Religious Freedom and Civil Disobedience

religious freedom and civil disobedience

The events of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. are a vivid illustration of the reality of civil disobedience. There are consequences for failing to abide by the law. Since the creation of the nation state, power is the currency of the political economy. When exercised properly, it makes things run. If a person violates the state’s rules, he or she will lose freedom, property, life – or all three.  An individual may perceive, or in fact suffer, unjust state treatment, but one person is typically no match against state power. 

That is why those who feel they have been mistreated by the state will often congregate together to show, by mere numbers, that they can challenge the state. In a free and democratic society, citizens have the right to express opposition, and group resistance will generally be tolerated up to a point. But if people move toward violence, that will likely be met with state aggression in return. Every state jealously guards its monopoly over violence and will suppress any attempt to threaten or remove its authority. And, more often than not, the state will prevail. When nation states fall or change course because of civil disobedience, it is a momentous and historic development because it is so rare.

To engage in civil disobedience is to challenge the state use (or abuse) of power. Such disobedience is often condemned as foolhardy, at least in the short-term – yet it can also be the catalyst for societal change. In particular, Christianity has experienced both the costs and the rewards of obeying a higher authority than the state. Throughout history, many Christians have been willing to confront the state to defend or advance what they perceived as a righteous cause. Their actions may offer us some guidance as to how we may address the overreach of state power today. Consider slavery.

John Brown and William Wilberforce were both convicted by their religious beliefs not to remain silent on the institution of slavery. For both, it was an abomination of everything they understood to be right.  However, they each approached their Christian responsibility very differently.

John Brown: Violent Revolt

John Brown, the American abolitionist, preached and wrote extensively against slavery. He saw himself as especially called of God to stand up against this detestable institution. Disenchanted with the pacifist approach of many abolitionists, he muttered “These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!” (Beard, 50). He devised a plan to be the catalyst for a slave revolt in the Southern United States. In October 1859 he and his supporters raided the weapons depot in Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia), to supply the planned slave uprising.  Despite sending word out to the slaves in the area plantations, few slaves were willing to take up the cause.  Within days his group was met with local militia and a U.S. Marines contingent. After he refused to surrender, a shootout ensued. 

Harper’s Ferry, 1859 engraving

Brown’s followers either fled (five), died (ten, including two of his sons), or were captured (seven). He was taken into custody and tried for several crimes including treason. On being found guilty, on the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he was forced to sit on his own coffin while driven to the gallows. Before his death he had weeks to write hundreds of letters, many of which were published in the Northern newspapers, which increased his notoriety. Both national and international attention to his trial and his letters increased support for the anti-slavery cause in the north and his vilification in the south.  From jail he wrote to his wife that his “blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before” (2). John Brown’s death inspired the music to the song “John Brown’s Body”, which became the melody to which Julia Ward Howe added her words to give us the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  

William Wilberforce: Pacifist Politician

William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist, was a Member of Parliament who became an evangelical Christian. Early in his political career he became friends with abolitionists and was persuaded to take up the cause as his own. Unlike Brown, Wilberforce took a pacifist stance. His approach was to petition Parliament for a review of the slave trade with the ultimate objective of ending not only the slave trade but the practice of slavery itself. 

William Wilberforce, portrait by John Rising c. 1790

Wilberforce carried on a close relationship with the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade as they raised public awareness and provided him with the necessary research to present the case before Parliament. His first major Parliamentary speech on slavery took place in the House of Commons on May 12, 1789. It was three and a half hours long and initiated “[o]ne of the great parliamentary struggles of British history” (Hague, 175). 

The speech stands out “as one of the true masterpieces of parliamentary oratory,” noted his biographer William Hague (178). After years of research and personal debate on the issue, Wilberforce presented a powerful, reasoned argument, not based on his Christian morals but on his analysis of the facts. Removing the slave trade would bring beneficial consequences to the Empire (178). 

Wilberforce insisted that “we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others” (178). He argued that if the Liverpool merchants could see the wretched state of the slaves being transported from Africa “surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness” that as “men of humanity … there is no one among them whose heart would bear it” (179). Surely providence would not make one part of the world “depend for its existence on the depopulation and devastation of another” (181).

Once he had presented all the evidence of the evils of the slave trade, Wilberforce warned that the House of Commons “must decide, and must justify to the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the ground and principles of their decision” (183). 

Alas, Wilberforce’s initial attempt did not win the day. To all concerned, his most important speech was a complete failure at the time. After many years of delay, Wilberforce’s proposed bill failed by a vote of 163–88 (198). Wilberforce remained undaunted: “Never, never, will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country” (198).

