On September 13, 1858, John Price was kidnapped in Oberlin, Ohio, forced into a carriage, and whisked away to the nearby town of Wellington.
That is an accurate description of what happened, but it does not describe how many white Christian Americans viewed what happened, because the kidnapping of John Price at gunpoint was perfectly legal. And since it was perfectly legal — perfectly constitutional — many white Christians perceived it as perfectly good.
John Price was black. He was an escaped slave who had sought and found refuge in Ohio. In the eyes of the law, then, John Price was a thief and an outlaw in possession of stolen property — that stolen property being himself. In the eyes of the law, John Price was a non-person, a criminal, an illegal. And the law clearly stated that any such illegal, criminal, non-person was supposed to be kidnapped at gunpoint and shipped back to where he came from, even if that meant his certain torture, torment, or death. Price’s safety, dignity, and freedom were not anything the law or the Constitution cared about because they were nothing the law or the Constitution recognized.
And most white Christians believed that was as it should be. After all, didn’t the Bible — the very Word of God — clearly state that “There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation”? That teaching was clear as day right there in Romans 13, they said, suggesting and maybe even almost believing that Romans 13 ended right there with verse 2.
Other Christians, though, saw things differently. They didn’t believe that laws or constitutions approving of kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder were an “ordinance of God.” Nor did they believe that Romans 13 ended there with the second verse. They saw this passage as a description of what government ought to be — “the minister of God to thee for good” and “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” When governments and constitutions became ministers of evil, executing wrath upon the good, these Christians believed it was not just permissible, but their moral duty to “resisteth.”
As it happens, a great many of that sort of Christian happened to be living and working there in Oberlin, Ohio, which was home to the notoriously radical evangelical college of the same name. As soon as they learned of John Price’s perfectly legal kidnapping, they sprang into action in what became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue:
A large crowd of Oberlinians, including blacks and whites, townspeople and students, rode off towards Wellington. Included in the crowd were such prominent Oberlinians as Charles Langston, the brother of John Mercer Langston, and James M. Fitch, bookseller and superintendent of the Oberlin Sunday School. John Watson, a grocer, reached Wellington about two o’clock and ran into town yelling, “Kidnappers!” The Kentuckians, alarmed at his appearance, took Price up to the attic of the hotel where they were staying, and hid there, while the Columbus deputies gathered a posse to guard the doors. Soon a mob of Oberlinians had gathered by the hotel demanding Price’s release.
Meanwhile, Charles Langston, Watson, and O. B. Wall, another Oberlinian, attempted to seek legal action, first trying to persuade the village constable to arrest the slavecatchers for kidnapping, and then trying to secure a habeas corpus (a court petition which orders that a person being detained be produced before a judge for a hearing to decide whether the detention is lawful). Despite the failure of these attempts, Langston still endeavored to find a non-violent solution to the crisis, first seeking to calm the crowd, which had become increasingly agitated, then going to talk to Jacob Lowe, one of Price’s captors. However, Langston soon realized that the kidnappers would not give Price up, but informed Lowe that, “we will have him anyhow.”
When the crowd learned that Langston’s negotiations had failed they quickly sprang into action. Wilson Evans, John Copeland, Jr., and Jerry Fox rushed the door guards, and allowed some of the rescuers to enter the inn. A struggle soon broke out in the hotel, during which Richard Winsor, a theological student, led Price outside, where he was led to a buggy and rushed back to Oberlin. Once in Oberlin, the rescuers celebrated their triumph over the hated Fugitive Slave Act. Price was hidden in the home of Oberlin College President James Fairchild, and later taken across the border to Canada.
Thirty-seven of the rescuers were later arrested for their participation in the event. Over the course of the trial, they chose to remain in jail rather than post bail, in solidarity with Charles Langston and Simeon Bushnell who had been convicted and sentenced for their actions. …
Eventually the men from Kentucky and Columbus who had captured John Price were arrested and charged with kidnapping. In return for the charges against them being dropped, they chose to drop the charges against the rest of the rescuers.
Again, the difficult but important thing to remember about this whole incident is that everything the Oberlin rescuers did was illegal and unconstitutional. And everything the slave-catchers did was perfectly legal. Those men were little more than thugs-for-hire. They first lied to John Price — luring him out with the promise of paid farm work, and then seized him with violence. But their bad-faith lies and violence were all legally sanctioned. The law was on their side. The Constitution was on their side.
The same is true today for the thugs-for-hire who use the same dishonest and violent tactics now as “agents” of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Here is the story of ICE agents using almost exactly the same tactics as those fugitive slave-catchers did, luring a person out of refuge under false pretenses then violently seizing him because they regard him as a non-person, as a criminal, an illegal.
And here, too, is a story of Christian outlaws springing into action to protect a human and that human’s rights from unjust thugs with no regard for that person’s humanity or rights:
More than two dozen people were arrested Friday while protesting the detention of an undocumented man who had been living in a Durham church for 11 months.
Samuel Oliver-Bruno sought to defer his deportation to Mexico after living in the United States for more than 22 years.
