Lectures On Systematic Theology
By Charles G. Finney
1878 Edition
Edited by J.H. Fairchild


I propose now to make several remarks respecting forms of government, the right and duty of revolution, etc.

1. The particular forms of state government must, and will, depend upon the virtue and intelligence of the people.

When virtue and intelligence are nearly universal, democratic forms of government are well suited to promote the public good. In such a state of society, democracy is greatly conducive to the general diffusion of knowledge on governmental subjects; and although, in some respects less convenient, yet in a suitable state of society, a democracy is in many respects the most desirable form of government.

God has always providentially given to mankind those forms of government that were suited to the degrees of virtue and intelligence among them. If they have been extremely ignorant and vicious, He has restrained them by the iron rod of human despotism. If more intelligent and virtuous, He has given them the milder form of limited monarchies. If still more intelligent and virtuous, He has given them still more liberty, and providentially established republics for their government. Whenever the general state of intelligence has permitted it, He has put them to the test of self-government and self-restraint, by establishing democracies.

If the world ever becomes perfectly virtuous, governments will be proportionally modified, and employed in expounding and applying the great principles of moral law.

2. That form of government is obligatory, that is best suited to meet the necessities of the people.

This follows as a self-evident truth, from the consideration, that necessity is the condition of the right of human government. To meet this necessity is the object of government; and that government is obligatory and best which is demanded by the circumstances, intelligence, and morals of the people.

Consequently, in certain states of society, it would be a Christian's duty to pray for and sustain even a military despotism; in a certain other state of society, to pray for and sustain a monarchy; and in other states, to pray for and sustain a republic; and in a still more advanced stage of virtue and intelligence, to pray for and sustain a democracy; if indeed a democracy is the most wholesome form of self government, which may admit of doubt. It is ridiculous to set up the claim of a Divine right for any given form of government. That form of government which is demanded by the state of society, and the virtue and intelligence of the people, has of necessity the Divine right and sanction, and none other has or can have.

3. Revolutions become necessary and obligatory, when the virtue and intelligence, or the vice and ignorance, of the people, demand them.

This is a thing of course. When one form of government fails to meet any longer the necessities of the people, it is the duty of the people to revolutionize. In such cases, it is vain to oppose revolution; for in some way the benevolence of God will bring it about. Upon this principle alone, can what is generally termed the American Revolution be justified. The intelligence and virtue of our Puritan forefathers rendered a monarchy an unnecessary burden, and a republican form of government both appropriate and necessary; and God always allows His children as much liberty as they are prepared to enjoy.

The stability of our republican institutions must depend upon the progress of general intelligence and virtue. If in these respects the nation falls, if general intelligence, public and private virtue, sink to that point below which self-control becomes practicably impossible, we must fall back into monarchy, limited or absolute; or into civil or military despotism; just according to the national standard of intelligence and virtue. This is just as certain as that God governs the world, or that causes produce their effects.

Therefore, it is the maddest conceivable policy, for Christians to attempt to uproot human governments, while they ought to be engaged in sustaining them upon the great principles of the moral law. It is certainly the grossest folly, if not abominable wickedness, to overlook either in theory or practice, these plain, common sense and universal truths.

4. In what cases are we bound to disobey human governments?

(1.) We may yield obedience, when the thing required does not involve a violation of moral obligation.

(2.) We are bound to obey when the thing required has no moral character in itself; upon the principle, that obedience in this case is a less evil than resistance and revolution. But:

(3.) We are bound in all cases to disobey, when human legislation contravenes moral law, or invades the rights of conscience.

Apply the foregoing principles to the rights and duties of governments and subjects in relation to the execution of the necessary penalties of law: the suppression of mobs, insurrections, rebellion; and also in relation to war, slavery, Sabbath desecration, etc.

