Rev. Dr. Adam Brooks Webber

Pastor, Open Prairie United Church of Christ

When I’m troubled, when I have something hard to think through, I sometimes walk down to the Oakland Cemetery. I visit that beautiful, quiet place where our town’s great Congregational pastor and congressman, Owen Lovejoy, rests in deep peace.

Lovejoy believed that his religion, his understanding of the way of Jesus, was in fundamental conflict with the American system of chattel slavery. He believed it, and he backed up his belief with words and actions. He didn’t settle for saying in his own heart, I will not own slaves; he took a public stand. In 1859, a pro-slavery congressman accused Lovejoy of harboring fugitive slaves, which was against the law at the time. In this speech to Congress, Lovejoy proudly admitted to it:

Proclaim it upon the house-tops! Write it upon every leaf that trembles in the forest! Make it blaze from the sun at high noon and shine forth in the radiance of every star that bedecks the firmament of God. Let it echo through all the arches of heaven, and reverberate and bellow through all the deep gorges of hell, where slave catchers will be very likely to hear it. Owen Lovejoy lives at Princeton, Illinois, three-quarters of a mile east of the village, and he aids every fugitive that comes to his door and asks it. Thou invisible demon of slavery! Dost thou think to cross my humble threshold, and forbid me to give bread to the hungry and shelter to the houseless? I bid you defiance in the name of my God.

I’m wholly unable to be like Lovejoy, if it requires such dramatic preaching! But in a more important way, I hope to learn from Lovejoy’s example. I hope to find the courage to take a stand against whatever oppresses and marginalizes people. That’s what being like Lovejoy means to me.

The systems of slavery of Lovejoy’s time were replaced by more subtle systems that continued to oppress and marginalize people of color. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King knew it, as did the other brave workers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King insisted on nonviolent protest, but he never tried to avoid conflict. On the contrary, he planned protests that would be dramatic and confrontational. Our nation gained the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; King was arrested twenty-nine times, and finally lost his life.  

In a moment of frustration, King once said, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, and who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” In that description of the “white moderate,” I am dismayed to recognize myself. I’m just one of the many timid people; I would rather keep my convictions to myself, without having to be in public conflict with the systems of injustice in the world. But King, like Lovejoy, knew that private, conflict-free piety is selfish and hypocritical. Be like Lovejoy—and King.

And be like Susan B. Anthony, leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She took a stand against laws that oppressed and marginalized women. She was arrested for voting in the 1872 presidential election, and was repeatedly admonished by the judge because she wouldn’t be silenced in court at her own trial. This great lady helped to write our nineteenth amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote. She died in 1906, fourteen years before her amendment finally passed. Be like Lovejoy—and King—and Anthony.

In this country and around the world we have long oppressed and marginalized people because of their unconventional sexual orientations and gender identities. I am the pastor of a church where we don’t judge people on such matters, and we don’t think God does either. But it isn’t enough to hold our convictions in our own hearts, or within the walls of our own church. If we are trying to be like Lovejoy, and King, and Anthony, then we have to work on these problems—we have to come together to work together to help heal the world.

Maybe you can think of other ways people are being oppressed and marginalized today. For example, don’t we oppress and marginalize—and demonize—immigrants and refugees? And what about the systems that oppress those who struggle economically in our country, even while the richest of us are growing vastly richer? We may not all agree on solutions to such problems, but if we are trying to be like Lovejoy, King, and Anthony, then we must recognize oppression and marginalization wherever they occur, and take a stand against them.

At the end of every service in my church, I offer a parting blessing. I pray for a blessing of deep peace—the peace of God, as we call it. The example of Owen Lovejoy reminds me that deep peace is not a negative peace; it’s not a peace that comes from passively accepting the world as it now is, with all its cruelty and injustice. Deep peace is a positive peace, a peace that comes by night to those who have labored for justice by day. 

May all of us—whatever our religious traditions—be worthy, like Owen Lovejoy, to rest in that peace.