Oliver-Bruno arrived at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville on Friday morning for an appointment, joined by his 19-year-old son, Daniel Oliver-Perez; a pastor at CityWell United Methodist Church, Cleve May; and other members of the clergy.
May said once Oliver-Bruno completed paperwork, he and Oliver-Perez went to a line to be processed while May and clergy members stayed in a waiting room.
That’s when ICE agents tackled Oliver-Bruno, May said.
“The next thing we know, several men jumped him, and Daniel clung to his father, and they were choking Daniel and trying to pull him off,” May said. “All of us who were in there ran back to where that interaction was happening. We all stood in the way of the doorway. We were all pushed roughly and repeatedly but continued to get in the way.”
Oliver-Perez, who is a citizen born in the U.S., was arrested and charged with assaulting a government employee; law enforcement officials said he assaulted an ICE officer.
While he was being escorted away from the USCIS building, Oliver-Perez said he tried to stop officers from taking his father. Oliver-Perez said in the scuffle that officers choked him. …
Oliver-Bruno was trying to go through the process to become a legal resident.
“This was a bait-and-switch,” May said. “A legal process was put into place that was used as the bait to pull Samuel out of sanctuary.”
Outside the USCIS building, he and other protesters formed a human wall around the van Oliver-Bruno was placed in, keeping him and officials from leaving for about two hours.
… May and 25 other protesters were arrested and charged with failing to disperse on command. Many of the protesters were members of CityWell.
The ICE agents operate with support from exactly the same kind of white Christian who supported the slave-catchers in 1858. Those contemporary white Christians’ theological argument and hodge-podge of mangled prooftexts are exactly the same too.
But the thugs-for-hire from ICE have the law on their side — even though their actions may be dishonest, unnecessary, gratuitously violent, inhumane, and immoral. In the final resort, they even have the Shelby Court in place, just as the slave-catchers of 1858 had Justice Taney’s Dred Scott court as a backstop to defend their violent enforcement of cruel laws.
I’ll conclude here with an excerpt from the remarkable speech Charles Langston gave at his sentencing for his role in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, recommending that you read the whole thing. It remains a disgracefully timely speech:
One more word, sir, and I have done. I went to Wellington, knowing that colored men have no rights in the United States which white men are bound to respect; that the courts had so decided; that Congress had so enacted; that the people had so decreed.
There is not a spot in this wide country, not even by the altars of God, nor in the shadow of the shafts that tell the imperishable fame and glory of the heroes of the Revolution; no, nor in the old Philadelphia Hall, where any colored man may dare to ask a mercy of a white man. Let me stand in that Hall, and tell a United States Marshal that my father was a Revolutionary soldier; that he served under Lafayette, and fought through the whole war; and that he always told me that he fought for my freedom as much as for his own; and he would sneer at me, and clutch me with his bloody fingers, and say he had a right to make me a slave! And when I appeal to Congress, they say he has a right to make me a slave; when I appeal to the people, they say he has a right to make me a slave, and when I appeal to your Honor, your Honor says he has a right to make me a slave, and if any man, white or black, seeks an investigation of that claim, they make themselves amenable to the pains and penalties of the Fugitive Slave Act, for black men have no rights which white men are bound to respect. I, going to Wellington with the full knowledge of all this, knew that if that man was taken to Columbus, he was hopelessly gone, no matter whether he has ever been in slavery before or not. I knew that I was in the same situation myself, and that by the decision of your Honor, if any man whatever were to claim me as a slave and seize me, and my brother, being a lawyer, should seek to get out a writ of habeas corpus to expose the falsity of the claim, he would be thrust into prison under one provision of the Fugitive Slave Law, for interfering with the man claiming to be in pursuit of a fugitive, and I, by the perjury of a solitary wretch would, by another of its provisions, be helplessly doomed to life-long bondage, without the possibility of escape. …
If ever again a man is seized near me, and is about to be carried Southward as a slave, before any legal investigation has been had, I shall hold it to be my duty, as I held it that day, to secure for him, if possible, a legal inquiry into the character of the claim by which he is held. And I go father; I say that if it is adjudged illegal to procure even such an investigation, then we are thrown back upon those last defenses of our rights, which cannot be taken from us, and which God gave us that we need not be slaves. I ask your Honor, while I say this, to place yourself in my situation, and you will say with me, that if your brother, if your friends, if your wife, if your child, had been seized by men who claimed them as fugitives, and the law of the land forbade you to ask any investigation, and precluded the possibility of any legal protection or redress, – then you will say with me, that you would not only demand the protection of the law, but you would call in your neighbors and your friends, and would ask them to say with you, that these your friends could not be taken into slavery.
And now I thank you for this leniency, this indulgence, in giving a man unjustly condemned, by a tribunal before which he is declared to have no rights, the privilege of speaking in his own behalf. I know that it will do nothing toward mitigating your sentence, but it is a privilege to be allowed to speak, and I thank you for it. I shall submit to the penalty, be it what it may. But I stand up here to say, that if for doing what I did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail six months, and pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, and such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must take upon my self the responsibility of self-protection; and when I come to be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me; as I would call upon you [to the District-Attorney], to help me; and upon you [to Judge Bliss], and upon you [to his counsel], so help me GOD! I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might be, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right!