1. It is plain that the right and duty to govern for the security and promotion of the public interests, implies the right and duty to use any means necessary to this result. It is absurd to say that the ruler has the right to govern, and yet that he has not a right to use the necessary means. Some have taken the ground of the inviolability of human life, and have insisted that to take life is wrong per se, and of course that governments are to be sustained without taking life. Others have gone so far as to assert, that governments have no right to resort to physical force to sustain the authority of law. But this is a most absurd philosophy, and amounts just to this: The ruler has a right to govern while the subject is pleased to obey; but if the subject refuses obedience, why then the right to govern ceases: for it is impossible that the right to govern should exist when the right to enforce obedience does not exist. This philosophy is, in fact, a denial of the right to use the necessary means for the promotion of the great end for which all moral agents ought to live. And yet, strange to tell, this philosophy professes to deny the right to use force, and to take life in support of government, on the ground of benevolence, that is, that benevolence forbids it. What is this but maintaining that the law of benevolence demands that we should love others too much to use the indispensable means to secure their good? Or that we should love the whole too much to execute the law upon those who would destroy all good? Shame on such philosophy! It overlooks the foundation of moral obligation, and of all morality and religion. Just as if an enlightened benevolence could forbid the due, wholesome, and necessary execution of law. This philosophy impertinently urges the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (Deut. 5:17), as prohibiting all taking of human life. But it may be asked, why say human life? The commandment, so far as the letter is concerned, as fully prohibits the killing of animals or vegetables as it does of men. The question is, what kind of killing does this commandment prohibit? Certainly not all killing of human beings, for in the next chapter the Jews were commanded to kill human beings for certain crimes. The ten commandments are precepts, and the Lawgiver, after laying down the precepts, goes on to specify the penalties that are to be inflicted by men for a violation of these precepts. Some of these penalties are death, and the penalty for the violation of the precept under consideration is death. It is certain that this precept was not intended to prohibit the taking of life for murder. A consideration of the law in its tenor and spirit renders it most evident that the precept in question prohibits murder, and the penalty of death is added by the lawgiver to the violation of this precept. Now how absurd and impertinent it is, to quote this precept in prohibition of taking life under the circumstances included in the precept!

Men have an undoubted right to do whatever is plainly indispensable to the highest good of man; and, therefore, nothing can, by any possibility be law, that should prohibit the taking of human life, when it becomes indispensable to the great end of government. This right is every where recognized in the Bible, and if it were not, still the right would exist. This philosophy that I am opposing, assumes that the will of God creates law, and that we have no right to take life, without an express warrant from Him. But the facts are, that God did give to the Jews, at least, an express warrant and injunction to take life for certain crimes; and, if He had not, it would have been duty to do so whenever the public good required it. Let it be remembered, that the moral law is the law of nature, and that everything is lawful and right that is plainly demanded for the promotion of the highest good of being.

The philosophy of which I am speaking lays much stress upon what it calls inalienable rights. It assumes that man has a title or right to life, in such a sense, that he cannot forfeit it by crime. But the fact is, there are no rights inalienable in this sense. There can be no such rights. Whenever any individual by the commission of crime comes into such a relation to the public interest, that his death is a necessary means of securing the highest public good, his life is forfeited, and to take the forfeiture at his hands is the duty of the government.

2. It will be seen, that the same principles are equally applicable to insurrections, rebellions, etc. While government is right, it is duty, and while it is right and duty, because necessary as a means to the great end upon which benevolence terminates, it must be both the right and the duty of government, and of all the subjects, to use any indispensable means for the suppression of insurrections, rebellion, etc., as also for the due administration of justice in the execution of law.

3. These principles will guide us in ascertaining the right, and of course the duty of governments in relation to war.

Observe, war to be in any case a virtue, or to be less than a crime of infinite magnitude, must not only be honestly believed, by those who engage in it, to be demanded by the law of benevolence, but it must also be engaged in by them with an eye single to the glory of God, and the highest good of being. That war has been in some instances demanded by the spirit of the moral law, there can be no reasonable doubt, since God has sometimes commanded it, which He could not have done had it not been demanded by the highest good of the universe. In such cases, if those who were commanded to engage in war, had benevolent intentions in prosecuting it as God had in commanding it, it is absurd to say that they sinned. Rulers are represented as God's ministers to execute wrath upon the guilty. If, in the providence of God, He should find it duty to destroy or to rebuke a nation for His own glory, and the highest good of being, He may beyond question command that they should be chastised by the hand of man. But in no case is war anything else than a most horrible crime, unless it is plainly the will of God that it should exist, and unless it be actually undertaken in obedience to His will. This is true of all, both of rulers and of subjects, who engage in war. Selfish war is wholesale murder. For a nation to declare war, or for persons to enlist, or in any way designedly to aid or abet, in the declaration or prosecution of war, upon any other conditions than those just specified, involves the guilt of murder.