Through various strategic moves over the ensuing years, Wilberforce was relentless in his efforts to end slavery. The election of 1806 saw more abolitionists elected to the House of Commons. On February 23, 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed by the House of Commons (after already going through the House of Lords) by a vote of 283 to 16 and on March 25, 1807 it received royal assent. However, there was still work to be done: slavery, as an institution, still needed to be abolished. For the rest of his career, Wilberforce continued to advocate for its end. Finally, in July 1833, only a day before his death, he was informed that the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery was to be passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. One month after his death it became law that effective in August 1834, slavery in the British Empire would be abolished. It was.

Learning from History

Two people, John Brown and William Wilberforce, both committed Christians, both committed abolitionists, but each with their own view as to how the matter ought to be dealt with. Can we say that one was more right than the other? 

On the one hand, Brown’s method was violent and led to a civil war that resulted in the loss of at least 640, 000 lives. Brown’s campaign ended slavery in relatively short order. On the other hand, Wilberforce was not an advocate of violence, and it took much longer to obtain the desired result. Some might say Wilberforce’s method was violent in that the slave trade and the institution of slavery was itself violent to the 800,000 slaves in the British Empire. Yet, Wilberforce ended slavery 28 years before the US Emancipation Proclamation.

How is all this relevant today?

We are experiencing a global pandemic and governments around the world are implementing lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus. Among other restrictions, many churches have been closed or severely limited by government regulations. This has led to church membership being torn apart, struggling with whether to obey the regulations or to exercise civil disobedience in opposition to measures which are viewed as a violation of liberty or faith. As with issues in the past, we must now make up our minds as to how we are going to address this situation.

Hence the relevance of looking at how Christians dealt with public policy controversies in the past.  Of course, slavery is a vastly different issue than public lockdowns during a pandemic. But, I would argue, the principles remain the same. While no one is advocating violence, we can still decide to take a more aggressive stance or a more measured approach. The choice is up to us. But, whatever we choose, we must acknowledge the consequences of civil disobedience. It is not something to take lightly.

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who joined in a plot to kill Hitler, may give us a theological perspective on civil disobedience. Bonhoeffer observed that the government’s “demand for obedience is unconditional, qualitatively total, extending to conscience and bodily life.” We, as Christians, have a duty to obey “up to the point where the government forces” us “into direct violation of the divine commandment.” Explained Bonhoeffer, “if government oversteps its task at some point – e.g., by making itself lord over the faith of the church-community – then at this point it is indeed to be disobeyed for the sake of conscience and for the sake of the Lord” (516–17).

Photo Credit: Patrick Fore

Christians then have to decide when or where that specific point of civil disobedience is reached. Right now we are faced with limits on our ability to meet together. We must ask, “If we follow government regulations, are we violating a divine commandment?” Some suggest we are. In Hebrews 10:23–25 we read: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV). In addition, we are called to follow certain practices that require physical participation – such as Christ’s command to take communion (Luke 22:19) or to baptize new believers (Matt. 28:19). Others take the view that the verses in Hebrews represent an aspirational direction: it is good to gather if we can, but certainly in a pandemic we cannot say we should meet and put others at risk, especially since we may meet virtually over the internet.

Recommendations for the Present Pandemic Controversy

It is my suggestion that when, as a local church family, we seek the Lord’s wisdom as to what to do with respect to government regulations, we may want to keep the following in mind:

First, when confronted with a public policy issue, we must take stock of the context and determine what is the best way forward based on our identity as Christians. 

Second, as Christians, we can learn from the past to help us better face and address societal controversies. From history we may be able to apply certain principles or strategies to the current situation. 

Third, we need to recognise that our identity is in Christ first and foremost. 

Fourth, who we are defines what we do. Christians have an obligation to live as Christ lived. He is our example and our guide in confronting the struggles of how we ought to live. Jesus made it clear that his kingdom is not of this world but is a spiritual kingdom. Even the disciples were confused about the nature of His kingdom when Jesus was taken into custody. So much so, that Peter wielded the sword. Christ admonished him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52, NKJV). He could have commanded legions of angels to defend him if necessary. But, that was not what He was about. “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18:36, NKJV).

Finally, as we face continued debate and division, we should not fail to treat each other with respect, whatever decision we – or others – reach. We must also be mindful that there will be consequences for our choices.

Works Cited

Beard, Charles and Mary. “The Approach of the Irrepressible Conflict,” in Slavery as a Cause of the Civil War, edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1949).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol 16 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

Brown, John. “Brown’s letter to his wife.” United States Police Gazette (December 10, 1859). Online:

Hague, William. William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (London: Harcourt, 2007).

