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Peacemaking Heritage Series | “Beecher’s Bibles” or the Sword of the Spirit?

Thus far our Peacemaking Heritage Series has concentrated on Adventism’s emergence in the 1830s and 1840s as an interdenominational renewal movement sparked by William Miller’s preaching on the near return of Jesus Christ. We turn now to the two decades following the “Great Disappointment” of 1844, during which the Seventh-day Adventist Church was one of several small denominations formed from the fragments of the Millerite movement.
In this series we want to look at peacemaking in the broad sense of fostering shalom, and thus, in addition to nonviolence, include matters of justice and mercy for the oppressed, liberty, human rights, and the common good in general. In this installment, though, we do focus on peace witness, as the sabbatarian Adventists enter the growing debate among abolitionists in the 1850s over whether violence should be used in the cause of the slave.
Last time, in part 8, we saw how, after the Great Disappointment, the radical reformer and Millerite Adventist, Gerrit Smith, began to look more favorably on the possibility of using violent tactics to help bring Christ’s liberating kingdom to realization. When violence broke out in 1855 over the organization of the Kansas territory as a slave or free state, more mainstream reformers joined in urging abolitionists to take up arms. Sharp’s rifles became known as “Beecher’s Bibles,” as the renowned Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher had declared them more important instruments than the Bible on behalf of right in the Kansas crisis (On the sheet music cover [left] for a song dedicated to Beecher, the settler has a Bible on his lap along with the rifle on his shoulder).
In “Follow Me,” an article in the August 14, 1856 issue of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Elon E. Everts (1807-1858) of Round Grove, Illinois, rejected the call to righteous violence. He characterized Smith and others as “high professors of divinity, who have but a short time in the past, stood at the head of religious revivals, moral reforms and peace societies: leading on the church of Christ, armed with the gospel that brings to light, life and immortality; wielded by entreaties, prayers and tears” but now “in the very face of the gospel,” believed themselves authorized to take up the sword to deliver the oppressed.
Says the Dixon Transcript, June 25th, referring to the Pittsburgh convention, “After prayer by Rev. Mr. Lovejoy, the Rev. Mr. Brewer of Conn., said, he was in favor of using fire-arms, and fighting for freedom in Kansas.”
“Rev. Mr. Chandler said he believed that Sharp’s rifles were the best peacemakers, there was no danger too many of them would be introduced into Kansas.”…
“In the North Church, soon after, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher said, I hold it to be an everlasting disgrace to shoot at a man and not hit him.”…
And says Gerritt Smith, (whose moral worth and numerous acts of benevolence many of the needy and afflicted will respond to,) at the Buflalo convention on the 10th inst., July, “If the object of the convention was to distribute good books and agricultural implements in Kansas, it was doubtless a good one. They might raise their hundred thousand dollars monthly to do so, but they would have no money from him! He had given all the money he could spare for such things, and felt that he was now called upon to contribute means to arm men and send them to fight….”
Are these men following Jesus? Are they harnessing themselves and followers with gospel weapons? Are they exhibiting implicit confidence in the perfect law of God? Do they acknowledge that there is but one Lawgiver for the Christian? Do they hear Paul say, The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds?” 2 Cor. x, 4. Are they finally heeding the scriptures that they professedly teach?…
Paul enumerates the Christian weapons in Eph. vi, 14-18, and says, Take the sword of the spirit, (not of steel,) which is the word of God. Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit. Having on this heavenly armor, and their feet shod with the preparation of the gospel 0f peace, striving to enjoy Christ’s benediction, Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are peacemakers, (not peace-breakers.) for they shall be called the children of God. Matt, v, 7-9. Listen to John as he addresses the soldiers, when they asked what they should do. He replies, Do violence to no man. Jno. iii, 14. Remember that Jesus said to Peter, when the great practical doctrine was taught for all Christians, what to do with the sword, Put up again thy sword into his place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matt, xx, 52.
Let Christians walk in the light of these truths and there would be but few Christian generals or soldiers, to use the “Rev. Mr. Beecher’s twenty-five Sharp’s rifles,” although a Bible sanctimoniously be attached to the breech of each.
Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (2001).
This series is cross-posted at his Peace Messenger blog.

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