Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ichabod Spencer's Blight

The best of men are men at best. One example of this sad truth is Pastor Ichabod Spencer, whose stories I featured in a blog post last week.

Ichabod Spencer was a wonderful and caring shepherd who sought lost people with a carefulness seldom seen today. And yet, he had a blight. Not a blind spot. Not a blemish. This was a blight.

For when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, Ichabod Spencer preached, and later published as a booklet, a sermon denouncing those who resisted this law. Building his case solely on Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1, he adamantly insisted that obedience to the rule of the law of the land, including the Fugitive Slave Law, was every Christian's duty.

The Fugitive Slave Law severely penalized anyone caught helping an escaped slave. It was part of the Compromise of 1850 that Congress passed in a Neville Chamberlain-style attempt to preserve peace at the expense of righteousness. The Fugitive Slave Law actually backfired and greatly contributed to the outbreak of Civil War, because it forced every Northerner to decide between helping escaped slaves and breaking the law, or obeying the law and allowing escaped slaves to be captured and returned to the South.

And Pastor Spencer came down on the wrong side of this, the most serious social issue of his day. His sermon never once mentions Deuteronomy 23:15, which clearly commands, "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you". This is unconscionable. He was not alone. Sounding Forth the Trumpet cites a statistic from a secular abolitionist of the day who said that less than 1% of the North's 30,000 clergymen stood up against the Fugitive Slave Law. Even Abraham Lincoln, when running for president, agreed with Stephen Douglas that the Fugitive Slave Law should be enforced.

Rather than causing us to become angry, this ought to frighten us into humility and self-examination. These men were sincerely standing up for the truth as they saw it. Pastor Spencer did a great deal of good in his life. He was a better pastor than many pastors today. And yet, he failed on this major issue. Instead of examining his culture through the grid of Scripture, he used the Bible to justify his cultural presuppositions about slavery.

The frightening thing is that it is probable that each of us has imbibed some serious error from our own culture today. Future generations will look back upon us, as we look back upon the Spencers of the 1850s, and wonder, "How could they ever have justified this?" This in turn will cause them to doubt the veracity of even the things that we were right about.

What are some specific issues in your culture today where you think Christians have "missed the mark"?

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