talents for a same-sex wedding.

These cases and others like them remind me of another time, long ago, when our government attempted to bully citizens into engaging in acts they believed were wrong. It had to do with a law called the Fugitive Slave Act.

This Act, first passed in 1793, was an effort to force free states to return escaping slaves to their owners. But many in defiant Northern states found creative ways to circumvent this law.

As Jared Brock writes in his fabulous new book, The Road to Dawn, (by the way, highly recommended), he says “throughout the mid-1800s, slaves continued to pour north,” settling in free states or Canada.  Southern slave owners “grew more and more agitated with each passing month,” he writes, and began pressuring northern states “to stop helping escapees.”

Congress, attempting to tamp down tensions between free and slave states, passed the Compromise of 1850, which amended the Fugitive Slave Act. It included a demand that “everyone—law enforcement and ordinary citizen alike—[be] required to help catch fugitive slaves.”

For example, Brock writes, the law made it illegal for any American to “withhold knowledge he might possess of any chance meeting with the fugitive.” If a citizen helped a slave escape, he could be arrested. And law enforcement agents “who refused to assist slave-catchers could spend six months in prison and be fined up to $1,000,” which is the equivalent of about $30,000 today.

In effect, freedom-loving Northerners—especially the many Quakers who assisted escaped slaves—would now be forced to take an active part in an evil system—even if doing so violated their consciences.

As Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist put it, the Fugitive Slave Act “created a crisis of faith as the country became ‘the enslaver’s hunting ground.”’

The Act outraged a certain feisty Christian abolitionist named Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had witnessed the evils of slavery firsthand. Her response to the Act was to defy it; she continued hiding runaway slaves. And so did many others. One historical account notes that “escapes from Kentucky increased 53 percent after 1850.”

Today, we celebrate those who stood up to this unjust law. And we should honor, as well, those who defy the unjust laws of our time—such as, for example, medical practitioners who refuse to participate in abortions.

How do we know which laws are just and which are unjust? Martin Luther King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, notes that “there are two kinds of laws: just laws . . . and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” King went on, “but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

A just law, he said, “squares with the moral law of God. An unjust law . . . is out of harmony with the moral law.”

Amen to that.

Like the abolitionists of the 1800s, we may see our fellow Christians being jailed or put out of business for refusing to obey unjust laws—and we must do all we can to support them.

Because, as Chuck Colson once said on this program, when our first freedom—freedom of religion—is gone, “we will, in short order, lose all of our other freedoms as well.”



Religious Freedom and the Fugitive Slave Act: Defying Unjust Laws

Fighting for our religious liberty is not an option–and we should stand with those who are in this battle. There is certainly precedence in history for refusing to be coerced into obeying laws that are, as King would put it, “out of harmony with the moral law.” For a look at examples of this, check out the links in our Resources section.



The Road to Dawn
  • Jared A. Brock | Public Affairs Publisher | May 2018
Letter from Birmingham Jail
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. | 1963

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  • GenXConservative

    The part about fining law-enforcement agents who refused to help slave catchers is interesting. Playing devil’s advocate here: wouldn’t today’s Left say that by creating sanctuary cities and refusing to turn over illegal aliens to ICE, they too are resisting an unjust law? I think they are wrong, but I can easily envision them drawing a parallel between this historical incident and today’s events.

    • gladys1071

      you bring up a good point.

    • illegal immigration is illegal. immigration is a federal issue. it is not new

      • GenXConservative

        I agree. I’m just pointing out an analogy that the Left is likely to make.

        • i understand. but these sanctuary cities are not being asked to hunt down illegals, just turn them over after being caught already.

  • urbanvrwcmom

    Another example of Christians having to obey unjust laws is Pregnancy Resource Centers having to give abortion referrals.

  • gladys1071

    Yes i find it unjust to force a woman to remain pregnant against her will.

    I would find it difficult to follow the law and i would take a woman across state lines if need be to terminate a pregnancy.

    pregnancy is a form of gestational slavery, if such person does not want to stay pregnant.

    • RitaJoseph

      A small daughter or son growing and being nurtured in her/his mother’s womb is exercising no sinister ‘force’ against her mother. Pregnancy is a normal biological process—if protected from the intentionally lethal force exercised arbitrarily by the abortionist to terminate the child’s life, most pregnancies will run a natural (unforced) course.

      No ‘force’ or violence is required to be exercised against the mother or her child in order to continue the pregnancy. Not so with ending a pregnancy and the new life being nurtured in that pregnancy. Indeed. it is the lethal act of abortion perpetrated by the abortionist against her unborn child that introduces a very real and substantial ‘force’ to bring a most violent, most unnatural end to her child’s life in utero.

      Mothering your little daughter or son through nine months gestation is normal–nothing forced about mothering.

      So now let’s examine rationally the notion of “gestational slavery’ .

      Pro-abortion ideology has thrust on all mothers a strong sense of victimhood merely by the fact of being pregnant. The victimization of each pregnant mother, it is argued, may be relieved only by aborting her child ‘safely’ if she so chooses.

      Pro-abortion laws have conveniently ignored the existence of the real victims, the little daughters and sons targeted for ruthless extermination in abortion ‘clinics’.

