[By Alexander Campbell, with emphasis added in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr.]
IN our last we wrote on the evangelical law relative to private offences. We are now to call the attention of our readers to public offences. And before opening the law and the testimony on the treatment of such offences, we will occupy the present number in treating of these offences in general.
Whatever action, or course of conduct, contrary either to the letter or spirit of either the moral or religious injunctions or restrictions delivered by the Saviour or his Apostles, is an offence against the gospel order and the author of it; and in proportion as such offences are known, either to the society or the world at large, are they more or less public; and, as such, to be examined, judged, and reprobated, according to the law of the Great King. After speaking in terms so general, it becomes expedient to descend to particulars. And here let it be noted that too little attention is paid to some infractions of the evangelical institution, and an extravagant emphasis laid upon others, as if they exclusively merited the attention of Christian communities, and were the only actions to be inquired into according to scriptural authority. Such reasoners ought to be sent to the Apostle James to learn logic. He teaches that he that violates any one commandment, sins against the authority and will of the lawgiver, as well as he that transgresses all the laws of the empire. For he that said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not steal.” Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you steal, you are a transgressor. So reasons James the Apostle. Now according to this logic, let us attend to some offences or public trespasses very commonly not submitted to discipline in this latitudinarian age. And in the first place, let us attend to detraction, slander, or evil speaking. I do not mean to confine my remarks to that species of slander of which civil laws take cognizance, nor to those gross detractions which the different codes of ecclesiastical law take notice of; but to what, in the judgment of the New Testament, is as really and as truly slander, detraction, and evil speaking, as those instances punished by law.
Every insinuation, innuendo, hint, allusion, or comparison, which is calculated or intended to diminish aught from the reputation or good name of any person; brother, or alien, is, in the discriminating morality and purity of the New Testament, accounted slander, detraction, or evil speaking. And here we may observe, that the terms evil speaking are generic, and include every word and sentence, the meaning or design of which is calculated to do injury to the reputation of others. Slander is a species of evil speaking, and imports false and foul imputations, or falsely ascribes to others reproachful actions incompatible with good character. Detraction simply derogates and defames, either by denying the merits of another, or subtracting from them. In this age and country evil speaking is as fashionable as lasciviousness was in Corinth. Our political papers at this time are rather vehicles of slander, than heralds of intelligence: and these feed and pamper a taste for slander and detraction, which is more likely to be the first trait of a national character, so soon as we can form one, than any other we can think of. I could wish that the same character was not likely to be merited by some of our religious prints, whose avowed object is to subserve the spread of evangelical principles and practices through out the land. Where slander and detraction are the order of the day in the public walks of life, it is difficult to keep this great evil out of the church and from the fireside of christian circles.
Political and religious sects and parties, and the necessary rival interests to which they give rise, are the true causes of this awful deterioration of morals, both in church and state. Now if slander and detraction are as real infractions of the law of the great King as murder and theft, (and we must think they are,) it is difficult to decide whether any nation or any people are more rapidly degenerating than the good citizens of the American Republics. It is the more difficult to resist this contagion because of its almost universal prevalence, and few appear conscious either of the enormity of the evil, or of what constitutes it. Even “ministers of religion,” as they are fashionably called, seem not to think that more than the tithe of their public sermons are religious slander or detraction. Nor is this sin confined to one sect either in church or state. Society is working itself into such a state as to make aspersions, defamations, and slander necessary to political health. And what is still worse, the “religious presses,” controlled by good and religious men, are giving countenance and encouragement to this pernicious custom. Insomuch that one-sided representations, innuendoes, and detractions are supposed to be expedient for the maintenance of the popular plans and benevolent undertakings of the good men of the earth.
Men have their political and ecclesiastical idols; and these they worship not only with incessant adulations, but they offer them whole burnt offerings of the fame of their rivals. They seem to think no sacrifice is so acceptable to the idol of their party, as the good name of his competitor. The morning and the evening sacrifices of the Jews were not more regularly attended on in the tabernacles of Israel, than are the hecatombs of defamation and scandal in the temples of rival interests. No public nor private virtue can shield its possessor from the shafts of envy, and the calumnies of intrigue, should he be so unfortunate as to be nominated for any distinction amongst his peers. That moment his promotion is named, every restraint laid upon the tongue and the pen is withdrawn; and he stands a naked target upon a hill, to be pierced with the arrows of slander from every point in his horizon. He stands as a criminal upon a pillory, unprotected by law, unguarded by the sanctions of religion and morality. No man feels himself a sinner when he robs him of his good name, and as remorseless as the licensed hangman, he devotes him to destruction. So appears the state of things in the present crisis; yet but few seem to think that the evil is of much magnitude, or consider it in any other light than a tax which must be paid into the revenue of the Temple of Fame. And yet methinks the life and the public services of a Washington or a Moses, protracted to the age of a Methuselah, could not atone for the guilt contracted in the present campaign for a four years magistracy in these United States.
But whither am I straying from the subject before me! I only intended to observe, that so popular is the evil of which we complain, that it has become less offensive to our feelings, and we have become less conscious of its malignity; so that in religious, as well as in political society, it has become quite a matter of course, or a subject of easy endurance, if not of perfect forbearance. And even Christians seem to feel little (if any) compunction when they are whispering, backbiting, evil surmising, and suspicioning one against another. Judgments well informed and tender consciences recoil at the very thought of derogating from the good name of any one whom the law of love embraces as a fellow-christian. Christianity puts us upon quite a different course; it teaches us to esteem another better than ourselves; it extols that love which hides a multitude of sins, and ranks all detractions, slanders, and envy the root of this accursed fruit, amongst the works of the flesh, and associates the actors with Satan the accuser, and his kindred spirits bound over to the day of righteous retribution. Every thing incompatible with the most cordial affection, is incompatible with the relation subsisting in the church of Christ; the nearest and the dearest, as well as the most permanent relation known on earth. The second birth introduces all into one family, one brotherhood, one inheritance, one eternal relation, which neither time, nor distance, nor death itself can destroy. In this relation, the highest pleasure is to see all honorable, irreproachable, and of exalted purity. It prompts us to draw the veil of forgetfulness over the defects, and to hide the faults we see in our brethren. It constrains the whole brotherhood to take cognizance of the person who, by a hint, innuendo, or allusion, defames any one they have confided in, and honored as a christian brother. It constitutes the good name of each public property and can view in no other light than in that of a thief or a robber, the person who steals away a jot or tittle of the good character of any one of the sacred fraternity. Whenever this ceases to be the character of any religious society, they have fallen from their first love, and have lost the highest ornament which adorns Christian character. And here let us pause for the present.