The Brooks-Sumner Affair

Neal Pollard

In 1856, Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator, delivered an excoriating speech full of vicious name-calling and personal insults—especially against Senators Douglas and Butler—for their defense and advocation of slavery and especially the violence in Kansas in response to the actions of John Brown and his followers. The speech went on for two days, and shortly after its completion a man named Colonel Preston Brooks, a U.S. representative from South Carolina and distant relative of Andrew Butler, retaliated by beating Sumner with a cane. It was a serious enough beating that Sumner would take years to recover. Sumner would become an iconic hero to northerners and Brooks, who as punishment for the crime was fined $300, a darling of the south. Newspaper headlines of the time, in each region, painted their man a hero and the other man a demon (read a sample here: http://history.furman.edu/benson/docs/sumenu.htm). It is not the loathsome sin of slavery that I wish to highlight here, but the age-old tendency to blindly defend a person or position one feels inclined toward and the incredible efforts to vilify those on the other side of the issue—no matter what.

People are inclined to line up behind men rather than the Messiah. It is not just during political season or for certain social agenda items that this occurs, but more importantly in every season of the year when it comes to religious matters. Paul decried men’s tendency to be “of Paul…of Apollos…and…of Cephas” (1 Cor. 1:12). In the religious world, division has occurred because men have lined up behind some man’s teaching. Often, this teaching is a misconstrued view of a passage (for example, John 3:16, Acts 16:31, Mark 16:17, etc.) or a teaching without benefit of a passage (for example, having an experience of grace, saying a sinner’s prayer, infant baptism, etc.). As with politics, people can become blind apologists for their leaders and champions who promote what they already believe. Often, no amount of reason and logic can overcome the predisposed bias of the adherents. Lost in the cacophony of religious debate can be clear, simple biblical truth. Religious division is not the product or prompting of God (1 Cor. 1:10; 14:33). It is entirely of human origin. While there are some matters where God has not legislated, there are also some clear “right” and “wrong” matters in Scripture. Where God has spoken, we must take His word and will over that of absolutely anyone else. Otherwise, we will find ourselves guilty of elevating one above the One we must all ultimately give an account to. That would be an injustice and violation to top even “The Brooks-Sumner Affair.” May we keep our allegiance to God free from the taint of personal prejudices, even in the matter of our religious convictions. Psalm 119:89.

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