‘I shall hold myself at liberty’


Elijah Lovejoy is the name of an American too rarely named and too seldom remembered. He converted to Christianity as a result of the Second Great Awakening, a revivalistic movement that swept the Deep South and the American frontier. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he shortly thereafter became an editor at a St. Louis newspaper.

His editorials, shaped by fiery Protestantism, got him into a little hot water from time to time, his favorite subjects being religion and the dangers of smoking tobacco and hard liquor. But when Lovejoy spoke out against slavery, taking a principled, moral stand a generation before the Civil War, the dabbling in hot water became a leap into the cauldron.

He was advised by leading men of the city to “moderate his opinions.” He replied, “The cry of the oppressed has entered not only into my ears, but into my soul, so that while I live, I cannot hold my peace.” And with a stiff rebuke wrote, “As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, write, and publish whatever I please on any subject.”

He was immediately fired and ran out of town on the proverbial rail. Lovejoy retreated across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, where he kept printing his emancipation editorials. But his enemies pursued him, trying to silence his voice by stealing, destroying, and otherwise ruining every printing press he bought.

Unrelentingly, he kept his word: Writing, printing, and publishing until November 7, 1837. That evening an angry, racist mob once again came for Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press. They set his building on fire, and when he exited through the smoke he was shot dead — struck a half-dozen times. His killers then stepped over his bloody body to rescue the printing press from the flames, only to ensure its destruction by casting it into the Mississippi River.

For what did Elijah Lovejoy die? For opposing slavery and working for the emancipation of all people? Yes. For expressing his faith in action, even while “speaking with the meekness of a Christian?” Yes. For his right and freedom to speak from his heart, freely and without interference? Yes. But most of all, Lovejoy died for telling the truth. The truth will “set people free” — as Lovejoy’s own Lord preached — but that path to freedom can be a dangerous road.

Yes, remember Elijah Lovejoy as an abolitionist. Remember him as a sterling example of freedom of speech and expression. Remember him as a Christian who stood courageously on Gospel-shaped principles. And remember him as a prophet in the most authentic use of the word: He unflinchingly and uncompromisingly told the truth.

Inscribed on the monument near his grave are his own words: “If the laws of my country fail to protect me, I appeal to God, and with him I cheerfully rest my cause. I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.”

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.org.

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