The town that started the Civil War

By Gualberto Garcia Jones, Esq. — In the 1850s, Christians in Oberlin, Ohio, were motivated by the fear of God’s just judgment to defy the federal government and refuse to cooperate with the unjust Fugitive Slave Act. Their courageous actions couldn’t be more timely for pro-life Christians, as we witness the crumbling of our country’s moral foundation after multiple decades of judicially-mandated relativism.

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It was a snowy evening in Cleveland, Ohio, and I was attending a reception for pro-life speakers participating in Cleveland Right to Life’s annual Bringing America Back to Life convention.  As chance would have it, I gravitated to a group of familiar attorneys and pro-life activists who were chatting while sharing some appetizers and drinks. During the ensuing conversation, Tom Brejcha, a pillar of the pro-life legal world, mentioned that he was enthralled by a book he was reading about the town of Oberlin, Ohio, and its role in defying the federal government and the institution of slavery by appealing to Higher Law.

Growing up in the Midwest, I knew Oberlin College for its radical Women’s Studies program, not its history as a seminary established to exalt the Law of God. I quickly jotted down the title of the book, The Town That Started the Civil War, and made a point to purchase it online as soon as I returned home.

A book for the times

Although the book was published in 1990, the topic couldn’t be more timely for pro-life Christians, as we witness the crumbling of our country’s Christian heritage after 60 years of judicially mandated moral relativism.

The author, Nat Brandt, assembles a lively cast of historical characters who tell the dramatic story of how the small religious community of Oberlin, motivated by the fear of God’s just judgment, actively defied the federal government. This tiny band of Christians rescued a captured slave from the grip of government deputies and subsequently stood trial for refusing to cooperate with the unjust Fugitive Slave Act.

Personhood Alliance - Sanctuary City, Oberlin Ohio

The Oberlin rescuers outside the Cuyahoga County jail, 1859

From a historical perspective, the book details the national and local context that preceded the Oberlin rescue and eventually, the American Civil War. Its focus spans the time from the founding of Oberlin College in 1833 to the aftermath of the trial of the 37 rescuers in 1859.

The most interesting aspect of this story is the clear connection between the rescuers’ religious foundation and fervor and their logical application of the moral principles of Higher Law in defying the unjust Fugitive Slave Act.

An especially fascinating chapter covers the founding of Oberlin College by John Shipherd, a Presbyterian minister from New York. Shipherd dreamed of establishing a community on the banks of the Mississippi that would serve as a model for the “rough and tumble villages springing up, and at the same time, train young adults to spread the gospel throughout the area.”

A powerful reminder

The relevance of this book for modern Christian activists cannot be overstated. We live in a time when it is uncouth to treat religion (especially Judeo-Christian beliefs) as anything other than “one’s private, deeply held convictions.” Today, advocates for a society governed by moral laws are quickly accused of being responsible for The Inquisition and The Crusades, as well as a litany of imaginary and exaggerated evils brought about by religious people in the past. Christians today are expected to recuse themselves from civil society. Yet, this book serves as a powerful rebuttal to that diluted version of religion. It shows that without a people willing to uphold the absolute moral truths that transcend man-made laws, there is often no way to correct the greatest societal evils.

As the author himself points out in the preface:

“This is a story about courage; about physical courage and moral courage…It is also a story with contemporary parallels. The clash between the law of the land and an individual’s conscience, between what government decrees and what those in Oberlin believed to be ‘Higher Law,’ the Law of God, continues into our own time.”

The book offers an inspirational example of how Christians, armed with the courage that only our all-powerful God can grant, were able to establish a community that successfully stood up to a corrupted federal government, and in doing so, fulfilled their mission of being salt and light in the world.

This the foundation upon which our Sanctuaries for Life initiative is built and can already be seen in places like Yadkin County, North Carolina and Pearl, Mississippi.

Unintentionally, this book can also serve as a cautionary tale to those who wish to establish Christian communities such as Oberlin. Eventually, Oberlin was severed from its religious fervor and overcome by atheists. Oberlin College was misused to lead eager young minds into distorted ideologies, such as radical feminism and sexual liberation.

Our work must remain rooted in a solid biblical foundation.

Gualberto Garcia Jones is the president of the Personhood Alliance and a licensed attorney in the commonwealth of Virginia. He is a human rights advisor to the Holy See Mission to the Organization of American States and works in Washington DC to stop the expansion of abortion in Latin America.

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