Slavery, Dred Scott, and the ‘Lesser Magistrates’

As Christians ask God for wisdom and grace to live in days of increasing evil, the lessons from our sermon series “How Should We Now Live?” become ever-more applicable. This month we look back to an especially dark time in our nation’s history, which highlights the importance of Christians standing for truth. PC


On March 6, 1857, The Supreme Court of the United States issued its infamous Dred Scott Decision. Dred Scott, who was born a slave in Missouri, traveled with his master to the free territory of Illinois. There Scott sued his master for freedom, which the lower courts usually granted. However, when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it ruled that Scott would remain a slave because as such he was not a citizen and could not legally sue in federal courts. Moreover, in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, black people free or slave could never become U. S. citizens and they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”


On July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It overturned the Dred Scott Decision, granting citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws.” In the roughly eleven years between these two events, the acts of brave ‘lesser magistrates’ made all the difference.


What is a ‘lesser magistrate’? A ‘magistrate’ is a government authority. A ‘lesser magistrate’ is any individual citizen of a country who, when higher civil authorities make unjust and immoral laws or decrees, refuses to obey those laws, and even actively opposes them. How did ‘lesser magistrates,’ citizens in the United States, play a pivotal role in ending the scourge of slavery?


Opposition to slavery was led by people of faith. Ignoring laws such as the abhorrent Fugitive Slave Act, Christians throughout the United States developed and aided thousands of escaping slaves through the ‘Underground Railroad.’ By the time of the Dred Scott decision in 1857, this network had already been functioning for decades. It was intentional defiance by individuals – many of them Christians – against an unjust law in the United States. Hundreds of believers risked their lives, and imprisonment, to ‘stand in the gap’ for blacks seeking freedom.


In 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the first Republican president. Lincoln grew up in a deeply religious home, and his belief in the Bible shaped his life. He had run on an anti-slavery platform – in direct opposition to the implications of the Dred Scott Decision. In other words, he took a public stand as a ‘lesser magistrate’ against an unjust decision by the Supreme Court, less than four years after it had been enshrined in law. Although he was legally bound by the Supreme Court’s decision, Lincoln’s willingness to ‘stand in the gap’ against slavery was inspiring to millions.


Less than three weeks after he was sworn in, on February 8, 1861, convinced their way of life was threatened by Lincoln’s election, seven states seceded from the Union (eventually eleven), and formed the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy. Located in the deep south, these states had agrarian economies, and relied on slave labor. In his “Cornerstone Address,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens declared the Confederate ideology as based “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” The ‘battle lines’ were drawn.


On April 12, 1861, less than three months into Lincoln’s presidency, the Confederate Army bombarded Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War had begun. Amid the struggle, President Lincoln performed a second act in the role of a “lesser magistrate.” On January 1, 1863, in direct opposition to the Dred Scott Decision, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” in Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The Civil War ended almost exactly four years, and some 600,000 lives later, on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.


As a direct result of Lincoln’s willingness to take a stand against slavery, and with the support of hundreds of thousands who suffered and died to rescue slaves and defeat the Confederacy, all in direct contravention to a binding legal decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States were passed and ratified, and slavery was abolished. ‘Lesser magistrates’ had made all the difference.


For his efforts, Lincoln paid the ultimate price. On April 15, 1865, less than a week after the end of hostilities, Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C. His testimony to the doctrine of the ‘lesser magistrates’ – along with the thousands who stood with him in opposition to slavery, is a lesson to Christians in America today. Those citizens understood that the authority of the State and its representatives – even the Supreme Court – was limited. That authority is delegated by God. Hence, if and when those authorities make unjust laws, they abuse their power, and should be resisted. It is the right and duty of Christian citizens to defy such laws.


In our day, the Supreme Court has declared abortion, killing of preborn babies, a constitutional right. They have enshrined homosexual “marriage” in law, and redefined gender as an ‘identity’ instead of a biological reality. Our elected leaders are now seeking to codify ‘abortion rights’ in federal law. Government departments, in cooperation with ‘big tech’ and social institutions, are marginalizing and even silencing Christians. How will we respond?


May we never forget the words of Peter and the apostles, when the civil authorities gave strict orders for them not to speak of their sinfulness and culpability in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. In response to their command, the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5.29).