Law of Progress
May 9, 1848 — American Anti-Slavery Society Anniversary Meeting, New York City
There is not a more interesting object for the contemplation of the philosopher and the Christian — the lover of man, and the lover of God, than the law of progress — the advancement from knowledge to knowledge, from obedience to obedience. The contemplation of it is beautiful, the investigation of it is exceedingly interesting, as manifested in the history of the world.
We find in the earliest records, the command to advance — “to get thee from thy kindred, from thy father’s house, and to come into the land which I shall show thee.” And, again: “ye have encompassed this mountain long enough; speak to my people, that they go forward.” In the declaration of the Prophets of old, it was men of clean hands who were to grow stronger and stronger; it was the righteous who held on his way: and in later times find the recommendation of the Apostles to their brethren was, “to go on unto perfection not laying again the foundation for repentance from dead works.”
And, indeed, was not the teaching of Jesus particularly directed to lead the people onward, — “ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, thou shalt do thus or so?” then assailed those orders and institutions which they regarded as sacred; speaking directly in opposition to their alleged Heaven ordained law. In contradiction to this law of retaliation, he taught them to love their enemies and to do good to all, embracing all mankind in the love which he so beautifully inculcated, and so happily exemplified.
In coming down to later times, this law of progress is most emphatically marked in our day, in the great reformatory movements which have agitated the truth-loving and sincere hearted, engaged in the work of blessing man.
This may not be a fitting occasion to dwell much upon this topic; but there are those present who can look back to the early days of the great peace reformation. The first efforts were to arrest the progress of offensive war; while they claimed to themselves, in extreme cases, the right of resort to self-defence.
But a reformer now, the Jesus of the present age, on the Mount Zion of Peace, says: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shall war only in self-defence, but I say unto you, take not up the sword at all.” The language is not now in only prophetic vision, as of old; it does not, as the current theology has attempted, explain the prophecies of peace on earth, to refer to some future, far distant millenium, but its language now is “sheath the sword,” “render good for evil”; little children are taught to return a “kiss for a blow.”
Do we not see the progress that these principles have made? Was there ever a period in history when nations were so prolific of events as at the present moment, giving promise of being consummated by the ultimate realization of the higher principles of “peace on earth, and good will to man,” calling into action the high moral sentiments of the people and tending to arrest the sword of the destroyer?
Truly, this law of progress is worthy of our admiration. Look at it in the temperance reformation: those interested in that cause, can remember how it was said by them of old time: “thou shalt drink wine moderately, and abstain from the unnecessary use of intoxicating liquors.”
What is the language now of the Saviour on the Mount Zion of Temperance? “I say unto you, drink not wine at all — practice ‘total abstinence’ from all intoxicating liquors.”
And how has it been (let me touch upon it ever so lightly) with the subject of priestcraft? It was said by them of old time, “down with your hierarchies.” The Protestant reformers said, “away with your popery, away with priests of that particular church, and let us have in lieu thereof, the Protestant and dissenting priesthood.
What now is the 1anguage of the reformer from among those who begin to have God for their high priest — himself the teacher of his people? “Thou shalt judge for thine own self what is right, and God alone is, and shall be thy teacher.”
Look at your pulpits; they are widening; they are not the little, high, narrow, isolated boxes they were wont to be in olden time; there is room for several, and occasionally a woman is found to occupy a place there. Is not this then an evidence of progress even in the greatest and highest of Christian principles?
How is it in the Anti-Slavery cause? It is now more than ten years since it was my privilege — and a great one I esteemed it — to attend an anniversary of this kind in this city. I remember the tone of the speeches, how that only the first principles of Anti-Slavery were brought into view. And, indeed, looking back to a period shortly before this, when a little handful gathered together in the city of Philadelphia [illegible] [to] declare, not merely self-evident truths — to reiterate the simplest truisms that were ever uttered.
