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Freedom of Conscience.


In several of our preceding numbers we have given occasional articles on the opposition which certain Israelites, in various parts of the country have made to the compulsory laws in regard to the observance of Sunday as a day of rest; and in the present number we hasten to lay before our readers a decision of the Recorder of Charleston, S. C., Judge Rice, in the case of the City against Solomon A. Benjamin for a violation of an ordinance by selling and exhibiting goods for sale on the first day of the week. The opinion will speak for itself, and we intend not to comment on it at present, and to leave our readers to form their own judgment. It is not necessary at this late day for us to say that we heartily rejoice in the decision of the inferior and superior courts of Ohio, and the one now given in Carolina, and that we trust that, in the Appeal which has been taken, the side which we consider the righteous one may prove triumphant. We deem  it utterly at variance with true freedom for any one class of the people inhabiting this republic, to ask for special legislation to protect its peculiar rights, and we think that any such request is an assumption of tyrannical and unconstitutional power against the claim to equality which all the citizens of the Union, as such, and of the individual states as special republics have in common as their undoubted privilege as freemen. The fundamental law of the land, the Constitution of the United States, recognises not even the existence of the Deity as a basis of legislation; not because its authors, the wise and the good, men of uncommon knowledge, rectitude and piety, did doubt of the power and goodness of the Supreme; but that they did not come to legislate upon religion, since they were assembled merely to lay down fundamental laws for the civil government of their constituents. Hence test oaths and all the other odious inventions of bigotry were annihilated by one stroke of  the pen; and surely it was under this understanding the intention of these great minds, that in leaving conscientious matters entirely to the safe-keeping of religious teachers, no one should be encroached upon for any particular speculative opinion he might hold with regard to religious doctrines, or for those practical observances he might think himself called upon to exhibit from the inward promptings of his conscience; saving always that his actions were not in opposition to the peace and welfare of the commonwealth. Now we are unacquainted with any peculiar rite of either our own or any other church which is absolutely requisite for the public welfare in a republic constituted as the American is; nor can we point out any one in either of them which is of so paramount importance that its infringement will do any public injury. We hope to be understood as not in the least underrating the blessed institution of the Sabbath; for though the whole law is true, and promotive of happiness, there is not a precept which is so beautiful in its effect on the prosperity and mental elevation of the individual as this is. But with all this it is not of that nature that the state could not exist without it, however beneficial it may be upon the character of the men composing the people. In other words, it is purely a matter of conscience, as much as any other religious observance; and surely in this respect it must be left to the conviction of individuals whether or not they will be bound by it, unless a right could be shown that there exists any legal and constitutional power to hold the citizens to positive religious observance, or to bind them to certain religious opinions. We include the latter clause, because all the citizens of the commonwealth, if we take the Union as one, or of the republics, if we look upon the component parts as separate sovereignties, are not agreed as to the day which should receive the religious homage of mankind; consequently in legislating by penal enactments for the due observance of either the first or seventh day of the week, the legislators take upon themselves not only to give a civil sanction to a religious rite, but also to fix a religious principle which has not received universal assent, and consequently they abridge the right of conscience, and act as judges in a point of weighty controversy. We must not be told that the majority have a right to dictate to the minority how these should act; for this is only the case when the public welfare demands it; upon this plea, murder, violence, robbery, fraud, defamation, slander, incest, and all unsocial acts are prohibited; upon such a view taxes are imposed on, and military duty exacted from, both those who are willing and unwilling to offer them; the state cannot exist without this power; there is inherent in the very nature of social service such a means of self-preservation; but no one will surely be bold enough to assert seriously that a day of rest is requisite in human view to keep together the bonds of society, that violence and dismemberment would take place unless the law stepped in and urged, not alone by persuasion in the name of religion to induce the people to rest, but by the strong hand of legal terrors, by fines and imprisonment, to compel that by force which gentle persuasion could in no manner effect. Such a power ought not to be conferred on human tribunals, were even every man in the state of the same manner of thinking; and it was only incorporated in the Mosaic law as a special enactment of the divine Legislator, and then only upon Israelites, who were born under the law, or had adopted it from a free choice, and it acted as a protection to the stranger, the poor and the bondman, that they could not be held to labour on the day sacred to the Lord but with the information accessible to us just now, we are utterly unable to assert that any compulsory rest was imposed upon non-Israelites in their own domiciles, or that they were held to punishment for any open violation of the Jewish Sabbath. But if even this had been so, which we however deny, still could the laws under the Jewish polity not be claimed to serve as a model for states formed upon so different a basis as the United States and the commonwealth of Palestine; one is governed by laws of human origin intended for a people of all shades of opinion, the other as predicated upon the establishment of a species of theocracy for special purposes. The cases are too dissimilar to be brought into conflict, and we imagine that no one, however anxious he may be for Sunday laws, would like to establish in this country all the pains.and penalties of the institutions of Moses, or in other words that the advocates of Sunday laws would, under any circumstances, not be willing to become bona fide Jews. We would certainly not object to such a consummation; but we presume that not one of the class of men of whom we are speaking would carry out his principles to produce this result. Consequently the legislators of the present day have no moral right whatever to go back to the restrictions which Scriptures may seem to authorize, to enforce the observance of any enactment which does not belong properly to the moral and civil government of the state; and, as said already, the keeping of a weekly day of rest does not belong to the class of moral laws which are absolutely necessary to the welfare and safety of the commonwealth.