Thoughts on Religious Freedom and Civil Disobedience

  1. Harold Jantz

    Thanks for the post, Barry. I think you hit many of the important themes. As I’ve watched American events and specifically been reading statements by various Christian commentators, the biggest concern that has stood out for me has been implicit notion that the state is needed to provide security for the church. Jesus told us that he will guarantee the church’s future, we want to have the state do it for us. There is nothing wrong–indeed, much good–in arguing issues in public forums and before government bodies on behalf of the church and good of all of society. But we must always do it with the knowledge that even when laws support positions that the church cannot support, we don’t need to be dismayed, we have Christ’s support and we can still support government as a necessary institution within a broken, sinning world. Christians around the world have to adapt to every kind of democratic and undemocratic, supportive or oppressive form of government. They can and should remain the same kind of citizenry everywhere.

    1. ccccBarry W. Bussey Post author

      I very much appreciate your words of wisdom. Our Christian identity is that which guides us through the thickets of our age. I agree with you that we need to remain the same people no matter the government. Blessings.

  2. S. Gallant

    From where I stand, the restrictions put in place with regard to in-person worship are not infringing upon our religious freedom. They are not demanding a change in our beliefs. They are asking us to stop gathering in person in large numbers for a little while for the sake of each other. It should be seen as loving our neighbour. Do we really want to be responsible for unwittingly spreading a horrible disease to one of our elderly brothers or sisters? There is a high possibility that it may end up in their death. Unfortunately, there are cases where it hits very hard for even the young who contract the disease. Even if there are no life ending cases, community spread is a huge factor. Just look at the numbers in some of our provinces.

    Yes, Jesus gave us the perfect example. We are to gather together to worship our Lord in Christian fellowship every Sabbath. In Jesus’ time there were no technological advances that would allow church members to meet in real time, see each other, hear each other and be able to discuss together almost exactly the same as when were are physically together. I acknowledge that in some of the larger churches it might not be as easy for everyone to gather digitally as it is in some of the smaller churches, but the larger congregations can break off into smaller groups.

    I do not claim to be an expert, but it is my humble opinion that the Lord would not want us to show any form of civil disobedience in this scenario. When you read news articles or see news reports of people gathering in large groups for any reason, the vast majority of people look at the those gathering in large groups as selfish and obstinate. Do we really want to send out that kind of message as SDA Christians? I certainly don’t. We could do inestimable damage to the Christian name by ignoring these government regulations put in place specifically to keep us safe.

    Yes, of course, I would rather meet with my church family face to face each Sabbath, but I also want to be able to meet with them for years to come. Each and every one of them! We need to practice patience. These pandemic restrictions will pass. The better we stick to the regulations, the sooner it will pass.

    I don’t believe the Lord will be disappointed in us for worshiping together separately. Nor do I believe we are not following His will by doing so. He wants us to love each other, take care of each other and be a shining example to our communities.

    He does not want His people to be seen as fanatical rebels who don’t care for the greater good of the community, who just want to do what we want to do regardless of the outcome. That is what it would look like to someone on the outside looking in.

    Yes, of course, the Lord can protect us! There is no doubt in my mind! But there is also presumption. It brings to mind the modern parable of the man stuck on his roof in a flash flood. He prays for God to save him. A man in a canoe paddles by and offers him a place in the canoe. He refuses, saying the Lord will save me. Next, a woman in a speed boat comes by and the same response is given. The water is rising and swirling around the man and he is very afraid. Finally, a helicopter comes and lowers a line, but again, the man responds, thank you, but God will save me. Finally the waters overtake the man and he is swept away. He stands before the Lord and asked why he was not saved. The Lord says, I sent you a canoe, a speedboat and a helicopter! What else were you expecting?!

    These rules and regulations are the canoe from God picking us up and guiding us through this pandemic that the devil has thrust upon earth’s inhabitants. He provides us medical intervention when we are sick, brilliant scientific minds to come up with vaccines that save millions of lives, and He is providing people in authority with regulations to keep the masses safe from the spread of Covid 19.

    Religious freedom is hugely important. Of that we can certainly agree. With that being said, we may want to sit back for a moment and consider if this particular scenario may be the devil’s way of using our fight for religious freedoms against us. Is he using this pandemic to cause us to throw our hands in the air and cry that we are being oppressed? Is he hoping to rise us up to civil disobedience to the detriment of our very Christian identity and our witness to those in our community?

    I pray for the leaders of our faith community, that they will be given the wisdom to see clearly the path our Lord wants us to take in this matter.

    I apologize for the length of this post! 😊 God bless you as you continue to serve Him in this very important capacity.

    1. ccccBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Thanks Sylvia for such a thoughtful contribution to this discussion. I will join you in your prayer “for the leaders of our faith community, that they will be given the wisdom to see clearly the path our Lord wants us to take in this matter.” Take care.

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