A Higher Law


On March 11, 1850 New York Senator William Henry Seward dared to utter the unthinkable in the halls of congress. While arguing against slavery, he intoned: “But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes.” Seward reaped the wrath of many for saying such a thing, and the so-called “compromise” of 1850 even strengthened “fugitive slave” provisions across the land. This, in effect, made anyone unwilling to capture those fleeing slavery a criminal. The nation erupted in a war of ideas, and one Wesleyan writer, William Hosmer, released perhaps the most detailed defense of Seward and higher law thinking. Hosmer insisted that government is accountable to an eternal, moral law. This was not a new conviction. Various notions of a divine law had been invoked since before the Revolution. Additionally, they would be deployed with sparkling clarity by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.

Section V of our United Methodist Social Principles examines various issues that relate to government and its appropriate authority. One especially pithy paragraph is given the title “Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience.” Among other statements, this text reminds us that “Governments and laws should be servants of God and human beings.” People are not granted rights by government. Their God-given rights are recognized and protected by governments. This is essentially a form of “higher law” tradition.

We have perhaps come to think of this perspective as a theology of protest because of its application during the middle and late twentieth century. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is remembered for many reasons, but perhaps most insightful was his accessible explanation of the difference between moral and immoral laws. Add the experience of anti-war protest, as well as other late-century social movements, and many will assume that the “higher law” tradition is a “progressive” thing. To arrive at such a conclusion is both correct and incorrect at the same time.

Arguing that practical or “positive” law must be held accountable to a higher standard is an approach grounded in American revolutionary history. Over the centuries, those opposed to this tradition have often claimed that it threatens established order. If people can appeal to some “higher” law, then chaos will ensue. Aren’t such arguments the irrational nonsense of those who want to unleash arbitrary behaviors? Just what is this “higher law” if it is not some convenient way to avoid governmental authority?

The blanket dismissal of higher law thinking neglects to acknowledge that some have, in fact, devoted intelligent energy to the concept. During the pre-Civil War antislavery movement, the first president of Adrian College suggested that the moral law combined two related features: it respected the “intrinsic worth” of people and was applied equally to all. This definition borrowed from philosopher Immanuel Kant and gave legal voice to his famous “categorical imperative.” Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a similar two-part definition. Drawing from the work of philosopher Martin Buber, King said that the moral law upheld an “I/Thou” relationship between people. Then he said that it was “sameness made legal.” Being treated as “Thou” implies an “intrinsic worth,” and “sameness made legal” sounds a lot like the universal concern of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” It would seem that great minds do think alike.

I would suggest that the greatest danger to this tradition today does not come from those who wish to push back with simplistic law-and-order thinking (as dangerous as that can be). The greatest threat comes from assumptions that there is no such thing as divine moral law. At particularly arrogant times in history, some have scoffed at the moral law and insisted that the very idea of law is nothing more than a set of norms constructed by society. This claim may allow for change, and that is good. But it respects no eternal standard of dignity and can end up sanctioning heinous policies. The higher law tradition will always be something beyond the grasp of political fad and seasonal abusers of human rights. Thank God for that. I mean it. Thank God for that. This thread of political thinking is not held hostage to either reactionary right or trendy left. It is a line of reflection and conviction that has insisted upon respect and dignity, and it has done so with a profound and persistent authority. We should not neglect this critical part of our Social Principles.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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MarkGeorge Nixon ShulerChris Momany, UMR ColumnistMorris Taber Recent comment authors
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George Nixon Shuler

Well, the entire comment is negated by the misstatement that “homosexuality” refers to a “behavior”. The writer is clearly uninformed about the essence of human sexuality.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Very interesting that my piece was not at all directed to the issue which so exercises the last commentator. Let’s see: according to this so-called “clarity,” it was acceptable for the mainline church to tolerate slavery (as much of it did). After all, those who thought this compromise violated a higher law could simply join one of the smaller antislavery churches. Disagree with me if you wish regarding things I actually write, but please don’t distort my writing and assume it says things that it does not. Such mischaracterizations are dishonest and offensive. If anything, I make a very “traditional”… Read more »

Morris Taber

Doesn’t this Higher Law apply to Church law as well? I find the appeals that to appeal to a Higher Law regarding the Discipline’s language on Gender are being dismissed as allowing modern social trends to warp or undercut both Christianity and the United Methodist Church. Many of us in the carefully reached conclusions we have reached as to what Christian all-inclusive love means and what modern science has to say about human behavior believe that we have no alternative but to conclude that our current church law is simply wrong on this subject. I am not clear whether this… Read more »

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Morris: I would certainly see “church law” as accountable to the same overarching critique of “higher” or moral law.


Chris, this is an excellent article. I would simply make the observation that church law is ostensibly based on the higher moral law, and the most salient insight we have into that higher moral law is Holy Scripture.

Having said that, I think you may have overreacted a bit to the theenemyhatesclarity since it appears the post was partly directed at the subject brought up by the first commenter.


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