Perhaps we may be asked, whether we would be opposed to the compulsory rest to be granted to the labouring population, one day in seven, by those who employ them? By no means; perpetual toil is not compatible with human strength, or rather weakness; and a periodical relaxation will give new vigour to  the frame, and elasticity to the mind. We therefore deem it not incompatible with liberty to ask of masters and employers that they shall give to those whose labour they control the right to abstain from labour, if they will, one day in seven, or ten, or twenty, or whatever custom might sanction. But even then we would leave it optional with the labourer, especially the free man, whether he will choose the first or seventh, or whether he will rest at all. It is not the business of the state to prescribe the precise time, nor that the labourer shall profit by the immunity, if he should find it for his interest to do one thing or the other on any day or period of the year. As far as the civil power is concerned, we place a Sabbath upon the same footing with political holidays, which are made periods of rejoicing and abstinence from labour by either custom or special enactments; each country has such periods; and still we never yet heard that a person could be criminally prosecuted for disregarding them if his fancy or convenience told him to do so.

Let us be understood; we do not discuss the religious obligations as respects the Sabbath. In this our conviction is too strong to be shaken by any special argument of convenience or fancy; every Israelite believes it to be imperative and permanent; not because, however, the statute law of any state so declares it, but because the Bible is here the authority. Still, as we do not ask for any special privilege to enable us to do what our religion demands, any more than we could do for the sacred observance of the Passover, or any other feast: so we contend that no society, whether Christian or anti-Christian, has any more right to ask of the legislature to give them any special protection that any particular day shall be hedged in by legislative prohibition, and enjoy the watchful eye of constables and police officers for its due observance. If the Sunday keepers are the majority, they have protection enough as far as public opinion goes, to enforce a greater respect for their day from the non-consenting portions, than they have any absolute right to do; for men are always ready enough to forego some positive privilege, if by claiming it they would offend an influential portion of their neighbours; and many Jews violate their own Sabbath, which they actually deem themselves bound to observe holy by their conscientious scruples, solely because on the first day of the week they must abstain from work, if they would not attract to themselves the ill-will of their Christian friends. With this, then, these should rest content, and not claim so much more, that the minority will be at length compelled to seek by proper means to prove that there exists in the United States no right whatever to give legal sanction to any day of rest.

We meant to be brief at present; and only present the above considerations as an exposition of the reason why we take so much interest in a matter in which we have so little personal concern. We contend for the right in the abstract; and we trust that, whilst we earnestly ask of our Jewish readers to do nothing to offend wantonly the citizens of this good republic, where we live protected and unmolested, they will submit to no wrong and unjust exactions, which of right ought not to be imposed on them. No special privileges should be asked, no special disqualifications should be voluntarily submitted to. Liberty forbids distinctions amidst the citizens of a state; and no slavery is more galling than to see the strong arm of the law called upon to declare the opinions of one class as less worthy of protection than the others, and to give a sanction to the observances of a portion of the community, which these do not deserve from their inherent merit. Our motto should be “Liberty and no special privileges.”