Read the declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1838, and see what it was found necessary then to declare in Convention. The people were asleep on the subject with some few exceptions. There had been solitary individuals, such as Lundy, and Elias Hicks, and the Benezetts, the Clarksons, and the Wilberforces. But the labours in England for twenty years were simply to arrest the progress of the Slave-Trade; and it was the work of a woman to declare, that “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition, was no less the duty of the master, than the right of the slave.
In this Convention in Philadelphia, the great principles of human freedom were uttered that every man had a right to his own body, and that no man had a right to enslave or imbrute his brother, or to hold him for a moment as his property–to put a fellow-being on the auction-block, and sell him to the highest bidder, making the most cruel separations in families. At that time these things were scarcely known; the people had scarcely considered them. It was now made known to very many in the Northern States, that there were then more than two million held in this abject bondage, who were claimed as property, — that men had this irresponsible control, this legal right to their persons. This Convention resolved what it should do: first — efficiently to organize itself, and then to seek to form other Anti-Slavery Societies throughout the country. They were to go forth and endeavour to enlist the pulpit and press in behalf of the suffering and the dumb. The work it had to do was a Herculean task; it was, to meet the priests of the Church, and to endeavour, by bringing Bible texts, to oppose them to others, in order to prove that man had no right to hold his fellow-being as a slave.
What has resulted from their labours? Look at the law of progress in this particular: read this appeal of the women of Scotland to the women of America: see what they there say with regard to going to the Bible to claim authority for holding human beings in bondage. It is not sufficient now to quote the example of the ancients, on which modern slaveholders claim the rights to oppress their fellow-beings, and that to an extent greatly transcending slaveholding in ancient times.
But time is no longer occupied by Abolitionists in meeting the ministers in this way. The labours of these few pioneers have been sufficient to awake the nation to the consideration of this subject, and there is a response in the hearts of those who have not been blinded by their sectarian prejudices, by the tradition they have received, or by the god of this world which blinds the eyes of them that believe not. These have heard the truth, and having received it, gladly have come forward; and in their inmost heart there is a response to the truth as it was once uttered by a speaker of the House of Assembly in Barbadoes: that “every man knows in his heart that slaveholding is wrong.”
It was needed that some should first come forth thus armed and give their views to the people; and may not the pioneer in this cause of immediate abolition, who trod the winepress alone in the beginning of this work, say in the language of the Prophet, “with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I have become two bands.”
Look around you over the country, and see whether he spoke in vain, when he declared that he would be heard. Observe the progress in the labours of this reform, that both the pulpit and the press are enlisted to some extent in behalf of the suffering and the dumb. Also, as has been already remarked in the legislative halls of the land, the National Assembly is engaged with it. Scarcely a Legislature in the several States but discovers at every move on the great question of American Slavery, something cheering to the Abolitionist.
Even though the slaves are increasing in numbers, even though their territory is being enlarged at every circle, yet, when we look abroad and see what is now being done in other lands, when we see human freedom engaging the attention of the nations of the earth, we may take courage; and while we perceive how it is assailed in our own land, still we know how impossible it will be to separate it from the question of the freedom of the slave, in that it is inseparably connected with it in France, and is beginning to be so in other countries.
Have we not evidence of progress even in our own country on this subject? A large public meeting was called the other day to hail the events of France. Mark the difference in this from former meetings. Why it was scarcely ten years since Pennsylvania Hall was burned by a mob, because the liberty of the coloured man was advocated by white and coloured people intermingled.
What are now the facts with regard to this large meeting in the great public square in the same city? Not only were the movements in regard to Freedom in the French colonies hailed by the white people present, but the coloured people also came forward and were helped onward; they had their stand also: and was it confined to themselves alone? No, it was an amalgamation meeting! Was it by privilege, as women sometimes have the privilege to hold a kind of play meeting? No, the white people of that large gathering left their own speakers, to go among the coloured crowd, and hear their speaker.