      It should be noted that Roe v. Wade which ruled in effect that the fetus is a being of an inferior order and has no rights which the woman was bound to respect has a curious affinity with the Dred Scott Ruling that blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and … that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”.

      Just as Justice Taney insisted in the Dred Scott case that “a slave has no juridical personality”, Justice Blackmun also erred in denying the humanity of the unborn child and the child’s right to legal protection

      No human being has ownership and killing rights over another human being, no matter how small or dependent or troublesome or ‘unwanted’.

      “Choice” is never an excuse for deliberately submitting another human being to a lethal medical ‘procedure’.

      • gladys1071

        I never said it was a sinister force, but if a woman does not want to gestate, then it is a form of gestational slavery, i am not alone in my position about this issue.

        You cannot make a woman want to be pregnant, or welcome a pregnancy just because you think she should.

        • Scott

          You shouldn’t be allowed to kill your child just because you don’t want them.

          • gladys1071

            I am speaking strictly about PREGNANCY.

            What part of you cannot force a woman to an incubator if she does not want to be, do you not understand?

          • Timothy D Padgett

            What part of “killing babies is bad” eludes you?

          • gladys1071

            I know my position seems repugnant to you, but you cannot give the embryo and or fetus equal rights to the woman’s body. Her rights supercede, and they should.

            The Pro-life position gives the embryo and fetus MORE rights not equal rights.

          • Timothy D Padgett

            One person saying to another, “Don’t kill me!” is hardly a demand for superior rights.

            And, yes, the fetus is a person.

            How many people are involved? To borrow from our friends at Choice 4 2, how many arms does a woman have?

            The fetus has its own hands, feet, heart, neural system, fingerprints, genetic code, each of which is distinct from the mother’s. The little boy or girl is its own person. The baby is within the mother and dependent upon her, but neither of these things magically changes once the child emerges from her womb. Again, appealing to our Canadian friends,

            The baby’s dependence continues for years after birth, and it’s exhausting, terrifying, self-abasing and so on, but killing someone because their existence is uncomfortable or inconvenient is the quintessential claim to superior rights.

          • exactly right!

      • gladys1071

        it is not insane, it is what i believe and about half of the country agrees with me about this.

        Women do not lose their rights to their bodies just because they are pregnant.

        By the way, you might not be aware, but doctors will not sterilize women in their 20-30’s for the most part unless a woman has already had children and even so, it is hard to find a doctor that will.

        A hysterectomy is mostly done for medical reasons not for sterilizations purposes like cancer.

  • But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29

  • The Christian Woman

    I wish you would have taken this a step further and compared the abolitionists of slavery to today’s abolitionists of abortion. Both are a small group of Christians trying to rid our country of a terrible evil which dehumanizes a subset of humans and brings God’s judgment on our nation. Both have to fight against the apathy of other Christians. It’s time for Christians to obey Proverbs 24:11-12 among the many other calls in scripture to hold up justice for the weak and oppressed.

  • Sam Benito

    Speaking of defying unjust laws, there’s a gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma who, as we speak, is running on an abolitionist platform.

    Not the abolition of slavery, of course, but the abolition of abortion. Google Dan Fisher. His campaign is history in the making.

    Pastor Fisher is following historical precedent and applying defiance of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act (as Wisconsin did in the case of runaway slave Joshua Glover) to Roe v. Wade.

    A little background: In 1859 Wisconsin lawmakers wrote: “this assumption of jurisdiction by the federal judiciary, in the said case, and without process, is an act of undelegated power, and therefore without authority, void, and of no force.”

    In defying Washington, Wisconsin was simply following James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, who wrote that, “When the federal government makes unjust or immoral laws or court opinions … the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of evil.”

    As some here have already noted, that’s right where we are (or should be) with the abolition of abortion.

    The Supremacy Clause (Article 6, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution) nowhere says that federal courts or the U. S. Supreme Court has supremacy for declaring what is constitutional. Rather, what it states is that the U.S. Constitution itself has supremacy and that all government officials must take an oath to uphold the Constitution. They do not take an oath of subservience to the federal judiciary.

    The point is, the state of Oklahoma under Dan Fisher would be perfectly justified in defying Washington with respect to the “unjust and immoral laws and court opinions” upon which abortion was legalized and has flourished for the past 45 years.

    Many states already have laws on the books under “Homicide” applicable to the willful taking of preborn human life. Since Roe, of course, they’ve had to contort the language of those laws to exempt abortionists and mothers who voluntarily kill their own. But the strength of those deformed laws, and indeed of Roe itself, resides sheerly in the lack of will by the people to challenge them. That’s mind-boggling.

    Abolition has the potential to do quickly, state by state, what we’ve been unable to do by every other means attempted since 1973.

    No one can predict with certainty what will happen when states begin seriously challenging a clearly unjust and unconstitutional federal court ruling and drawing public attention to the outrageousness of the laws it spawned. The only thing certain is that it is the right thing to do.

    This is a race to watch.

    [Mike Huckabee interviewed with Fox about this in April ]

  • Timothy D Padgett

    As we have discussed before, I delete posts if I don’t think they’re constructive for two basic reasons.

    1) If someone’s comment has something objectionable in it, whether its offensive (which I’ve never known you to do) or antagonistic (for which some of your recent posts have been cut).

    2) If the conversation is going in circles. That was the case with the most recent round.