There can scarcely be conceived a more abominable and fiendish maxim than "our country right or wrong." Recently this maxim seems to have been adopted and avowed in relation to the war of the United States with Mexico. It seems to be supposed by some, that it is the duty of good subjects to sympathize with, and support government in the prosecution of a war in which they have unjustly engaged, and to which they have committed themselves, upon the ground that since it is commenced it must be prosecuted as the less of two evils. The same class of men seem to have adopted the same philosophy in respect to slavery. Slavery, as it exists in this country, they acknowledge to be indefensible on the ground of right. It is a great evil and a great sin, but it must be let alone as the less of two evils. It exists, say they, and it cannot be abolished without disturbing the friendly relations and federal union of the States, therefore the institution must be sustained. The philosophy is this: war and slavery as they exist in this nation are unjust, but they exist, and to sustain them is duty, because their existence, under the circumstances, is the less of two evils.

Nothing can sanctify any crime but that which renders it no crime, but a virtue. But the philosophers, whose views I am examining, must, if consistent, take the ground, that since war and slavery exist, although their commencement was unjust and sinful, yet since they exist, it is no crime but a virtue to sustain them, as the least of two natural evils. But I would ask, to whom are they the least of two evils? To ourselves or to being in general? The least of two present, or of two ultimate evils? Our duty is not to calculate the evils in respect merely to ourselves, or to this nation and those immediately oppressed and injured, but to look abroad upon the world and the universe, and inquire what are the evils resulting, and likely to result, to the world, to the church, and to the universe, from the declaration and prosecution of such a war, and from the support of slavery by a nation professing what we profess a nation boasting of liberty; who have drawn the sword and bathed it in blood in defense of the principle, that all men have an inalienable right to liberty; that they are born free and equal. Such a nation proclaiming such a principle, and fighting in the defense of it, standing with its proud foot on the neck of three millions of crushed and prostrate slaves! O horrible! This a less evil to the world than emancipation, or even than the dismemberment of our hypocritical union! "O shame, where is thy blush!" The prosecution of a war, unjustly engaged in, a less evil than repentance and restitution! It is impossible. Honesty is always and necessarily the best policy. Nations are bound by the same law as individuals. If they have done wrong, it is always duty, and honorable for them to repent, confess and make restitution. To adopt the maxim, "Our country right or wrong," and to sympathize with the government, in the prosecution of a war unrighteously waged, must involve the guilt of murder. To adopt the maxim, "Our union, even with perpetual slavery," is an abomination so execrable, as not to be named by a just mind without indignation.

4. The same principles apply to governmental Sabbath desecration. The Sabbath is plainly a divine institution, founded in the necessities of human beings. The letter of the law of the Sabbath forbids all labor of every kind, and under all circumstances on that day. But, as has been said in a former lecture, the spirit of the law of the Sabbath, being identical with the law of benevolence, sometimes requires the violation of the letter of the law. Both governments and individuals may do, and it is their duty to do, on the Sabbath whatever is plainly required by the great law of benevolence. But nothing more, absolutely. No human legislature can nullify the moral law. No human legislation can make it right or lawful to violate any command of God. All human enactments requiring or sanctioning the violation of any command of God, are not only null and void, but they are a blasphemous usurpation and invasion of the prerogative of God.

5. The same principles apply to slavery. No human constitution or enactment can, by any possibility, be law, that recognizes the right of one human being to enslave another, in a sense that implies selfishness on the part of the slave holder. Selfishness is wrong per se. It is, therefore, always and unalterably wrong. No enactment, human or divine, can legalize selfishness and make it right, under any conceivable circumstances. Slavery or any other evil, to be a crime, must imply selfishness. It must imply a violation of the command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 19:19). If it implies a breach of this, it is wrong invariably and necessarily, and no legislation, or any thing else, can make it right. God cannot authorize it. The Bible cannot sanction it, and if both God and the Bible were to sanction it, it could not be lawful. God's arbitrary will is not law. The moral law, as we have seen, is as independent of His will, as His own necessary existence is. He cannot alter or repeal it. He could not sanctify selfishness and make it right. Nor can any book be received as of divine authority that sanctions selfishness. God and the Bible quoted to sustain and sanctify slave holding in a sense implying selfishness! 'This blasphemous! That slave holding, as exists in this country, implies selfishness, at least in almost all instances, is too plain to need proof. The sinfulness of slave holding and war, in almost all cases, and in every case where the terms slave holding and war are used in their popular signification, will appear irresistibly, if we consider that sin is selfishness, and that all selfishness is necessarily sinful. Deprive a human being of liberty who has been guilty of no crime; rob him of himself his body his soul his time, and his earnings, to promote the interest of his master, and attempt to justify this on the principles of moral law! It is the greatest absurdity, and the most revolting wickedness.

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