Look also at the condition of the coloured people in respect to the ridicule which was once heaped upon them. Who are they now who ridicule us, because coloured people are mingled in this meeting? It is those whose ridicule is the scorn of the intelligent and wise of the nation. Now we find the coloured people coming forth in intelligence, in moral worth, with increasing self-respect, and are respected by their white brothers; we see them stand side by side with those who have thus cruelly treated, oppressed, and trodden them down.
These, then, are the evidences of progress. Let the Abolitionist, who should be as the Jesus of the present age on the Mount Zion of Freedom, continue to say: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shalt treat thy slaves kindly, thou shalt prepare them for freedom at a future day; but I say unto you hold no slaves at all, proclaim liberty now throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” Let this be the loud sounding jubilee that shall be uttered.
Let us no longer be blinded by the dim theology that only in the far seeing vision discovers a millenium, when violence shall no more be heard in the land — wasting nor destruction in her borders; but let us behold it now, nigh at the door — lending faith and confidence to our hopes, assuring us that even we ourselves shall be instrumental in proclaiming liberty to the captive. But let there be increasing activity on the part [of] Abolitionists; they must not cease their labours and fold their hands, thinking their work done, because they have effected so much: they must not be satisfied with coming to these anniversary meetings, they must continue to work at home.
It is the righteous that holds on his way, it is those who are faithful to the light that obtain more light; “he that is faithful in a little, shall be made ruler over more.” “But if the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness.” Have we not some apostates in the cause, who give evidence of the truth of this? Are there not some of whom it may be said, “it were better they had never known the way of righteousness, than that they should have turned from the commandments delivered unto them?”
Let us go on, then, and make advancement by our faithfulness. When the pulpit cannot be enlisted, nor the Church aroused, it is the duty of Abolitionists to have no longer any fellowship with those unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them, by separating from them, and touching not the unclean thing. Here is the advanced step the Abolitionists have made; in the beginning of their work many of them were enlisted, as some of them still are, with the political movements of the land — the party politics of the nation.
They hoped by thus uniting with these powers, to effect their work; but they have discovered that the situation of the country, the legal enactments, the statutes that the slaveholders have made, have been altogether tending to rivet the chains of the oppressed. They have, therefore, found it their duty to declare in the progress they have been called upon to make, that they must obey the command; get thee from thy father’s house, and come into a land that I shall show thee.” They have found it their duty to come out against the Constitution and Government of the country, .as it is at present construed.
I know little, however, how to treat this part of the subject. I am glad, however, of the progress evident in this.
Glad also, of the Evidence of advancement among Abolitionists as to the commercial and manufacturing relations of the country; it being made known that these are carried out by the gain of oppression, [with] the North, equally with the South, in “building its house by unrighteousness, and its churches by wrong, using its neighbour’s service without wages, and giving him not for his work.”
It is beginning to be seen that they must despise the gain of oppression, and deny themselves the blood-bought sweets and the blood-stained cotton that has come through this corrupt channel. They feel that they are called upon not to be partakers of other men’s sins, and not to participate in this matter, except so far as in the general admixture of things, they are necessarily involved, while they live in the country. The fact that they are also implicated in other oppressive systems — by the use of the products of human labour, ought not to discourage them.
The Abolitionists have also developed the oppression existing in other lands. They have disclosed the sufferings of those engaged in the various laborious employments in England, Scotland, Ireland, and other portions of Europe. The axe was first laid at the root of the corrupt tree of human slavery, and through this their eyes have been anointed more clearly to behold what are the universal rights of man.
None are more ready to assist the oppressed labourer to obtain his rights than they. Let them be faithful to their trust, so shall their work be blest, not only to the poor slave, but to all those who are in way wronged and injured. If they are not true to their trust, if they are not united to go on in our work, but suffer themselves to slumber at their posts, what will be the result? Will there not then be reason to fear the language of the martyr, Charles Marriott, will be fulfilled: “that America, Republican America, will be the last stronghold of slavery in the civilized world.”
Source: Liberator, 20 May, 1864.
Also: National Anti-Slavery Standard, May 18, 1848.
Also: Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons, ed. Dana Greene, (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press), 1980), p. 71-79.